In his book, ‘The Power of Commitment‘, Scott Stanley (USA) provides some very useful insights into the nature of commitment. He identifies two types of relationship commitment: constraints and dedication.
Constraint commitment refers to the ‘forces’ that resist the separation of a couple even when one or both partners would prefer to leave the relationship. Constraints tend to accumulate with the relationship and begin from very early on, before marriage has even begun.
While each person will experience a unique set of constraints specific to their emotional needs and social circumstances, there are typical constraints associated with each stage of relationship development:
- For the dating couple constraints might include dependency on the partner to meet social needs, fear of hurting the partner, resistance to re-entering the ‘singles’ market’ and a fear of disappointing expectant friends or family. Longer relationships also carry a resistance to ‘writing off a bad investment’.
- Cohabiting couples accumulate constraints rapidly as the amount of jointly owned furnishings and shared resources increase. Separating means at least one having to find alternative accommodation, increased living expenses associated with maintaining two homes, and potentially difficult negotiations over the distribution of their material possessions. This is known as ‘commitment creep’: the couple often never actually makes a conscious choice to commit their lives to each other, but as the constraints accumulate, they become increasingly tied to each other.
- Married couples may experience the additional constraints of disrupting the web of extended family relationships, guilt associated with religious beliefs, the dread of acknowledging the failure of the marriage and the loss of a dream, the possible loss of their home if neither is able to ‘buy’ the other out, social embarrassment, and the potential loss of mutual friendships.
- Parents face even further constraints. The responsibility of caring for children and minimising disruption to their lives, social disapproval, complicated negotiations regarding the distribution of financial assets and future support and the fear of damaging the children’s sense of security. For parents with independent adult children, some of these constraints decline as evidenced by the tragic incidence of divorce around the 20-30 year mark.
While constraints have a negative connotation especially in situations of abuse or dysfunction, they perform a very positive and important role in marriage. Constraints slow down a person’s decision to depart a relationship when things get tough. They act to hold a couple together during periods of deep unhappiness and so help a person avoid drastic decisions that may be regretted later.
While constraint commitment may help a couple avoid impulsive decisions at critical times, it won’t help a couple build a happy, fulfilling marriage. Personal dedication – the decision to willingly invest in building the relationship – is needed to sustain marital happiness over the long term. Stanley identifies four crucial components to dedicated commitment:
- A desire for a future together. Having a long term view of the relationship motivates couples to invest more in the relationship. It also helps them weather the inevitable stormy times.
- A sense of being part of a team. When spouses feel partnered in their ‘life quest’ each experiences the positive benefits of the other’s support and encouragement.
- Giving high priority to the relationship. Dedicated couples know that they can’t neglect their relationship and expect it to stay healthy. Singles’ activities must make way for interests that can be shared or that support their marriage.
- Willingness to sacrifice for the other. All good marriages are built on the principle of self-sacrifice. Sometimes this means surrendering a prized recreational activity, redefining career goals, or simply watching the other’s preferred TV show or going to their preferred restaurant rather than our own.
A Catholic perspective on Commitment Theory
The Catholic perspective on the marriage commitment has four clear features as articulated in the vows:
- Freedom. The marriage must be undertaken “freely and without reservation”. Every engaged couple will experience some constraint pressure that mounts as the wedding gets closer, making harder to ‘call it off” if there are doubts about proceeding. The presence of this constraint pressure itself is not necessarily an indicator of problems, provided that there is a strong measure of dedicated commitment by both fiances.
- Totality. The marriage vows demand a total commitment and specify in sickness and health, poverty and wealth, better or worse, “until death do we part”. This includes all material wealth as well as our time, energies and our bodies.
- Fidelity. The wedding vows also specify the commitment to sexual exclusivity and the exchange of rings are taken to be a sign of this commitment “of love and fidelity”.
- Life-giving. The vows also require the couple to orientate their marriage towards children and to be open to life and generous with their love in their community. In a Catholic wedding, the couple also commit to raising any children as Catholics.
The Commitment Conversation
Many couples are asymmetrically committed, that is, one is more committed than the other and it may not be obvious to either of them. This can set up a power imbalance in the relationship, with the less committed partner able to structure the relationship to his or her advantage.
One of the dangers of the normalisation of cohabitation is that couples often drift into deeper commitment without their conscious consent. Being in love, they do not always make wise decisions about their choice of partner and their incompatibility only manifests later, after the constraints are already substantial.
Whatever stage of relationship you are in, an open and honest conversation about your ‘buy in’ and expectations, is a valuable discussion. Set aside some time to have this dicussion.