"[Tom] told us we had to get married and he saw the look of horror and despair on our faces, and then he turned from stern bureaucrat to protective neighbor. And he said, 'You know what's the problem? You love each other, you live together. You are not married to anybody else. Why not make the commitment?'" Gilbert recalled. "And my husband took his glasses off and, you know, rubbed his eyes and said, 'Oh Tom, Tom, Tom, we have both been through really bad divorces.'"
They decided to go for it. But while they waited for their papers to come through, they spent the months in a sort of exile, traveling through Asia.
And that's where Gilbert found the subject of her next book: marriage. And she jumped in, trying to learn everything she could about the enduring institution.
"It's been my experience in the past that the more I learn about something, the less frightening it is," Gilbert said, "You know, an academic mindset -- terrorism can be defeated through information and knowledge."
When we pointed out that she had just compared marriage to terrorism, Gilbert laughed and retorted, "You know, it's funny, Oscar Wilde said something like leprosy is better than marriage because there's a possibility for a cure for it someday."
Gilbert's research brought her to a Vietnamese village, where she sat down with women -- all of whom had arranged marriages. Gilbert found that the questions she asked did not resonate with their ideals about what a relationship should be.
"I ended up ...asking them questions that were so glaringly, clangingly out of touch with their lives," she recalled. "Like, 'When did you fall in love with your husband' and 'When did you know he was special?' And these women are looking at me like, not only was I speaking a foreign language, which I was, but that I was speaking foreign concepts. You know….all of them had what anthropologists called pragmatic marriages, which are marriages based on what's beneficial for the larger community -- not necessarily what's beneficial to the individual. And I come from an entirely different philosophy."
Gilbert said that the conversation sparked a realization about her expectations and values.
"It was really interesting for me to discover that my expectations, what I carry into the matrimony of a relationship, are vastly higher than anybody's expectations have been for this union for most of human history," she said. "I don't want to become the preacher of everyone must lower their expectations -- it kind of runs counter to our society, and counter to what I am like as an individual -- but it's really good to know that your expectations are probably inflated."
Pouring through reams of research on marriage, Gilbert discovered that divorce rates skyrocketed when marriage evolved from a business contract into a love match.
Polls show that young women in the 1920s wanted a husband who was honest and reliable. But by the 1990s, it was a whole different ballgame.
"They start saying, 'I want somebody who inspires me'...That's a lot to ask on a Wednesday morning at 8 a.m., you know what I mean?" she said.
Gilbert ultimately made peace with marriage by accepting its limits. Although -- even by the end of the book -- she didn't seem entirely convinced.
"Absolutely trying to talk myself into something here," she conceded, "Yay marriage!"