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Marital Commitment

How have you decided to commit to your partner?

One of the fundamental cornerstones of a successful marriage is commitment — an unwavering allegiance to a relationship and a partner.

Commitment in marriages comes in different forms.

Moral or structural commitment

People can be committed out of moral reasons. These couples typically have religious beliefs or social norms that compel them to stay in their marriage. They can feel a sense of duty, be concerned about how a divorce would be judged by others, or feel obligated to follow the guidelines of their religion.

Another is practical or structural commitment, which results from an intermingling of resources. Married couples pool money and other material possessions, have children, and establish a social life together. In doing so, their lives can become entangled to such an extent that it can be easier to stay in a relationship than to leave it.

For both moral and structural commitment, external factors to keep the marriage together, and partners believe they have no choice but to stay married, regardless of whether or not they’re happy. This type of commitment does not imply that partners are personally connected to each other.

Personal commitment

A third is personal commitment, which differs from the other two in that it has an emotional component. Personally committed partners see their relationship and their emotional bond as the most important thing in their lives, and stay married because they want to, not out of necessity or a sense of responsibility.

Personal commitment is the one that really matters. The emotional aspect of personal commitment enhances our marriage because it directs how we feel about our partner, and how we feel about them regulates how we treat them.

Personally committed partners tend to think of each other in a positive light. After all, how can we be emotionally committed to another person if we don’t think favorably of them? As a result, they tend to work hard to keep their relationship on solid ground. In conflicts, they try to diffuse the situation and not let it get out of control. They also tend to sacrifice their personal needs and focus more on pursuing ones that serve the couple. They think of themselves not as individuals but as a team, sharing aspirations, thoughts, and interests, all of which strengthen their desire to stay together.

Disadvantages to commitment based on external factors

While moral and structural commitment may keep a marriage intact, they don’t affect how partners feel about each other. Morally and structurally committed partners are dedicated to their marriage but not necessarily to each other. So we might not work as hard as we could to make our partners happy and to make the marriage a happy one.

Furthermore, because we’re committed to the idea and not the person, we might not feel the need to express much interest or affection for our spouse. The truth is, as hard as they might try not to, couples who are only morally or structurally committed are at greater risk of divorce than those who are personally committed because they won’t put the effort in to make sure their relationship stays healthy. Still, any commitment is better than none.

Letting go of "options"

All three forms of commitment that we've talked about help to suppress one of the major threats to marriage — a belief that you have options. Here we are referring to holding onto thoughts that there’s a better way for you to live, either with another partner or in another lifestyle.

Options are harmful because they can affect how we treat our partner and distract us from working on our relationship to make it as good as it can be. When we believe we have them, we may not work too hard on our problems because we’re not totally convinced that we have to stay together. We’ll also tend to argue more often and with more hostility because when options are on the table we can feel trapped in our marriage when things are not going well.

Some couples may entertain options without being aware of them, or they may believe such thoughts are harmless. For example, if during a disagreement we say out loud or to ourselves, “I don’t need this aggravation” or “We should just get a divorce,” we are presenting ourselves with options.

Posing a few questions to yourself can give you an idea of where you stand: When you’re bored or upset, do you wish you were somewhere else or with someone else? Do you stay in your marriage because you want to or because you feel you have to and it’s the honorable thing to do? If you find you’re not as committed as you can be, you should consider adjusting how you think about your partner and your relationship. Simply dismissing thoughts that you have options when they creep into your mind is a good way to start.

Cultivating personal commitment

Personal commitment can also be strengthened by positive actions, such as bringing home flowers or doing something your partner enjoys. When we express caring and affection, we feel more connected and committed to our partners, and that in turn leads them to feel better about us. Because partners’ attitudes tend to feed on each other, demonstrations of commitment from one can get the other to move in the same direction. Of course, your personal commitment won’t guarantee your partner will also feel that way, but if you’re not committed, the odds are pretty good that they won’t be either.

We should point out that you can’t buy commitment. Random acts of kindness won’t work if there are strings attached or if you aren’t kind most of the time. Marriages that are generally unfair or one-sided, leave a partner’s needs unsatisfied, or are characterized by negativity or conflict, are not likely to get a spouse to want to stick around, regardless of a few kind deeds or how committed you think you are.

More from Rob Pascale and Lou Primavera Ph.D.
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