Marriage is a commitment. This fairly common understanding is something both overlooked and at the same time frequently, even continually discussed. Most people understand the idea of commitment. We commit our time to the kid’s soccer team, church functions, and social events. We commit our money to purchasing items over time in the form of loans. We commit ourselves in marriage. The idea of commitment is so common to our daily lives that we almost miss just how important it is.
What exactly is it to commit to something, to someone? What does the term mean and how does it affect us? Here’s a reasonable definition of the term ‘commit’ (in the context of this article): “…to obligate, bind; to pledge or assign to some particular course or use; to obligate or pledge oneself…”
Commitment is an intellectual exercise. It starts with a choice you make. You decide to take a particular course of action over and against some other course of action. Commitment is when you also make the choice to continue that action, even when given other options. A commitment usually has a goal in mind – a final destination. For example, if you commit some of your money toward the purchase of a car, the end in mind is the full ownership of that car. Once you make that last payment, you have fulfilled your commitment and are no longer under obligation to continue applying money toward the car.
It’s a natural human activity – we can do it as unconsciously as breathing. Think about your search for happiness. Most of us are committed to this goal. It’s such a part of life that it seems more like a natural, organic thing, something that happens *to* you. But this is not true: it is a choice you make and continue to act upon. You decide what makes you happy and then pursue that objective. You can always choose something else. That may look like insanity to others, but this does not change the fact that it is you making this choice.
In marriage you also decide to commit. This is a much more conscious decision. This commitment is a fulfillment of the vows you make when you marry. The marriage vows are a formal declaration of the terms of the commitment you enter with your spouse. This vow is most often life long – the obligation usually ends upon the death of one of the marriage partners.
The fact that the pursuit of happiness is also a rational choice you make has important ramifications when it comes to the commitment of marriage. You are committed to what makes you happy. This can cause problems; it can even contradict your commitment to marriage. One of the biggest causes of divorce is the separation of a person’s commitment to happiness and a person’s commitment to the marriage. Think of each commitment as a path. When these paths do not coincide, when they head off in different directions, there are troubles. And many people choose the course of happiness over the choice of marriage.
This shows the priority given to these commitments. If the pursuit of happiness causes you to break the marriage contract, it is quite evident that the pursuit of happiness is the most important factor, your marriage commitment falling somewhere farther down the line. One of the main reasons people marry is because the actions or appearances of their spouse coincide with that person’s ideas of what makes them happy. This makes entering the marriage contract easy, because the paths are running parallel, if not entirely merged. This can go on as long as the spouse fulfills all the terms of the commitment to happiness.
But when things part ways, troubles ensue, and quite often end up with a destroyed marriage.
It’s important to notice that the troubles, caused by a divergence of the commitment to marriage and the commitment to happiness, occur because of the priority given to happiness. Because marriages are started at a time when each person’s actions or appearance coincide with their partner’s ideas of what makes them happy, it is easy to forget that the marriage contract is also a commitment. In fact, the marriage contract is specific, with a definite list of conditions. The commitment to happiness is by far less defined and more generalized. Very few people have a list of items that they need in order to be happy.
In the past, this was far less of a factor regarding marriage. For example, in a system of arranged marriage, people entered the marriage contract with the full knowedge that the happiness commitment and the marriage commitment were not the same thing. This is not to argue that a system of arranged marriage is somehow superior to the current one. This just points out the fact that the current version of marriage makes STAYING together much harder.
But it does not need to be. The solution is simple. Working it into your life is a lot more difficult. The answer lies in addressing the indefinite conditions of the commitment to happiness. What you need to do is to be extremely specific about what makes you happy. List it, write it down, commit to it. This can be difficult, because people are so used to living a reactive, rather than proactive life. People wait for their emotions to take effect before they make a decision. If they experience a negative emotion, they go in another direction. They move toward, or along with, positive emotions. Their emotions are the guiding force in their life.
But emotions are generally a response to some sort of information: something happens, you process it, and your emotions then kick in as a reaction. A pro-active life is one that looks at what happened, and then makes a decision based upon prior knowledge: “Has this happened before? What can I do now? What exactly just happened? How can I solve this?..,” etc. Instead of reactively waiting for an emotion to kick in and then responding, a pro-active person will make a decision REGARDLESS of the emotion. They may still experience the emotion, but know that it is a response to their thoughts, and that they already have a definite course of acton.
Of course, chemical changes, and imbalances can also cause emotions to kick in. Regardless, you are still able rely on your knowledge and make a decision based upon that, rather than as a response to the emotion. Extremely difficult at times, but still possible.
You can be happy in a marriage that has previously caused unhappiness. Since you already know the conditions of the marriage contract, the answer lies in defining your happiness conditions. You can choose to outlast the cause of your unhappiness if it is a temporary cause such as unemployment. You can choose to proactively work as a couple at the cause of your unhappiness via counseling or problem-solving to reach an acceptable resolution. Or you can redefine your personal happiness. What makes you happy? By changing that definition, you can head in a different direction. Happiness is entirely subjective – you decide when you are happy. The conditions of your marriage contract are objective – they have been listed, agreed upon, and witnessed by at least one other person. They don’t change over time, they are always there.
This is not easy. Your commitment to happiness may simply not include the conditions of your marriage commitment. You probably already know this ahead of time. If this is so, you should not enter the marriage contract at all. If you are considering marriage, either accept the terms, or work with your intended to form some alternate form of marriage contract. Of course, this may also be impossible. Your intended may not wish to enter into such a contract. Your church or other social organization may not allow it. These are things you must consider. It remains, however, that if your commitment to happiness includes both things that contradict your marriage contract, and also the inflexibility to change the conditions, then you should not enter into a marriage contract at all, no matter how tempting. Marriage is very well defined and binding.
Keeping your word is an honorable step toward a good life. People who keep their words are people that can be relied upon. They are respected and often honored by their peers. Can you keep your word when you make a promise? What messages about honor and honesty do you wish to teach your children? This is what your marriage commitment is all about. Many people nowadays have learned that their happiness is the most important factor in life. And they have been taught to regard their emotions as the guide to decision making. They tend to head toward what produces positive feelings and away from negative ones. This is the reactive life, the life of one who is a prisoner to their responses to things they hardly bother to think about. You can be in control of your emotions (at least to a certain extent.) You can change your preferences to things that produce positive emotional responses. Your pursuit of happiness can be modified to include your marriage commitment.
Are you willing to commit to it?