Sarah Sands: Marriage has a secret door to happiness

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The Independent Online

Are feminism and marriage compatible? Traditionalists on both sides argue that they are not. Feminism is about self-discovery; marriage about self-sacrifice. If you are economically independent, there is little marriage can offer you. Marriage is not so much a contract as a prison.

This has certainly been the position of the American writer Elizabeth Gilbert, who captured the dreams of millions of women with her book Eat, Pray, Love. The memoir started where A Doll's House ends – with a woman slamming the door on marriage and motherhood and going in search of herself.

"I don't want to be married any more!" was the slogan of every Gilbert follower. The rising divorce rate is a tribute to her liberation from domestic slavery.

Gilbert travelled, and had unsuitable relationships, and found a sympathetically scarred Brazilian divorcé. Then, with an irony a writer can only marvel at, the Brazilian needed a visa and that meant getting married. So Gilbert, who became a best- selling author because of her flight from marriage, has written a sequel about her return to it, Committed: A Sceptic Makes Peace with Marriage.

It is like following A Doll's House with The Taming of the Shrew. Gilbert finds every fault she can with marriage before submitting. She describes the phenomenon of the "marriage benefit imbalance", by which men become healthier, richer and happier on marriage while women become less professionally successful and more likely to die violently, usually at the hands of their husbands.

Gilbert notes that marriage is anachronistic and unrealistic. Only recently have couples expected to love each other. Just as David Cameron collapses under the weight of his inconsistencies as he tries to explain his tax and marriage policy, so the author regards marriage as a "befuddling, vexing, contradictory, and yet stubbornly enduring institution".

Why would Gilbert escape from a marriage, only to undertake a second one? Are women all like Natascha Kampusch, so damaged that we yearn for our jailers?

It is simpler than this. Marriage is an awesome institution. The problem lies in us. It is unfashionable to blame ourselves for anything, but failed marriages are only really failed relationships. That is why those of us who try a second time, are, like Buddhists, aspiring to a perfect state. A Doll's House ends with a wife walking out, but the greater body of literature ends with marriage. It remains life's greatest, lasting resolution.

Women may find crushing the daily routine of loading washing machines and watching husbands eat. We can understand why Iris Robinson might prefer a 19-year-old lover to a reserved, grey-haired spouse playing his old-fashioned part in Northern Ireland politics. Wives everywhere are notoriously vulnerable to Greek islands and carefree young men. But this is never a happy ending. Mostly, it is a form of nervous breakdown.

Elizabeth Gilbert has correctly made a distinction between excitement and peace of mind. People usually give up on marriages because they crave excitement, but they find, like Lady Macbeth, they cannot subsequently grasp tranquillity.

I would guess that it is relevant to Gilbert's journey that she has turned 40 and sees the point of things that she once despised. Her next book, significantly, is a novel about gardening. The path to happiness is marital and strewn with roses.

Sarah Sands is deputy editor of the London Evening Standard