“The Lost Art of Marital Commitment” by Samantha Townsend

On a daily basis, and in every corner of the world, the process of two individuals meeting, discovering they are perfectly compatible, falling madly in love, and promising to live as devoted soulmates until they take their dying breath is mysteriously orchestrated. Moreover, some of these couples manage to remain in a committed, healthy, and satisfying marriage for decades, passing more years of life with their spouse than the years lived apart. Even though many people view marital commitment as an antiquated social norm, deep within the heart, each individual yearns to connect with the one other person in the world who is willing to so esteem him or her, that the two make a promise to become one even and until “death do them part.”

From its primal beginnings, society’s view of a committed marriage has undergone an evolutionary process. In her book Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage, author Stephanie Coontz explains that in early history, the only reasons for people to get married were for maintaining wealth, increasing status, or producing children, and as history progressed through the Middle Ages, polygamy reigned since kings desired to acquire as many wives as possible. Somewhere between the sixth and ninth centuries, the Roman Catholic church challenged polygamy with the one-man and one-woman ideal of monogamy, which became crucial to the notion of marriage by the ninth century. For the next ten centuries, however, men in legally or sacramentally recognized marriages had wide latitude to engage in extramarital affairs. The Civil Magistrate finally became involved in 1639 when

the state of Massachusetts began issuing marriage licenses. From that time forth, marriage became a union protected and established by law. Surprisingly, Coontz reveals it was only about 250 years ago that marriage as modern society knows it had its genesis. Historically, the idea of mutual attraction in marriage was not important until about a century ago. She relays her findings that since it is less important for people to have the permission of their parents, and they do not any longer have to wait for an inheritance or land, people now say, “heck. I’m going to marry who I want” (Coontz). Today’s modern conception of marriage no longer necessitates the process of discerning whether or not one’s mate is a good social or financial match, so the paragon virtue of love and life-long commitment between two individuals now takes precedence.

The ability to marry for emotional as opposed to social or economic reasons, however, has had its unintended consequences. Since the 1980s, there has been a steady decline in marriage rates, and consequently, divorce rates, with no sign of slowing down (Whitton et al. 276). In fact, when taking population into account, marriage rates in the U.S. are now at the lowest they have ever been in recorded history, even lower than during The Great Depression when there was a sudden 25% drop in marriage rates (Olson). The lower rate in marriage directly correlates to the decreased stigma to having sexual relationships outside of marriage. The societal and social pressures that existed in the past to marry before sexual consummation have greatly diminished, and people are now at liberty to have intimate relations with whomever they please without the burden of unintended commitment. This also means that the once stigmatized grounds for divorce such as getting bored of one’s partner, not wanting children, or deciding that they are no longer compatible, are now both perfectly legal and socially acceptable.

It is evident the ideal of a committed, long-term marriage is diminishing in today’s culture. Sociologists Carolyn Kapinus and Michael Johnson found that in today’s society, “[Americans] are simply failing to teach the next generation about the meaning, purposes, and responsibilities of marriage. If this trend continues, it will constitute nothing less than an act of cultural suicide” (189). The children of divorced parents who have remarried to create new, blended families, who remember the sting of the loss, choose to forego what they see will be the repetition of their parents’ history in their own lives. It is no wonder that when children fail to experience the nurture and stability that comes with living in a committed and consistent household, they, in turn, lack the desire to repeat the dysfunctional paradigm in which they are raised. Shunning traditional marriage in favor of living independently of a spouse can be a natural result of surviving an upbringing filled with tumult and inconsistency.

On a positive side, however, some couples either seem to have never experienced the above-mentioned sentiments, have bypassed any hardships or conflict in their marriage, or have figured out a way to make their lives together work in a way that is fruitful and edifying. Something intangible to the outside world occurred between them, and researchers began to take notice. Researchers are performing lengthy studies to help provide a sound and strong foundation for existing and future marriages. More recent studies on marital commitment have moved beyond asking the question, “how committed are you to this marriage?” which relates only to one-dimensional marital satisfaction, toward an identification of three types of commitment which have different causes and consequences (Adams et al. 1177-1196). The modern techniques are attempting to precisely pinpoint the fulcrum on which a marriage either succeeds or fails. Researchers are using the three types of commitment: personal (wanting to

stay married), moral (feeling morally obligated to stay married), and structural (feeling constrained to stay married) in longitudinal studies in an effort to discover the likelihood one will marry and stay married to a particular partner (Byrd). Stuart Wolpert interviewed UCLA psychologists Thomas Bradbury and Benjamin Karney after they analyzed 172 married couples over their first eleven years of marriage. In 2012, they discovered that for the majority of people, commitment means one of two things. Karney relays, “One thing they can mean is, ‘I really like this relationship and want it to continue.’ The other is when people say, ‘I’m committed to doing what it takes to make this relationship work’” (Wolpert). Bradbury and Karney identified the obvious ease of commitment when a marriage is going well, but when a marriage is in the crucible of a stressful life event or even if it is not going well, they noted the need for one partner to take the initiative to have some resolve, make some sacrifices, and actively decide to take steps to maintain the relationship, even if it means one partner is not going to get their way in certain areas. Conclusively, the couples who were willing to make sacrifices were significantly more likely to have lasting and happy marriages, and relayed explicitly by Bradbury, “Our data indicates that committing to the relationship rather than committing to your own agenda and your own immediate needs is a far better strategy” (Wolpert). Their study finds that couples who engage in compromise, take the time to openly discuss the big issues that arise, and who recognize that moving on will be hard but is worth the struggle are of the 78.5% involved in the study who were still married after eleven years. The other 22.5% were just as committed from the beginning, but their marriages failed because they were not able to shift their focus away from an either ‘I win’ or ‘you win’ approach rather than constantly work toward keeping their relationship afloat (Wolpert). The researchers are quick to admit they know the sacrificial process that leads to success is difficult, but the results are clear and conclusive: adults need to act maturely when they commit to spending the entirety of their days with another person.

A profound sense of awe, joy and even jealousy exists when couples who have been in a happy and committed marriage for over fifty years gush to the TV news reporter that they are even more in love in their elderly years than when they were young, exuberant, and attractive. Their smiling faces lead viewers to question how these couples remain committed even during seasons when, on the surface, their life looks much less romantic than in the faded picture from their wedding day. John and Ann Betar have been married eighty-three years and are among one of America’s longest married couples. After eloping in 1932 at the ages of nineteen and seventeen, John admits, “We struggled in the beginning, but, luckily, we were content with what we had. It’s just important to be content with what you have” (Shah). Delma and Tom Ledbetter, married over sixty years, died within two hours of each other, holding hands. Their daughter described their life together as “A match made in Heaven” (Pasha-Robinson). These couples’ serenity at moments of their deaths in a beautiful display of only allowing death itself to part their commitment toward one another.

In the recesses of modern communities exist enduring and happy marriages, and as it turns out, I personally know many couples who are in healthy and committed long-term relationships. The theme of the aforementioned UCLA study continues to be echoed in marriages that survive the decades as other couples I interviewed share the same sentiment over and over. Larry and Karen Fatheree were both twenty-four years old when they were married and have been married thirty-two years. When interviewed about the key to a happy marriage, Karen

replied, “You naturally want the best for yourself. Thinking of another before yourself takes a lot of prayer and commitment. Marriage is a promise, you will stay together through the good and bad, the hard and easy, the joyful and sad.” In response to the same question, Dan and Carolyn Osborne, who have spent the last forty-six years together as a married couple and have two grown children and three grandchildren, suggest, “A happy marriage is not so much about, ‘Am I personally happy all the time?’ but about working together to have a loving marriage and home with the same goal of pleasing God in our home.” Again, the UCLA study is confirmed as each couple admits that willfully making sacrifices out of love for another in a way that does not hold grudges and does not keep a score is paramount to a lasting marriage. Doug and Sharon Withington, who have been married for forty-three years and have four grown children, concur: “The key to our happy marriage is to overlook faults, to forgive each other quickly, to serve one another and to put the other’s interests before our own, to be kind, considerate and humble with each other.” As I have witnessed these marriages over the course of my upbringing, I have come to see that committed marriage is not only possible but even normal. In my own home, my parents have been married for nearly twenty years, have had six children, and are very much in love. The most remarkable aspect is that they have experienced the loss of two of their infant children due to genetic illness. Watching them cling in commitment to each other during these times of unspeakable loss and sorrow, and witnessing them come through as a united front filled with faith and strength has served as an example not only to myself, but to many others, to what it means to persevere to honor their marriage vows. My mother has admitted that she loves my father so much it scares her to think of not having him in her life, but instead of allowing that fear to overwhelm her, she channels it into living each day with joy and gratitude for the gifts

she has. My father insists it is all the small tokens of love shown each day that add up to thousands of examples over the years. He brings her coffee every morning, tells her she is beautiful even when she is sick, and they describe each other as their very best friend (“Keys to a Lasting Marriage”). These real and true examples stand in the face of the present-day cultural shift toward couples deciding to not commit their lives to one another. They are not glamorous, and their lives are filled with the grind of daily existence, but they are living the quiet and devoted lives that speak greater volumes than the most eloquent Shakespearean sonnet. More young people need to seek out these examples and glean wisdom from their experiences instead of attempting to blindly shrug off marriage altogether. The purposeful negation of the idea of marriage in favor of a life of non-commitment is not a beneficial pattern for a healthy society. Marriage must begin, and end, with a commitment that is willing to fight not only for the preservation of the union but also for the hope of the promise fulfilled of deeply-rooted joys and unfading loyalty that comes when love has truly conquered all.

Although a greater percentage of people are now choosing to forego marriage for the single life, giving up the hope of experiencing a lifetime of committed marital bliss with the person of one’s dreams is a gamble not worth taking. People study and strive toward success and expertise before entering college, the job market, and even in the nine months before birthing a baby. Interestingly enough, however, marriage is willingly entered into as a venture filled with risk and uncertainty. It behooves humanity to pay attention to the research on committed marital success because nothing compares to the decades-long commitment that begins with the words ‘I do,’ and survives ‘both sickness and health.’ Death itself is the only power greater than the love and self-sacrifice that exists between two, committed, and sacrificial human beings, that can break the iron-clad bond and finally force the parting of two loving individuals who have, over the course of time, become one.

 

 

Works Cited

Adams, Jeffrey M., and Warren H. Jones. “The Conceptualization of Marital Commitment: An Integrative Analysis.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 72, no. 5, 1997, pp. 1177-1196. ProQuest Central, doi:10.1037//0022-3514.72.5.1177.

Byrd, Stephanie Ellen. “The Social Construction of Marital Commitment.” Journal of Marriage and Family, Blackwell Publishing Inc. 16 Apr. 2009, ProQuest Central, onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1741-3737.2008.00601.x/abstract.

Coontz, Stephanie. Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage. Viking A Member of the Penguin Group (USA), 2005. Kindle ebook file.

Kapinus, Carolyn A, and Michael P. Johnson, “Personal, Moral, and Structural Commitment to Marriage: Gender and the Effects of Family Life Cycle Stage.” Sociological Focus, vol. 35, no. 2, 2002, pp. 189–205. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20832162.

“Keys to a Lasting Marriage.” E-mail interview, 23 Sept. 2017.

Olson, Dr. Randal S. “144 Years of Marriage and Divorce in 1 Chart.” Randal S Olson, 15 June 2015, www.randalolson.com

Pasha-Robinson, Lucy. “Elderly Couple Married for 62 Years Die Together While Holding Hands.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 9 May 2017, www.indepemdent.co.uk/news/workd/americas/elderly-couple-die-holding-hands-62-years-marriage-delma-tom-ledbetter-lake-jackson-restwood-a7725876.html.

Sahah, Yagana. “America’s ‘Longest-Married Couple’ Wants to Give You Love Advice.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 10 Feb. 2016,

www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/longest-married-couple-will-answer-your-questions-about-love_us_56bb4e72e4b0b40245c4c0a3.

Walsh, Janet. “Society Needs to Say, ‘I Do’ to Lasting Marital Commitment: [Metro Edition].” ProQuest Central, 20 May 1995, p. 10-A. https://search.proquest.com/docview/429330209?accountid=15152.

Whitton, Sarah W. et al. “Attitudes Toward Divorce, Commitment, and Divorce Proneness in First Marriages and Remarriages.” Journal of Marriage and Family, vol. 75, no. 2, 2013, pp. 276-287. doi: 10.1111/jomf.12008.

Wolpert, Stuart. “Here Is What Real Commitment to Your Marriage Means.” UCLA Newsroom, Stuart Wolpert, 1 Feb. 2012, newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/here-is-what-real-commitment-to-228064.