In less than six months, Kristen and I celebrate 20 years of marriage. As we look ahead to our 20th, it’s easy to look back and remember our wedding day. We got married at Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia, on Saturday, September 15, 2001 (4 days after the 9/11 attacks). Our wedding provided the perfect break from the chaos of the world that week. Friends and family gathered as we shared our vows, wedding cake, and lots of dancing.
Everything seemed perfect that day. Like so many other couples, we believed we didn’t need premarital counseling and we’d be the exception to the rule. Yes, if you marry you will have trouble (1 Corinthians 7:28), but we wouldn’t have those troubles. And for the most part, it has been an exceptional 19.5 years of marriage.
I can say with integrity that I have never thought of divorce. But, there are days when I don’t feel committed or all-in on my marriage. I’ve been a marriage pastor for 15 years, so I’m not sure if that last statement encourages or terrifies you, but sometimes I don’t feel like doing the work a great marriage requires. Hopefully it makes you feel like you’re not alone and you’re not the only one who at times struggles.
Growing Your Commitment
One of the best ways to fight this lackadaisical attitude toward marriage is by working on growing your commitment to your spouse and to your marriage. Jesus addresses the permanence of marriage and our commitment in Matthew 19:3-6: “Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? (Matthew 19:3-5).
In this passage, Jesus quotes Genesis 2:24-25, but adds a little something special in Matthew 19:6. Jesus says, “So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” He reminds us marriage is intended to be a permanent, one-flesh relationship that is not to be separated by anything except death. This makes marriage the most unique human relationship on the planet.
You can view this commitment marriage requires in one of two ways: you’re either stuck together or you can choose to willingly, joyfully stick together. The difference is subtle but powerful.
Two Kinds of Commitment
In the book A Lasting Promise by Scott Stanley, et al, the authors write about two different types of commitment.
Constraint commitment refers to anything that keeps individuals stuck in their marriage. Couples stay together because ending the relationship becomes more costly—economically, socially, personally, or spiritually. For example, constraint commitment keeps a couple together because of the social pressure they might get from friends and family to stay together. Or they stay “stuck together” because of the financial implications of ending the relationship (i.e., attorney fees, the financial cost of divorce, having to pay for two households). They might also stay in the relationship because they don’t want to deal with splitting up their stuff and moving out. Some couples stay together because they believe divorce is morally or spiritually wrong and they know it would have a negative impact on their kids.
One more factor is that we’re not getting any younger or better looking. This also holds true for those around us. Therefore, couples remain stuck together because they realize they can’t do any better.
None of the above are “bad” reasons—it’s not wrong to stay together because of the kids, financial stewardship, or spiritual views of divorce. The problem, however, with constraint commitment is that it’s not enough to keep couples joyfully married. Eventually many couples rationalize ending the relationship or fantasize about better options if they end the marriage. In and of itself, constraint commitment will not save most marriages.
Dedication commitment, on the other hand, is what strengthens a marriage. It’s like a permanent glue that bonds a couple together until death. It refers to a couple’s desire to maintain or improve the quality of the relationship for the mutual benefit of both spouses. A husband and wife desire to not only continue in the relationship, but to improve it. Their actions show a willingness to sacrifice for their spouse and invest in their marriage. They intentionally seek their spouse’s welfare and benefit, and not just their own.
When a couple strengthens their dedication, they picture their future together. They envision growing old together as a couple. They see themselves as grandparents and what life will look like in retirement. And they desire to help each other grow and see their spouse as a gift. They realize their need for the other and know it’s not good for them to be alone (Genesis 2:18).
The bottom line is that every couple can grow in their commitment to each other. We declare big words to each other in our wedding vows, but every day, life, the enemy, and our battle with sin challenge our commitment. Yes we need constraint commitment to help us stick, but on its own, it’s not enough. We need to grow our dedication commitment. In Part 2 of this series on marital commitment, I’ll share six ways we can strengthen our commitment to our spouse.
- Are you stuck together or are you joyfully sticking together?
- Is your marriage characterized by constraint or dedication commitment?