There are some things you can do without in marriage – and still have a pretty good marriage. Commitment is NOT one of those things. It is foundational. If you don’t have it, your marriage is toast. But, the good news is, even if you don’t have it right now, you can choose to be committed today and start building this essential piece into your marriage.
There is a lot of content out there about marriage. A lot of people are talking about a diversity of things in the world of marriage. Some of it is helpful. But I want you to think of commitment like one of the crown jewels. You need to protect it, preserve it, and give it special attention. Commitment is one of the core areas at the heart of a healthy, lasting, thriving marriage.
What is Marital Commitment?
Think of words like loyalty, faithfulness, dedication, maybe even focus or integrity.
In the research, there are a variety of definitions that range from vague (“having a long term orientation toward the relationships”[i]) to specific (personal: wanting to stay married, moral: feeling morally obligated to stay married, and structural: feeling constrained to stay married[ii]).
Perhaps you are a little cynical about commitment due to your circumstances or history or even the experience of your parent’s marriage and think it is overrated. You prefer your freedom to being tied to another person.
Ironically, a study in 2002 showed that couples with higher levels of commitment felt less trapped and were more satisfied with their relationships. Higher commitment creates more freedom and more satisfaction.
We have jokes and comments in our society about the “ball and chain” of marriage and how a man is trapped once he’s been to the altar, but this is not the reality. The experience of highly-committed couples is one of greater satisfaction and even a greater sense of freedom because they have that secure base in their marriage.
So the question to ask your self is how committed are you, right now, to your spouse?
The Consequences of Abandonment
The opposite of commitment could be abandonment. This often happens through divorce or infidelity.
How Divorce Affects Spouses and Children
Divorce, in particular, is especially devastating. We have a textbook in our office written for marriage therapists that states emphatically that we just need to get over divorce being a big deal and we need to just accept it as a normal transition in our culture. That is total garbage! The reality is that divorce is devastating.
Here’s what the research says about divorce:
- Divorced individuals are unhappier, have more psychological distress and have poorer self-concepts.
- Divorced individuals have more problems with their health and greater mortality risk.
- Divorce can lead to greater levels of depression and alcohol use.
- Children of divorced families struggle in school, have more conduct issues, struggle in social situations, and have lower self-concepts.[iii]
There is also a generational impact from abandonment and low marital commitment. Another study by the same researcher found that marital instability is transmitted across generations because children see the weak commitment of their parents, which becomes the norm to them. So, when they consider their own marriages this is their native paradigm.
In their study, they found that children who had divorced parents had double the likelihood of their own marriage ending in divorce. In looking at this, the reason given for this elevated risk of divorce was because they “hold a comparatively weak commitment to the norm of life long marriage.”[iv]
How Infidelity Affects Commitment
The obvious point from the research on this one is that infidelity is a leading cause for divorce, and only a small portion of couples who go through infidelity are able to improve their relationship afterwards. [v]
The consequences of infidelity are a loss of trust, decreased personal and sexual confidence, a fear of abandonment and a surge of justification to leave the offending spouse.
Caleb loves to help couples who want to rebuild after infidelity, and if it’s possible we think it’s the best thing you can do IF you’re both willing to do the hard work and you’re both committed to recreating commitment.
But, the reality is, if you are unfaithful to your spouse then you have committed adultery. Marriage is intended to be sexually sacred. Two people, one flesh. Infidelity sparks that fear of abandonment because once you cross that line, you’ve broken the marriage bond.
If you’re interested in deepening the level of commitment in your marriage than it is vital that you hold the marriage bond to be sacred: both in terms of not accepting no-fault divorce as a solution to marital distress, and in terms of being committed to faithfulness in marriage.
How to Increase Commitment in Your Marriage
Ok, we’ve seen how vital commitment is to your marriage, and how damaging abandonment can be, so the question now stands, “How do I increase commitment in my marriage?”
You see, commitment is abstract. It’s not something you can buy; it is something you have to create. So, here are a few things to think about right now, and some past resources we’ve created so that if this is a real need for you, you have lots to work with.
And don’t forget – you don’t have to do this alone as a couple. If you’ve had a breach or a breakdown, reach out to Caleb.
Here are five items to consider when thinking about commitment in your marriage:[vi]
Stop All Alternative Monitoring
Alternative monitoring means thinking about a relationship with someone other than your spouse. Study results showed that individuals in committed relationships spend less time thinking about possible alternative partners.
Alternative monitoring leads to increased resentment in the relationship, corroding a sense of commitment. It’s like you’re opening doors in your head that could lead you to a room that you don’t want to be in. What-if’s are not going to help your what-is, so rather than monitoring alternatives, work on building up what you do have.
Don’t Consider the Attractiveness of Alternative Relationships
Not only should you not think about romance with someone other than your spouse, but couples should also battle unrealistic idealizations of alternative scenarios. It’s like the previous item but it’s taking it up a notch because you’re fantasizing or idealizing.
Even if you believe that you are committed to your relationship, it is dangerous to get lost in thoughts of how a different situation or a different spouse would be better. In your head, you get into two relationships. One where you’re married and you’re seeing the things that you’re not happy with and the other where you’re dating and you’re only seeing what you want to see. There’s no way you can sustain that dichotomy without decreasing your commitment to your marriage.
Don’t Assume that Women are More Committed Than Men
The underlying belief that women are more committed than men is not grounded in research, and the research shows that men and women are equally committed to marriage. However, men and women often show commitment in different ways.
For example, men often show their commitment by making sacrifices in marriage. Women who are concerned about their husband’s commitment can look for sacrifices that might be evidence of their commitment.
This is also a warning to men in particular not to take your wife granted. Your wife needs you: she needs your affection, your interest, your commitment. If you’re all work-work-work and your wife ends up having an affair, you’ll get all mad because it’s her fault. Yes, she did make a wrong choice, but you contributed to the environment that made that wrong choice attractive.
Words to Women: Consider the Negative Interactions
Ladies, pay attention to the negative interactions you bring to the marriage and think about how you can decrease them. Study’s show that men’s divorce potential was strongly linked to negative interactions in the marriage. In simple terms – don’t nag him!
Words to Men: Consider the Lack of Positive Interactions
Men, pay attention to how little you interact with your wife positively and think about how you can increase those positive interactions. For men, it’s not so much about negative interactions as much as the lack of positive. It turns out that women’s divorce potential was strongly linked to a lack of positive interactions in the marriage.
Check out Episode 31: Three Ways to Make Your Marriage Happier and Episode 4: 5 Reasons Why You Need To Tell Your Wife You Appreciate Her.
Amp Up the Commitment
Again, we’ve created a bonus PDF worksheet that we’d like to email you to help you bring greater commitment into your marriage. The worksheet has a short self-assessment then some discussion points to help you talk to your spouse about what you need from them and what you’re going to give to them in order to bolster commitment.
In summary, commitment is a choice made in the heart. You have to start there. You may be in a crazy situation and having trouble figuring out how to make it all work, but if you start with commitment, the rest will fall into place. (Again, reach out if you’re in this place).
Remember, commitment is a fundamental piece of the foundation of a happy marriage. You cannot not have commitment.
If you realize you don’t have it, and you want your marriage to thrive the good news is that you can make that choice today.
Be the spouse that says, “I am all in for this marriage. I am not going to entertain alternatives any longer. Now I am going to start shifting my behaviours to align with this decision that I am committed.”
Decide to be committed and then act on it. Every day. No matter what.
[i] Ximena B. Arriaga and Christopher R. Agnew, “Being Committed: Affective, Cognitive, and Conative Components of Relationship Commitment,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 27, no. 9 (September 1, 2001): 1190–1203, doi:10.1177/0146167201279011.
[ii] Stephanie Ellen Byrd, “The Social Construction of Marital Commitment,” Journal of Marriage and Family 71, no. 2 (May 2009): 318–36.
[iii] Paul R. Amato, “The Consequences of Divorce for Adults and Children,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 62, no. 4 (November 2000): 1269–87.
[iv] Paul R. Amato and Danelle D. DeBoer, “The Transmission of Marital Instability across Generations: Relationship Skills or Commitment to Marriage?,” Journal of Marriage and Family 63, no. 4 (November 2001): 1038–51.
[v] Adrian J. Blow and Kelley Hartnett, “Infidelity in Committed Relationships Ii: A Substantive Review,” Journal of Marital and Family Therapy 31, no. 2 (April 2005): 217–33.
[vi] Scott M. Stanley, Howard J. Markman, and Sarah W. Whitton, “Communication, Conflict, and Commitment: Insights on the Foundations of Relationship Success from a National Survey,” Family Process 41, no. 4 (Winter 2002): 659–75.