Marriage: The Ultimate Commitment?
Despite decades of research and popular opinion endorsing marriage as the ultimate commitment, I find this belief somewhat paradoxical. How can marriage be the ultimate commitment and the U.S. divorce rate continue to be the highest of any developed nation? Marriage implies the ultimate consummation of romantic love, but marriage itself does not create or sustain romantic love. Furthermore, lots of married couples are strongly committed to one another but not necessarily satisfied with their relationship. As Dr. Nathaniel Branden, a pioneer author in self-esteem, personal transformation, and male/female relationships wrote, “Many Americans are so committed to the ideal of happiness in marriage, that they are willing to resign themselves to a life of suffering.”
Perhaps more importantly than defining what commitment means to marriage, we should focus on what commitment means to each other and our relationship as we define it through the institution of marriage. For some couples, this might imply a more traditional commitment between husband and wife where both remain physically, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually committed to their marriage. Other couples, who define their long term relationship or marriage through what I call “polygamous commitment,” may choose to remain emotionally committed to one another but physically available to multiple partners. I’m not advocating one form of commitment over another. I’m simply stating that couples in a healthy marriage should define what commitment means for them and the lifestyle they’ve chosen.
I was married in 1998 in a small church in Maryland surrounded by family and friends on both sides of myself and my bride. At that time, I vowed to love, honor, and cherish per the script I recited with the reverend who presided over our marriage ceremony. I took my vows with sincerity in my heart, but honestly, at twenty-eight, I lacked appreciation for the significance of marital vows. I understood them intellectually, but not so much emotionally or spiritually. More than fifteen years later, I look back and wish I’d read a Marriage for Dummies book. One that went beyond a marriage preparation course and offered a more modern version of “marriage training” to tackle contemporary as well as traditional issues couples inevitably encounter; one that encourages couples to discuss their feelings on romance and sex, the five love languages, and of course, the importance of defining needs and desires. For many couples, this type of information might be intuitive; for others, not so much. Couples who decide to marry should discuss common issues likely to arise in marriage and when these issues are likely to surface along a couple’s journey together. Difficulties with work-related stress, parenthood, differences in religious beliefs, balancing commitments outside of marriage, and so forth. To address certain topics requires knowledge we have not yet found and wisdom we have yet to gain when we’re young and in love. Marriage encompasses more than social survival and a safe harbor from dating roulette. It represents a time-honored commitment to one another anchored by our vows to love, honor, and cherish one another. Perhaps this all sounds too quixotic. Few people wish to talk about the tough compromises before the issues evolve into larger problems and add undue stress to the relationship. Why examine things today when we can push them off until tomorrow? Why see things for what they are when we can pretend they’re something else?
We all have options in our lives. We can follow the same beaten path, blindly stumbling into familiar obstacles we tell ourselves to avoid with alarming regularity. Or, we can go with door number two and heed some honest advice to help improve our situation, or at the very least, minimize the emotional damage we might inflict on ourselves. That, or keep the status quo and watch the divorce rate climb skyward.
In 2005, the National Fatherhood Initiative, a non-sectarian, non-partisan, non-profit organization, published their results from a national survey on marriage in America. Touted as one of the largest and most comprehensive surveys conducted on Americans’ attitudes toward marriage, their report cited lack of commitment as the number one reason given by ex-husbands and ex-wives for divorce—followed by too much conflict, arguing, and infidelity.
And according to a 2007 study published in the Journal of Marriage and the Family, infidelity and money problems remain the two leading causes of divorce. Other research also attributes America’s high rate of divorce to low levels of commitment between spouses. Statistics indicate that after just two years of marriage, spouses convey only half as much affection for each other as they did when they were newlyweds. In addition, divorces occur more frequently in the fourth year of marriage than at any other time.
Today, more than ever, both husbands and wives find it easy to leave the relationship when things get dicey. According to recent studies, more than one million U.S. couples divorce every year. And for those who remarry, roughly sixty percent end up divorced a second time, pegging the rate of divorce for second marriages higher than the rate for the first.
If these statistics hold, and there’s a mountain of evidence to suggest they do, then how happy and healthy are those fifty percent who are “happily married” in their first marriage—and are they truly happy and not secretly contemplating divorce?
According to Dr. Patricia Love, author of Hot Monogamy: Essential Steps to More Passionate Intimate Lovemaking, “Eighty percent of couples who divorce say they still love each other, which indicates that love is not enough.” According to Dr. Love, married couples must find ways to continually re-connect with each other throughout the day. And it’s the little things that matter most, such as how we greet our partner in the morning and when we come home, as well as how often we engage in meaningful conversation and receptive listening. Marriage represents a complex machine with lots of moving parts. It requires special abilities to consistently meet the needs of the opposite sex and should not be entered into lightly. Too often people seek marriage as a way to make themselves happy. In reality, we must first learn to find happiness within ourselves before we seek happiness in a relationship with someone else.
Despite the gloomy statistics on marriage, empirical evidence suggests married couples tend to be healthier, live longer, and enjoy more satisfying sexual relationships than single or cohabitating individuals. In addition to married life being linked to better physical health, studies indicate married couples exhibit superior mental health. Compared to married couples, single men and women have higher levels of depression, anxiety, and other forms of psychological distress. Research suggests multiple explanations for this, including selection hypothesis, which asserts that people with better psychological and physical health may be more likely to get married and thus account for the increased psychological and physiological benefits of marriage. Other authors promote a social support philosophy, implying marriage provides partners with emotional satisfaction and helps shield them from day to day stress. Behavioral regulation offers a third explanation, where studies indicate married couples engage in more risk-prevention behaviors such as safer driving, lower alcohol consumption, and better eating habits.
For married couples, age plays a crucial factor in predicting divorce. Recent findings from the National Center for Health Statistics found that nearly half of all marriages in which the bride is eighteen or younger end in separation or divorce within ten years. Other studies cite similar statistics. The figures might vary slightly from year to year or source to source, but overall, the data reflects how individuals who marry later in life have a better chance of succeeding in marriage. I attribute this to couples who are able to align their personal goals and objectives for the benefit of their relationship—a difficult task when we’re young and still trying to find ourselves.
Generally speaking, as women get older, they tend to align themselves more toward a family-oriented life with children in the picture. Men don’t always share this objective at the same stage of life because they aren’t contending with a biological clock signaling the end of their prime child bearing years.
In his article, About Love and Romantic Love, clinical psychologist Dr. Michael Grayson Conner, describes the two general types of marriage. The first refers to utilitarian marriage, defined by “an absence of mutual involvement or passion.” He describes this type of marriage as one that exists for financial, social, or family considerations—with long separations, community involvements, and infidelity to make the utilitarian marriage bearable. This partly explains why some marriages—specifically, those defined by utilitarian standards—come unraveled despite the apparent physical, emotional, and psychological benefits of marriage. I view utilitarian marriages as those held together with what I call negative commitment.
Dr. Conner describes the second type of marriage as intrinsic, where the relationship itself is most fulfilling and life experiences are shared with “passionate emotional and sexual involvement.” For these types of marriages, factors such as sacrifice, monogamy, and overall relationship satisfaction collectively contribute to a positive commitment.
Studies have associated greater commitment with a willingness to sacrifice. Other research supports the notion of both monogamous and sexually non-monogamous—but emotionally exclusive—relationships promoting higher levels of commitment. Studies also indicate women value sexual and emotional monogamy more than men, whereas men view monogamy as more of a sacrifice. In terms of satisfaction, research strongly correlates high levels of martial satisfaction with high levels of commitment.
In her book, Marriage from the Heart, author Lois Kellerman presents the following eight commitments to help promote a spiritually healthy marriage:
- First Commitment: Centering
I will create a warm, loving home and place my marriage at its center.
- Second Commitment: Choosing
I will cultivate the discipline of choosing wisely.
- Third Commitment: Honoring
I will have reverence for my partner and myself.
- Fourth Commitment: Caring
I will be a source of loving care for my partner, setting my heart upon what matters most.
- Fifth Commitment: Abiding
I will have faith, patiently persisting through life’s many changes.
- Sixth Commitment: Repairing
I will work to mend what is broken in my partner and myself.
- Seventh Commitment: Listening
I will stay open to new insight, however unlikely the source.
- Eighth Commitment: Celebrating
I will celebrate spiritual values with my partner and others.
Whether you agree with Kellerman’s eight spiritual commitments or not, marriage defines commitment at all levels—physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual. Your specific commitments, however you define them for your marriage or your long-term romantic relationship, should include mutual respect, kindness, understanding, and a willingness to compromise. These are commitments, after all, and not commandments. Your words and actions should help guide your relationship—not govern it. In reality, the ultimate commitment to one another derives not from formal proceedings, but from the need to love, honor, cherish, respect, confide, nurture, hug, kiss, make love to, and otherwise share yourself in mind, body, and spirit in the presence or absence of legal sanction.