It seems that whenever anyone talks about divorce, the C word comes up -- commitment.
The problem with couples today, the typical comment goes, is that they just don't know what commitment means.
OK, so what does commitment in a marriage mean?
It isn't declaring, "I like this relationship and I'm committed to it," or at least that's what two UCLA researchers who've explored what commitment means have to say.
A deeper -- and essential, if you want your marriage to last -- level of commitment is needed. It's a commitment to be willing to do whatever it takes to make the marriage work, and that means there are going to be many times when you're just not going to get your way. And you're going to have to be OK with it, they say.
"It's easy to be committed to your relationship when it's going well. As a relationship changes, however, shouldn't you say at some point something like, 'I'm committed to this relationship, but it's not going very well -- I need to have some resolve, make some sacrifices and take the steps I need to take to keep this relationship moving forward. It's not just that I like the relationship, which is true, but that I'm going to step up and take active steps to maintain this relationship, even if it means I'm not going to get my way in certain areas'? This is the other kind of commitment: the difference between 'I like this relationship and I'm committed to it' and 'I'm committed to doing what it takes to make this relationship work.' When you and your partner are struggling a bit, are you going to do what's difficult when you don't want to? At 2 a.m., are you going to feed the baby?"
There are many ways to be committed, but the "I'm willing to sacrifice for us" way is the one that's going to give your marriage a better chance at succeeding, the researchers say.
But where do you draw the line on sacrifice? That's something Susan Pease Gadoua and I have explored in our work with soon-to-be-married couples for our book, The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Cynics, Commitaphobes and Connubial DIYers. Each and every bride- and groom-to be we've interviewed has emphatically emphasized how important commitment is and how important it will be in his or her marriage.
Great -- who's going to argue with commitment, especially when it's stated so passionately? But then we've asked them what they won't tolerate in their marriage. And, guess what each one says first? (Hint: It has nothing to do with 2 a.m. baby bottle feedings!) Right, it's infidelity. There's commitment and then there's this: "Well, I'm absolutely not going to deal with my spouse getting some on the side!"
Makes sense. But, what if it's just a one-night stand, we ask them.
After an uncomfortable silence, most of them soften.
Well ... maybe we can work through that.
A long-term affair?
All of which means commitment only goes so far, and it seems to reach an ugly, yet not surprisingly predictable end when someone's schtupping someone he or she's not supposed to. And because we've only asked engaged couples to answer a teeny-tiny portion of the questions in our book, we haven't even gotten to the good stuff, like asking them to define what infidelity means to them: Watching porn? Facebook flirting? Sexting? There are just so many ways to be a potential cheater nowadays, and couples don't always agree on what constitutes cheating. That's a problem for a marriage.
But if we're really talking about-honest-to-goodness, down-and-dirty, I'm-committed-to-doing-whatever-it-takes-to-make-this-relationship-work commitment, then shouldn't a couple that takes commitment seriously be able to work through infidelity -- in whatever incarnation it comes to them -- and keep their marriage intact? Wouldn't that be the "better or worse" part of a marriage vow?
Or, does commitment always have an asterisk for infidelity?