After a difficult divorce and an unsatisfactory rebound relationship, Elizabeth Gilbert took a break from her everyday life and went on a journey to Italy, India and Bali, to recapture joy, and find spirituality and balance. Her quest became the basis of her best-selling memoir Eat, Pray, Love.
She also found love along the way, which the millions who have either read the book or seen the eponymous movie, which starred Julia Roberts and Javier Bardem, were able to observe for themselves.
Now Gilbert has written her first novel in a dozen years, The Signature of All Things, a captivating story of love, adventure and discovery. O Magazine named it “the novel of a lifetime,” and the Wall Street Journal calls it “the most ambitious and purely-imagined work of [Gilbert’s] 20-year career.”
The Signature of All Things follows the fortunes of the extraordinary Whittaker family through the 18th and 19th centuries, focusing especially on Alma Whittaker, a botanist, who falls in love with Ambrose Pike, an artist. They are an unlikely couple but it is their search for enlightenment that draws them together as they take us along on their worldwide journey of discovery.
So, who better than Gilbert, who is still married to Jose Nunes — the man she met and fell in love with in Bali, to discuss matters of the heart? Read on for her take on what she has learned about love.
eH: Tell me first, what do you love most about your life right now?
EG: Oh, my goodness, two things. I love my happy relationship and I love my creative freedom. It’s funny because Freud always said that the point of psychoanalysis and the point of getting yourself into mental health was for two reasons: So that you could love and work. Because when you’re in your own life, with the obstacles of your mind and your troubles, those are the two things that you really can never quite get right. In order to have a healthy life, I think you need both of those things. I’m really very grateful these days for having healthy love and healthy work, both of which have a lot of freedom built into them — a lot of discipline and a lot of freedom.
eH: Do you think it’s more important to be loved or to love?
EG: I think that’s a false choice. I think that goes with some weird, dramatic idea of self-sacrifice and martyrdom that we have in Western culture that always says something has to be given up in order for something to be received. I actually think that you can have both.
eH: What’s the hardest thing about love?
EG: I think the more you love, the more you open yourself up to the potential of someday being very hurt. That goes for friendships as well as romantic relationships, and your family as well, right? What do they say: The closer the knife, the deeper the cut? I think it’s an Italian expression. Those closest to you have the most power to hurt you. So that’s the risk. But you’ve got to roll those dice.
eH: When would you say was the first time you really found love?
EG: I’ve been falling in love pretty much every minute of my life. Falling in love has never been a problem for me. Sustaining love is a problem for me. As soon as I first heard the word, I think I was probably already in love with the idea of love.
eH: Does love mean something different to you now than it did 10 years ago?
EG: Thank God, yes, and even more different than 20 years ago. I think I had a lot of difficulty in my 20s and early 30s even distinguishing the difference between infatuation and love. I was very excited by infatuation because infatuation is very exciting. It’s a drug. But it is not necessarily the same thing as love. In fact, it never is. So I think having given up my addiction to infatuation, I was finally able to have such a thing as real love.
eH: How do you know if someone is The One?
EG: I believe it’s a different answer for everybody. I think for me, I would say the person who allows you to be the very most of yourself without wanting you to transform in 25 different ways, or without you feeling yourself needing to transform in 25 different ways in order to keep that person’s approval or win their affection. Somebody who thinks that just exactly who you are is totally perfect, is the one. Likewise, in the other direction.
eH: Following that up, do you believe that there’s only one soul mate for each person, or is it possible that there are multiple matches out there?
EG: I think there are multiple, and multiple, and multiple matches out there. I think that the idea of the soul mate is one of the most dangerous and misunderstood ideas in the romantic universe. I think it really harms people more than it helps them because it sets the stakes incredibly high.
I do believe that there are people out there who are soul mates, but I wrote about this in Eat, Pray, Love. I’ve come to believe that you should not necessarily spend your life with that person. The job of a soul mate is to hold the mirror up to you and show you everything about yourself that you need to see. Sometimes that is incredibly painful. It’s usually intense, and it doesn’t necessarily make for a comfortable or even nourishing relationship.
So I think sometimes the job of a soul mate is to come in and wake you up, cause you to change, and then leave and get out of your life, so that you can go find a partner, which is what I think you really should be working for more than a soul mate. There are lots of choices for partners.
eH: So speaking of partners then, what does one need in a partner to make the relationship successful?
EG: I think that there’s such a thing as core needs that people have. I think they’re different person by person, so I don’t think there’s a universal answer on that. I think what you can say universally is that the really important thing for you yourself to figure out is what your core needs are and then look for somebody who answers those.
Say that your faith is the most important thing in your life, you’re probably not going to do very well with a skeptical atheist. Say the important thing in your life is independence, then you might not do well with somebody who’s really clingy and dependant. Or say the most important thing in your life is to have a family and you’re with somebody who wants to be a gypsy, that’s probably not going to work out.
I don’t think you can really even know what your core needs are until you’ve reached a certain age and you finally learn to know yourself. Then you’re in a better situation to pick the right person.
eH: What advice do you have for people who are struggling with self-love?
EG: This is so weird to say. I’m hoping that I’ll get this across correctly because it was very valuable for me when somebody said it to me: If you hate yourself or cannot love yourself, then one of the questions you have to ask is: Why do you think you’re so special? I know that sounds counterintuitive, but why do you think you’re so special that you are deserving of self-loathing and hatred when everybody else in your life, you’re probably very forgiving and accepting of?
Self-loathing is strange. It’s narcissism, but it’s narcissism disguised as hate, rather than love. But it’s still a kind of narcissism. It says that I alone am not worthy. So you’re still putting yourself in a different category than everybody else.
Somebody told me that once when I was going through a period of self-loathing and it really woke me up to how there’s not much of a difference between self-loathing and self-absorption. Both of those are really about putting yourself first. If you can step away from that, have a little assessment and try to look at yourself as a stranger rather than as the you who you’re so familiar with, then you can begin to recognize that this is a person who is worthy of love, good things, happiness and contentment. That’s the beginning of compassion towards the self.
eH: Any advice for women who are still looking for romantic love? Especially those over 30.
EG: First of all if you’re over 30, that is actually the time when you should be looking for love. It’s so funny because all the research that I ever did on marriage, having written a whole book about marriage [Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage], showed that you almost can’t wait too long. I know there’s this culturally inbred panic that women are supposed to feel when they’ve reached a certain age and they haven’t found The One yet. They’re supposed to feel unfulfilled or that they missed their chance.
Statistically-speaking, this is entirely untrue. The very happiest marriages in the world are marriages that happen when people are older. The older you get in general, the better decisions you make about your life. We all make better decisions when we’re older than when we’re younger. [Age] equips you with the very best possibility that you have to find somebody who’s best for you.
eH: At what age did you discover your purpose? Do you think we all share a purpose in life, or is it different for everyone?
EG: I think everyone has a different purpose in life, which is what makes life so hard. If only it was so simple. I think I was really lucky because I always knew that I wanted to be a writer and I never had an interest in anything else. So in a way that made it easier because it gave me single-pointed focus. But in another way, it made my life harder because I was so focused on that that I left other parts of myself neglected.
I think that I felt that since I knew the answer already, I didn’t have to do a lot of the work. It’s almost like I felt like I had the teacher’s guide that had the answer in it and the answer was: Go be a writer and everything will be great for you.
So I really developed my skills in my life professionally but I didn’t really catch up on a lot of the emotional and psychological things that were going on in my life — and then they caught up with me. Then I discovered that I had other purposes besides being a writer. I also had to learn how to be a mature, loving and helpful person.
eH: One last question. You and Jose met in a tropical environment. Now you live in New Jersey. I guess the question for me is: How do you compromise to make a relationship work? New Jersey has some lovely places, but it’s so different from Bali.
EG: What I love that works with us is that we’re both real wanderers. My husband has less attachment to place than any human being I have ever met in my entire life. And ditto that on material objects. I don’t know anyone who needs less than he needs. He doesn’t worry or even care where he is. He doesn’t like to be cold, that’s one thing.
So we travel a lot during the winter months. He’s got kids in Australia and we go back to Indonesia a lot. Otherwise, he just doesn’t like to be trapped. I also don’t like to be trapped and I think that the reason our life in our quiet little town in New Jersey works is because we constantly reiterate to each other: “Look, the minute you don’t want to be here, just let me know. We’ll go. Where do you want to go? Do you want to move to France? Do you want to go to Costa Rica? Just give me the word and then we’ll get rid of this house and we’ll do it.”
I think the fact that we both reassure each other about that all the time is what makes it comfortable to be here, because I think if either one of us felt like the other person was saying, “I can only live here. I have to be within this non-existence with these people,” I think we would feel really suffocated by that.
So I think the fact that we each have a card that we’re allowed to play at any moment that says, “All right we’re done.” Then the other one will just pack up and leave. I think that makes it successful. It’s a pathology that we share — but at least we share it. We’re both really willing to let go of stuff and run at a moment’s notice.