Why would a single woman write a whole book admonishing others to marry whomever they can? Why are those who are barred from the institution clamouring to swell the dwindling ranks of the legally bound? Why, when most marriages end in divorce, are weddings more fetishised than ever? To these niggling questions, Gilbert provides a kernel of an answer. Describing the decision to take a solo trip to Cambodia after a few particularly tense weeks of travel with her fiancé, she acknowledges that it is a mistake to believe we can have "equal parts intimacy and autonomy in our lives."
"Marriage has a bonsai energy," she writes. "It's a tree in a pot with trimmed roots and clipped limbs. Mind you, bonsai can live for centuries, and their unearthly beauty is a direct result of such constriction, but nobody would ever mistake a bonsai for a free-climbing vine." After spending so much time with Gottlieb's unequivocal endorsement of marriage and horror of singleness, it was a relief to read such a perfect evocation of the virtues and drawbacks endemic to both states.
But the real collective import of these recent books about marriage may just be that it’s impossible to read them and not think about how lucky women are to be able to live in a time when marriage is no longer compulsory. Now that women have a real choice about whether or not to enter the institution, statistics reveal the results of practical cost-benefit analyses. In this light, even the exhortation to “Marry Him!” reads like progress; implicit in it, after all, is the suggestion that, unless hectored, we very well might not.
I take all these points, and of course remain devoted to the idea that this is a choice and that making a marriage work should be left to the two spouses involved, not the government or society. But I also believe that as we mature as human beings, the idea of some clipped wings can be an expansion of freedom rather than a diminution of it. We benefit from trust and mutual love and support; we are freer because of it. And freedom is not compromised by a free choice to limit our options and train our virtues in a committed relationship. That goes for gays as well as straights. And oddly enough, I think gay men of all people could benefit the most.