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.
Commitment can be divided into positive and negative
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
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?
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
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
Bad feelings must be processed and resolved soon, and
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.
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.
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.
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.