Love or Commitment?
Researchers have confirmed that the single most important quality in keeping a marriage stable over the long-term is commitment. Commitment is an intention to maintain a relationship over time. In the words of commitment researcher, Dr. Scott Stanley, it is “We with a future.”
People generally commit to someone in long-term relationships in western cultures because they are “in love.” While that’s a difficult construct to define, there is general agreement that it is associated with positive feelings toward someone and a desire to be with them on a more permanent basis.
Love is a general term, tends to shift meaning in long-term relationships, and is highly subjective. Beginning stages of romantic relationships elicit physiological responses people associate with “love,” like higher motivation and energy, and a desire to seek out the love connection. Over time, physiology tends to return to baseline, and love can feel very different. In part, commitment is the constant in the shifting dynamic of long-term love.
Two Parts of Commitment
Commitment in marriage is commonly considered to have two parts, which are sometimes referred to as the “want to” and “have to” aspects:
- Personal dedication: This is the motivation to prioritize the relationship and link personal goals with another. It fuels putting forth best efforts for the marriage, and increases willingness to sacrifice personal interest for your partner’s welfare (in a non-abusive relationship).
- Constraint: This is what keeps people together during low points in the relationship. Dr. Stanley uses the metaphor of falling in love with a puppy to illustrate the need for constraint commitment. He explains that we fall in love with the “front end,” of the puppy, meaning its cuteness factor, but “every puppy has a back end,” that represents the work required to maintain the pet over the long-term. Examples of constraints that keep people together when the going gets rough are children, shared finances, shared households, legal contracts, religious imperatives, or the accumulation of investment one has put into a relationship over a long period of time.
Functions of Commitment
In summary, it’s unreasonable to expect that long-term relationships will always provide high individual satisfaction. Commitment is the glue that keeps it secured when individual satisfaction is waning. Here are some specific functions:
- Commitment influences behaviors. It keeps people thinking of ways to protect and preserve the relationship over the long-term. It fuels constructive responses to negative partner behavior.
- Commitment keeps people from thinking of other options they could have chosen. Making a decision to commit to someone is a decision to not commit to someone else. The root of the word decide is associated with “cutting off,” implying cutting ties to an alternative decision.
- Commitment feeds a desire to persist on the chosen relationship path even when something is difficult. In every relationship, people have moments of boredom, frustration, hurt and other unpleasant emotions. That’s expected—the “back end,” of the puppy.
- Commitment provides a backdrop for secure attachment, reducing attachment anxiety. Attachment security is at the heart of relationship satisfaction and commitment can help when it has been damaged and couples are trying to rebuild.
Why Does Understanding Commitment Matter More Than a Decade Ago?
This is my anecdotal opinion as a clinician, but there are important cultural shifts impacting long-term relationships which I have witnessed. Understanding commitment can help maintain marital stability in the face of these changes:
- Easier access to previous romantic and alternative partners. This creates a risk for increased alternative monitoring, or considering other partners, which threatens relationship stability. I can still remember the moment when a couple’s presenting concern was that the wife was texting her old boyfriend six months after the wedding. I thought, “This opens up a whole new challenge for marriage.” I never had a cell phone in which to keep my old boyfriend’s number, and he wasn’t a text away. I didn’t have the option of reaching out so easily so quickly.
- The trend in thinking that cohabitation is a better substitute for marriage, and delaying marriage. Stanley refers to this as “Sliding vs. Deciding.” When people start living together to “try out,” their relationship, the problem is that they start the process of creating constraints without realizing it. They start sharing mortgages, car payments, may have children together, and slowly generate the type of investment which keeps people in a relationship when it’s hard. For example, when people move in together, it becomes harder to break up with someone you really don’t want to be with long-term, now that you’re sharing living quarters, so you’re more likely to just end up allowing the long-term relationship to be decided for you (sliding) instead of really choosing for yourself (deciding). This is likely why marital stability is actually lower for people who cohabitate first. When research claims otherwise, it is for a very select demographic of people, not the population at large. People need to realize that they are creating constraint commitment without realizing it and they may be doing it without the chosen “dedication” part of commitment.
How to Maximize Commitment
- Look for ways to Sacrifice. Sacrifice is a huge signal for commitment. Seeing a partner sacrifice for you builds trust in the relationship. In good marriages, sacrifice also increase good feelings in the partner who is sacrificing. I went to a training of Dr. Stanley’s a few decades ago and still remember his pointing out that small sacrifices can be more helpful than large ones, because when people go all out, they tend to keep score about whether the spouse is matching the sacrificial behavior. Right now, write down three small things you know you can do that your partner would appreciate.
- Manage alternative monitoring. Alternative monitoring is what happens when people see other potential partners and begin imagining what life would be like with those people instead. Sometimes people think if they are attracted to other people, it means they should pursue a relationship elsewhere. We are all built to potentially be attracted to many different people—otherwise, how would we regenerate our species? Someone exercising commitment might notice another person who is attractive, but he/she will self-talk in a way to reinvigorate commitment to the relationship. For example, “She’s cute, but she probably isn’t as good a mother as my wife—I’m glad I’m married to her,” or “He’s cute, but he’s probably not as kind as my husband.” People who are managing alternative monitoring refocus on the qualities they enjoy about their partners as a whole. Unfortunately, people low in marital satisfaction but high in constraint commitment will feel trapped, and people who feel trapped tend to alternatively monitor more frequently.
- Consider signaling commitment. Engaged and recently married people were asked to identify the “ultimate signal,” of commitment. There is a cool infographic about this on the Science of Relationships website. First on the list was wearing wedding rings. See my blog post about wedding rings here.
- Continue to dream and make future plans. Remember—commitment is “us with a future.” Write out what you want to be doing in 2, 5, 10 or 20 years to keep focused on the long-term.
It’s my perception that in our individualistic society, commitment in marriage is diminishing, which is unfortunate, because, the types of stable relationships fostered by commitment are ideal for raising children. If people understood it better, they might be more intentional in their long-term relationships.
Assessing Commitment in Personal Relationships by Stanley, S. & Markman, H. J. (1992) in Journal of Marriage and the Family, 54 (3), 595-697. DOI: 10.2307/35324.x
Communication, Conflict and Commitment: Insights on the Foundations of Relationship Success from a National Survey by Stanley, S. M., Markman, H. J. & Whitton, S. W. (2002) in Family Process, 41(4) 659-675 DOI: 10.1111/j.1545-5300.2002.00659.x
Commitment: Functions, Formation, and the Securing of Romantic Attachment by Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K. & Whitton, S. W. (2010) in Journal of Family Theory and Review, 2(4), 243-257 DOI: 10.1111/j.1756-2589.2010.00060.x
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