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The Meaning of Commitment

The idea of commitment, especially marital commitment, is so important the world over that vows are publicly exchanged in formal ceremony to establish a recognized bond. Changes over recent decades have tended to erode the concept of what has been traditionally referred to as the marital institution. While many of the changes have been very positive, such as the movement toward equalization of genders, the high divorce rates and living together arrangements reflect an erosion of the importance placed on the meaning of commitment in our society. This is causing significant suffering.

The breaking of commitment is often defined in moral terms, which tend to obscure the deeper dynamics. If understood, those dynamics could lead to more responsible behavior. 

Since traditional definitions of morality are often ignored and fraught with judgment and negativity, let us take a more free-thinking definition of morality as that of exhibiting thought and behavior that does not inflict suffering on oneself or others.  Such suffering invariably leads to alienation: from oneself, from other(s), from community and from our Spiritual Source. Let us also infer that absence of joy and emptiness of meaning are types of suffering that can go unrecognized by those who live their lives according to the dictates of their senses and impulses – never even recognizing their higher potential.

The purpose of marital commitment is to create a social structure – a safe dwelling within which a couple can move to ever deeper levels of intimacy. It is the setting where unconditional love is learned. The crucible of the marriage bond offers most of us what will become the most difficult social challenge of our lives.  Think about it.  We spend a lifetime, many of us, just trying to learn to accept and love ourselves!  The challenge of marriage is to do the same thing with another human being.  Remember, in our earlier discussion, we discussed that we hurt most those we love the most.

We described how the natural boundaries that occur at the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual friction points – where one person ends and the other person begins – create challenges due to differences in perception and experience that occur in each partner.  That these differences exist, does not make either partner wrong. Anxiety naturally develops where differences are perceived, especially when communication fails. Development and continuation of intimacy absolutely require continuing communication that negotiates for a shared reality of experience – all while respecting each other’s boundaries. Formal commitment promises a safe place where we can develop and grow as human beings.  We promise each other the right to be ourselves, without rejection by the other. 

The Happily Ever After Myth

Then we discover there is no happily ever after. Not for most of us.  What a shock!  First, we have to work to learn to love ourselves, then we discover we have to work to maintain our love and commitment to another as well? For many of us, these days, it’s just too hard!

We live in a throwaway society.  We love to trade up – to the latest model cars, to the latest computers and cell phones.  When our clothes become out of fashion, we toss them, and even our diets are subject to the latest trends dictated by the media.  Everything old is more complicated and difficult, and everything new promises greater ease in our lives.  Of course, we don’t make social commitments to the material things in our lives.  But we do in relationships, and yet, we often treat those relationships the same way we treat our material things. If it’s too much trouble, junk it. 

I believe that one of the reasons we hear so little of the words, “honor” and “integrity” in our society has to do with our tendency to interpret the word “commitment” in a superficial way.  By failing to follow through with the original commitment, many marriages are failing, many people are suffering, and some of the greatest joys that life has to offer are being squandered for so many of us who are too quick to believe, “there has to be something better out there.”

Studies show that children suffer in families with dysfunctional marriages, and they suffer when marriages break up.  As many of these children come to maturity, they hesitate to commit in marital relationships because they have become jaded by what they have seen growing up.  Studies also show that many marriages that stick it out during the hard times have come to greater happiness over the years – even those that had not sought professional help. When marriages do break up, the separating partners are often unaware of how they contributed to the breakup of the prior relationship, with the result that they carry their original problems unresolved into the new relationship. 

When Commitment is Broken

There are times when marital commitment must be considered broken.  Nobody should remain in a relationship where their partner continues to exhibit abusive behavior toward them.  Marital commitment is a nest  – not a cage. Dictating and controlling the life of another human being is a boundary violation, second only to taking that person’s life.  Indeed, it is taking a person’s life, if that person is willing to give away her power to the extent that she loses her personhood. One who gives up one’s sense of self to remain in a relationship will lose both self and relationship:  better to leave while there is still a “you” to go. Third, addictive behavior of one partner – without entering recovery – will eventually bring the whole family down. Abuse of children demands separation – permanently, if the abuse continues. Finally, betrayal of trust and lying can violate the integrity of a relationship to the extent that commitment is considered broken and the marriage is unable to continue.

Honoring Commitment to Save the Marriage

When circumstances such as those above threaten a relationship, it is best to take action sooner rather than later.  Be willing to make confrontations, if you feel safe to do so.  If events have given you cause to fear potential violence in making a confrontation, it is time to separate.  Seek advice only from unbiased parties.  Professional relationship counseling may save the marriage, if both partners are willing to seek help.  Sometimes, a process known as “therapeutic separation” is employed during counseling, to minimize destructive processes while healing and recovery begin. Under such circumstances, separation is a time for reflection and work on oneself while outside the counseling setting – not a time for “going out.” It is better to seek help earlier, before burnout occurs.  When one partner refuses to seek help at the request of the other, that partner can be considered to have ended their relationship by default. All relationships require work.  If communication is not happening, or is not working, it is time to fix the communication. 

When Commitment Works 

A typical media portrayal of a couple in love in our society would be that of a young couple groping on a park bench.  In reality, their behavior is primarily directed by hormones and the real work of learning to love each other lies in the years ahead.  For those of us who know the truth, a better portrayal would be that of an old couple, sitting on a bench, frail shoulders touching, wrinkled hands entwined, savoring the years that have brought them to the present moment.  Every moment shared in ecstasy was followed by more moments where they put each other through hell – and yet, they stayed through it all, learning, nurturing their children into their own fulfilling lives; forgiven and forgiving, cherished and cherishing to the end. So, is the price of commitment worth its reward? Ask the old couple on the park bench.


Granville Angell   © 03/2007


Granville Angell, EdS, LPC, NCC: local counselor and author of The God-Shaped Hole – A Story of Comfort for The Child in All of Us.  Read his prior articles at www.transitions-counseling.com; contact him at TRANSITIONS: angell(AT)transitions-counseling.com, 704-276-1164.


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