Maybe It's Just Me, But...

Musings of a mildly mad multi-disciplinarian

The Wrong Way—and the Right Way—to Think about Long-Term Commitment and Marriage

Is marriage worth less if it doesn't last forever?

Why is marriage—or, more generally, any long-term committed relationship—thought nowadays as something you put off until you've accomplished certain things, rather than having someone to accomplish them with? It's treated either like a reward, something nice you've earned for all your hard work alone, or a luxury that would be too distracting when you're working your way up the career ladder. What's more, the value of commitment is all too often discounted because—gasp—it sometimes ends, and some avoid getting into relationships because they may have to get out of them later.

Ideally, the joy of long-term commitment is having someone beside you, with you, to share the joys and the burdens of life. A long-term commitment complements the rest of your life as it becomes an integral part of it. It seems that too many people now see it as a substitute, something you do instead of something else, and that as a result it must be scheduled in among other life goals, such as education and career. But if your commitment to your partner "competes" with other parts of your life, then it's not a good relationship. And if, in general, you think of long-term commitment this way, then you are missing the point of it altogether.

Perhaps part of what lies behind this way of thinking about long-term commitment is the idea that it impedes your autonomy: that in a committed relationship, you're responsible to your partner to some extent and not always free to do what you want when you want. (I wrote about this previously here.) But (hopefully) you're not committing to some random person: your partner is someone who shares, or at least supports, your most important goals in life. He or she won't stand in the way of these goals, but rather will help you achieve them—especially if you set some of them together. If you find yourself fighting with your partner over essential goals and dreams, then he or she is likely the wrong partner to whom to make a long-term commitment (or maintain one). But once you find someone with whom you can make a life together, commitment will only enhance that life, both by making it easier to achieve your goals and dreams, as well as giving you someone to achieve them with.

On a related point, some people hesitate to make long-term commitments for fear that they will someday end. Well of course they may! Over time goals and dreams change, just as people do—and at that point, relationships often come to an end. But that doesn't mean that the relationship wasn't tremendously beneficial. The success of a relationship isn't measured in how long it went on—especially it drags on—but in how fulfilling it was while it lasted. We don't love our favorite books any less because they ended. We remember them fondly for the joy they gave us while reading them, and then we go read new ones! (Sometime we read them again, but it's never the same—sometimes it can be better! This applies to relationships too, of course.)

It's interesting that at the same time that many people are questioning the value of marriage or long-term commitment, others are holding it to an unrealistic ideal. But the truth is found, as it often is, in between: a relationship may not last forever, but it can be great while it does. And isn't that good enough?

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For a categorized list of some of my previous Psychology Today posts, see here.

You can follow me on Twitter and also at the following blogs: Economics and Ethics, The Comics Professor, and my homepage/blog.

Mark D. White is the chair of the Department of Philosophy at the College of Staten Island/CUNY.

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