Commitment

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THE MEANING OF COMMITMENT IN MARRIAGE

Greg Swenson, Ph.D.

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  Commitment in Marriage

Commitment in marriage is high on my agenda of priorities and high on that of the Christian community. It is also highly valued by those who recognize the importance of marriage in the fabric of society, or who have found marriage to be a source of satisfaction in their lives. Commitment is inherent in the most fundamental definition of marriage, found in the Bible: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24) This decision is presented as a once-and-for-all experience. Jesus said, “Therefore, what God has joined together, let man not separate.” (Matthew 19:6) The description of marriage in Genesis 2 goes on to say, “The man and his wife were both naked and they felt no shame.” This implies that commitment is required in a relationship in which a man and woman desire a sense of union and freedom to be themselves. We need security in order to express our thoughts, feelings, and desires openly. Those who seek security and intimacy through cohabitation rather than marriage desire the same kind of relationship, but don’t realize that a fuzzy commitment is insufficient for what they desire. Many married couples make the opposite mistake. They expect the single action of making a marriage vow to automatically result in a close union and intimacy. Commitment goes far beyond the initial vow, translating dedication into action.

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  Commitment can be divided into positive and negative forms.  

The positive aspect of commitment is what you do to nurture your relationship with your spouse: planning evenings out or cooking meals together. The negative aspect is what you avoid doing to prevent distance from developing in the relationship, and to prevent outside forces from dividing you. This includes such things as not making yourself available for close relationships with others of the opposite sex, or not spending the entire weekend at the golf course. There is a third aspect of commitment, which Scott Stanley, in his book “The Heart of Commitment”, refers to as “met-commitment”. He describes this as commitment to being committed, or more simply, as believing in doing what you say you will do. It seems to me that this is the appropriate response to God, given his consistency throughout history in keeping his promises with the human race.

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  There is a cost to commitment. 

This is probably the most significant reason that so many people today are choosing not to marry, or are having such difficulty remaining married. Elite athletes recognize that a great deal of time, effort, and physical pain are required to accomplish the necessary level of training, if they are to perform at an optimal level. Lance Armstrong, recent two-time winner of the Tour de France bicycle race, is quoted as saying that he doesn’t think he would enjoy life as much if it didn’t involve a certain amount of physical suffering in training. Sacrifice, in addition to being necessary to accomplish what must be done, comes to be equated with the goal. Carrying out the actions of commitment represents the value of marriage, and becomes satisfying in itself. This is why people who value marriage can make sacrifices for their spouse, without feeling that they are towing a ball and chain.

  What are the actions of commitment?  

Married people have to spend a minimum amount of time together, occupying the same space, doing things together. I have not found an arbitrary number of hours per week, but I have found that most couples have a sense of what that amount is. A husband or wife might rationalize a smaller amount of time in order to pursue other interests, or to avoid dealing with conflicts. Yet at some level, they are usually aware that they are shortchanging the relationship.

  Couples need to convey their thoughts and feelings to each other regularly. 

The flow of communication should be such that they are seldom guessing what is going on inside the other. When the flow is blocked, commitment means recognizing this, deciding it is unacceptable, and taking action to dislodge the impediment.

Commitment to marriage implies that a person accept the problems brought into the marriage by their spouse as mutual problems. Just as your spouse’s physical problems become yours to share, so do their habits, quirks, and psychological faults. We usually find it less difficult to share dental bills and offer condolences when our spouse’s head aches, than to deal with chronic lateness or explosive anger. Commitment calls us to find our role in coping with every problem that arises in marriage, whether the problem is generated within our spouse or ourselves.

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  Bad feelings must be processed and resolved soon, and frequently. 

Feelings of anger, frustration, or disgust are easily translated into unpleasant thoughts about a spouse. The thoughts become something like paint strokes on the canvass of the mind, portraying an image that is carried within you, even when things are going well. The image saps the desire to act lovingly toward your spouse. It is a cyclical process through which love diminishes. Eventually it can result in an impenetrable barrier to reconciliation. This process is like a cancer within marriage. It is treatable, but difficult to beat.

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  Failing to Translate Commitment into Actions

Most people have the intention of being committed to their marriage and spouse, and many also realize that this implies translating commitment into actions. Yet they fail to do it. We must develop an honesty within ourselves that counters the elasticity of thinking and self-deception that our minds are capable of. There is a human tendency to develop a private logic, or set of beliefs, that we are comfortable with. We avoid seeking the real truth, which can be uncomfortable. For example, we feel better if we can believe that the larger share of the blame for a problem lies outside ourselves. We may want to believe we can enjoy the independence of single life as well as the unity of married life. We want the satisfaction of being right, and in control, as well as the mutuality that is possible only when we give up these things. Incompatible or faulty beliefs need to be recognized and dealt with honestly, as individuals and as a couple.

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  Commitment requires us to accept the principle that once we are married, ending the marriage cannot be considered as a solution to the problems in our relationship.  

We would never consider leaving our children as a solution to our problems with them. If you seriously consider another job, your devotion and performance in your current job inevitably suffers. If your destination is not determined, you are prone to make changes in direction that appear to lead to more interesting or pleasant places. So it is with marriage. Our destination must be the best relationship possible, given each person’s human faults. Our job is to find the best way to do it.

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  What does this all mean?  

I think it means that if a marriage is to be lasting and satisfying, consistent with God’s design, we must periodically evaluate the nature of our commitment, as expressed through our actions and behavior patterns. True faith is demonstrated in action as well as belief. Has our commitment to marriage been translated from belief, to intention, to specific behaviors? If there are gaps, what do we need to do about them?

Reading material can be beneficial in focusing attention on important aspects of marriage, as well as motivational. An excellent source on commitment is the book mentioned above by Scott Stanley, entitled “The Heart of Commitment.” Accountability groups can be very helpful too, although it can be difficult to find a number of married couples willing to meet regularly and share the inner workings of their marriages with each other. A more realistic alternative might be to find one couple that you and your spouse can talk openly with about your marriage. Marriage is a gift from God. If you have been given the gift, I encourage you to take care of it.

Much of what I do in marriage therapy is focused on reestablishing commitment in marriage, and developing approaches that couples can apply to the unique problems in their relationship. In addition to marriage therapy, I often work with people who struggle with depression, anxiety, compulsive behavior, or situational problems. I also perform psychological assessments, and help people find the best resources for help with other kinds of problems. If I might be of help to you, or someone you know, please contact me.

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Dr. Greg Swenson PhD
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All rights reserved.
Revised: April 19, 2009.