A lot has changed over the past few decades – our attitudes to commitment among them. Whether the discussion is about company-employee relationships, friendships, volunteers, religious practice or marriage, it seems that commitment is out of vogue.
Even as people experience the pain of broken commitments, most are reluctant to forsake the cherished independence that is the hallmark of so many social interactions. Companies opt for limited time contracts, volunteers regularly no-show for their rostered activity, young couples increasingly cohabit rather than marry and parents abandon their marriages far too often.
We can almost hear in our head the voice of our grandfathers: “people today don’t know how to make a commitment and stick to it!”
Right or wrong, it’s always helpful to bring the light of science and hard data to the issue. For the study of commitment in romantic relationships, we turn to the work of Dr. Scott Stanley (USA). He identifies two types of relationship commitment: constraints and dedication.
Constraint commitment can be described as 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.
For the dating couple constraints might include dependency on the partner to meet social needs, fear of hurting them or a resistance to re-entering the ‘singles market’. Longer relationships also carry a resistance to ‘writing off a bad investment’.
Cohabitating couples accumulate constraints rapidly as the amount of jointly owned furnishings and shared resources increases. Separating means at least one having to find alternative accommodation and difficult negotiations over the distribution of their material possessions.
The constraints continue to accumulate over the course of marriage. Married spouses contemplating divorce may fear disrupting extended family relationships, feel guilt associated with religious beliefs, dread social embarrassment, as well as practical constraints like the loss of their home or reduction in living standards as the budget stretches to cover two households.
Parents face even further constraints including complicated negotiations over custody and access and the fear of damaging the children’s sense of security.
Some of these constraints decline as children become adults and indeed this reality is reflected in the incidence of divorce among empty-nesters.
Constraint commitment is, in some ways, a ‘negative’ force – it’s power comes from the fear of the consequences of breaking up.
If you like, constraints are the ‘stick’ in the ‘carrot and stick’ motivation model. The ‘carrot’ is what Stanley calls ‘dedication’.
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 it and 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 rather than our own.
Dedication is the dimension of commitment that is energised by a positive motivation to pursue excellence in the relationship. It requires the conscious decision to invest ourselves and helps us feel more proactive and in control of our investment in a relationship.
While constraints can feel more coercive, they are not all bad. They perform a very positive and important role in marriage by slowing down a person’s decision to depart a relationship when things get tough.
And it gets tough for all of us at some stage! Constraints act to hold us together during periods of deep unhappiness and so help us avoid drastic decisions that may be regretted later; to hold us together long enough to reinvigorate our dedication.
Constraints are the safety net keeping us together when the dedication of one or both of us is at low ebb.
So, what’s the practical wisdom from Stanley’s commitment theory?
While constraint commitment may help a couple avoid impulsive decisions at critical times, it won’t help a couple build a happy, fulfilling marriage.
Dedicated commitment needs to be consciously nurtured for us to feel positive and freely committed in the relationship.
Make a ‘commitment to be more committed’ by enhancing your dedication today!