What is it with Men and Commitment, Anyway? Part 1

By Scott M. Stanley

Before looking at the question of how men may differ from women with regard to commitment, I want to address the general question, “does commitment still matter?” Is it such an important topic, to write, discuss about or it’s not worthy our great mind to dwell on? Read through am sure you will be surprised if not shocked by some of the findings around this issue. Let us begin by looking at some of the findings that were just released from the Oklahoma Baseline Survey (Johnson et al. 2002). In this phone survey of 2300 Oklahoma residents, those who had been divorced were asked about the things that led to divorce. They were given a list of ten things and asked whether each was a major contributor to their divorces. Commitment was the mostly highly endorsed item. In fact, 85% said that “lack of commitment” was the major reason for divorce.  I would not have predicted that it would be so highly rated in this day and age, much less the highest rated reason for divorce among the options presented.

Another finding coming from this survey released from Oklahoma supports the importance of commitment in marriage.  A question was asked of the currently married respondents:  “Have you ever seriously thought your marriage was in trouble?” Thirty-four percent said “yes.” Those who said “yes,” were asked, “Are you glad you are still together?” Ninety-two percent said that they were glad they were still together. A recent finding from the large-scale National Survey of Families and Households (NSFH) are consistent with this point from the Oklahoma survey.

As part of a report entitled, Does Divorce Make People Happy, a team headed by Linda Waite examined longitudinal data from the NSFH (Waite et al., 2002). Among the findings, of those who were very unhappy in their marriages at one time point, two-thirds of those who stayed together were happy 5 years later. These simple findings suggest that there is something wrong with the belief that many people seem to have: Once a marriage is down, it’s done. My impression is that people generally believe that marriages don’t recover and that the choice is black and white: either hang on in stable misery (perhaps some people’s definition of commitment) or get out. The fact is, some marriages are, indeed, like that. For any number of reasons, they will not improve.  However, there are also couples who hang in there and bounce back from difficult times. They endure, persevere, and continue to put one foot in front of the other. In the end, many get to a very different place in life.

So, at least for some couples, the perseverance that comes with commitment produces important, positive outcomes. This is also true more broadly, with couples generally doing best if they have a clear sense of future together (Amato & DE Boer, 2001; Amato & Rogers, 1999; Waite & Joyner, 2001).  These data I briefly present, along with a great deal of evidence in various studies not presented, suggest that commitment certainly does matter in marriage (and divorce).  Certainly, the average person thinks that it matters a great deal. Before I continue with other points, I want to highlight that nothing in this talk should be construed to mean that I am arguing that people should remain in highly destructive relationships no matter what else. When there is danger of serious harm, safety should be the overarching priority.


What is Commitment?

How do couples experience commitment? Our theory suggests there are two components to commitment: personal dedication and constraint (Stanley & Markman, 1992).   Personal dedication speaks to how intrinsically committed partners are to one another whereas constraints are the things that might keep couples together when partners would rather leave. Constraints are the things that accumulate as relationships grow and make it hard to break up, such as financial considerations, responsibilities for children, social pressure, and a lack of foreseeable alternatives. Despite the connotation, constraints can have a positive function in the lives of couples because they can help prevent one or both partners from making drastic decisions that unravel investment during periods of intense unhappiness. However, behaviors at critical times for many couples.  Of course, when someone is really unhappy for a long time in a marriage, constraints can lead a sense of feeling trapped. Constraints don’t lead to great, happy marriages. They mostly put the brakes on impulsive, destabilizing Personal dedication, on the other hand, refers to interpersonal and more intrinsic commitment processes, particularly in commitment to the partner and the relationship.  It has four important components: a desire for a future together, a sense of “us” or “we” (or as being part of a team), a high sense of priority for the relationship, and more satisfaction with sacrificing for the other.

There are two fundamentals that underline all of what commitment is about for couples. First, developing and maintaining a long-term view is crucial for marital success. Fundamentally, what commitment brings to a marriage is a long-term perspective that allows partners to weather the inevitable ups and downs in marital satisfaction. Second, commitment means making a choice to give up choices.  Giving up choices is not a prized notion in American culture. We want to hang on to everything. In fact, we’re generally reinforced to believe that we should hang on to everything and keep all of our options open.  Of course, at times, this presents a serious problem for individuals because one cannot have certain things in life by hanging onto everything in life.  It is like the proverbial monkey with his hand in the jar who is trying to hold on to so much that he can’t get his fist out. We end up with much less in life when we try to hang on to everything rather then being more devoted and dedicated to a particular path or partner.  So, while commitment remains crucial in so many ways to relationship and marital success, there are fundamentals to commitment that are at odds with much in American culture at this point, especially in regard to holding longer term views and making clear decisions to be committed.

To be continued.