“If you really love someone, you shouldn’t have to work at it.”
That’s what High School Musical star Vanessa Hudgens told CosmoGIRL! for its August 2008 issue. This young celebrity was speaking out loud what millions of people privately think: Loving feelings should come naturally in a relationship, so if you have to work at it, something’s wrong. But the truth is exactly the opposite: If you truly love someone, you will work hard for the relationship.
Rock or Sand
Jesus spoke of a house that was built on sand and shaken by storms, while another house was built on rock and remained unmoved. One of my greatest surprises as a relationship analyst is just how many of us build our marriages on the sand of feelings instead of the rock of commitment. But I’ve been encouraged to see that truly committed couples are able, with God’s help, to thrive even through the inevitable storms.
Over a five-year period, a close friend sent me e-mails sharing about her struggles with her marriage. She went from daily messages that read, “I can’t take this anymore!” to e-mails saying, “He is such a gift to me.” What accounted for the change? Her determination.
As she now says, “A successful marriage has little to do with circumstances and a lot to do with determination — taking the word divorce out of your vocabulary and replacing it with commitment.”
Commitment is a decision to have the abundant marriage God desires, regardless of circumstances or whether you think your spouse is doing his or her part. This includes:
- Realizing that marriage is an unbreakable covenant before God. At weddings, Atlanta minister Barry Grecu explains that ancient Hebrew culture understood a covenant not as a contract, which could be broken, but as a binding, permanent agreement — just like the covenant God makes with us.
- Choosing to “do it until you feel it.” We often let our feelings guide our actions, but we are actually built for the opposite. Our Creator has designed us so that when we love another person with our actions, our feelings inevitably follow.
- Focusing on the good in our spouse and the sin in ourselves — instead of the other way around. If you’re dissatisfied with your marriage, try this challenge: For the next 30 days, don’t say anything negative about your spouse — neither to him or her nor to someone else. Every day, find something you appreciate about your spouse, and verbalize it. This marital application of Philippians 4:8 (which instructs us to focus on whatever is praiseworthy) has the power to transform a marriage. When we examine and work to change ourselves, we often bring out the best in our spouse as well.
- Engaging in Christian community, prayer and discipleship — especially when you don’t want to. These three aspects of the Christian life help sustain every believer, but they are particularly essential for those going through a difficult season.
- Relying on God to help you act selflessly toward your spouse. As Grecu puts it, “We are incapable of living out our covenant promises in our own human strength. Jesus says, ‘Apart from Me you can do nothing’ and calls us to engage with the Spirit of God being lived out through us.”
Is Commitment Possible?
The often-cited statistic that 50 percent of marriages end in divorce — even among churchgoers — can make commitment seem fruitless. But that statistic is misleading. Dozens of studies distinguish between couples who claim a nominal faith and those who prioritize church attendance. Couples who have a strong commitment to faith and attend church regularly are far more likely to have lifelong relationships.
One recent study in particular shows that those who go to church and pray together have a much lower divorce rate. The University of Virginia’s Brad Wilcox found that regular church attendance cuts the likelihood of divorce by 30 percent to 35 percent. Wilcox’s work is supported by another study by Annette Mahoney of Bowling Green State University, which independently came to a similar conclusion.
While that rate is still unfortunately high, when you add prayer into the mix, thoughts of divorce plummet. A 1998 survey by the Georgia Family Council found that among couples who prayed together weekly, only 7 percent had seriously considered divorce, compared to 65 percent of those who never prayed together.
The abundant marriage that God has designed for us is not only possible but also likely, and the journey there starts with one word — commitment.
Strengthening Marital Commitment
Marriage requires the same kind of thoughtful planning and deliberate investment that we give to our physical health and financial portfolios.
Marriage requires the same kind of thoughtful attention, planning and deliberate investment that we give to our physical health and financial portfolios.
Considering Your Level of Commitment
A good way to start taking inventory of your marriage, assessing its strengths and weaknesses, is to consider your level of commitment.
Ask yourself the following:
- Has your marriage been on auto pilot for so long that neither you nor your spouse have a clue where you’re headed?
- Where would you like to see your marriage go this year?
- Are you committed to making positive changes
- Do you expect your marriage to get better by doing the same things you did last year?
- How committed are you to your marriage for the long haul?
- How committed is your spouse to your marriage?
The Three Levels of Commitment
Commitment is something many claim to have, yet few seem to understand. It is a concept that has been used, abused and improperly modeled for so long that we’ve lost sight of what genuine devotion looks like.
Where marriage is concerned, commitment is the decision to continue in the relationship. Dr. Michael P. Johnson, Sociology Professor at Penn State University, views the decision to continue in a relationship as a function of three different experiences, or levels, of commitment — personal, moral and structural. These three types of commitment can be described as follows:
- Personal Commitment, a.k.a. “I Want To.” If you have a high level of personal commitment to your marriage, you may find yourself saying or thinking, “I want tocontinue in my marriage. I take pleasure in being married. I enjoy being committed to my spouse.”
- Moral Commitment, a.k.a. “I Ought To.” Those with a high level of moral commitment might say, “I believe staying in my marriage is the right thing to do. I’ll stick it out because of my values and beliefs. I made a commitment before God and Ishould keep my word.”
- Structural Commitment, a.k.a. “I Have To.” If you have a high level of structural commitment, the following statements may apply to you: “External constraints are keeping me in my marriage. I have to stay married. I can’t afford the negative consequences of divorce on my finances, my social relationships and the way others might perceive me. Divorce would also be detrimental for my children.”
Although one facet of commitment may sound “better” or more virtuous than another, our relationships benefit from having all three. The active presence of multiple facets, or layers, of commitment makes one’s marital resolve stronger than if only one facet were present. Consider the words of Ecclesiastes 4:12 in this light: “A threefold cord is not quickly broken” (NKJV).
Strengthening Your Level of Commitment
Another important aspect of commitment is that it must be made, or re-made, on an ongoing basis. There’s more to it than just saying you’re committed to your marriage or simply “feeling good” about your relationship. Commitment must be played out in your actions. Instead of allowing yourself to drift away from your spouse, make a deliberate move toward closer relationship. Strengthen and nourish your marital commitment.
Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Pray. Seek God and His will for your life and your marriage. Spend time in honest reflection. Ask Him to show you how to be the spouse He wants you to be. Pray for strength and unity in your marriage.
- Say it with actions. Let your behavior reflect your commitment. Make yourself available when your spouse wants to talk. Spend time alone with your spouse. Laugh together. Date each other. Plan for your future together. Build hedges where necessary to guard against external temptations and distractions.
- Say it with words. Tell your spouse that you are committed to your marriage for the rest of your life. Let your kids know that you and your spouse are committed to each other through thick and thin.
- Remind yourself of all the positive aspects of your relationship. What do you love about your spouse? How has being married blessed you? How has marriage made you grow? What are you thankful for? Ask God to bring these things to mind. Make a list if you have to and review it often.
- Set goals. How would you like to see your marriage grow? What areas would you like to see improve? Map out a game plan to achieve those goals and work toward them. Seek outside help if necessary.
- Get others involved. Surround yourselves with supportive individuals who share your values and want to see your marriage succeed. Form accountability partners. Seek out an older married couple to mentor you and your spouse.
- Go public. Renew your wedding vows. Publicly express your continued commitment to your spouse. Invite friends and loved ones to pledge their support for your marriage.
If you’re struggling in the area of commitment or you’re unsure how to begin strengthening the level of commitment in your marriage, try the following:
- Seek out a licensed, Christian marriage and family therapist or Christian counselorwho specializes in relational commitment issues.
- Attend a marriage seminar.
- Read valid educational materials on commitment, including the rest of the articles in this article series.
Committed When You Don’t Feel Like It
How can you be the spouse God called you to be when you just don’t feel like doing what you know you should?
I see it all the time. We’ve all felt it: the “Hey, what about me?” syndrome. Sometimes it sneaks up on us when we feel that our emotional needs aren’t being met — and we resent it. Or maybe we have a hard-to-love spouse and we’re tired of trying to make things work. That’s when the “Hey, what about me?” syndrome hits. When it comes, and we’re feeling sorry for ourselves — or just plain tired of trying — what can we do?
Choose to make wise decisions. Don’t rely on feelings or emotions when the going gets tough. Our feelings don’t carry us to the right decisions; rather right decisions carry us to right emotions — and positive rewards. Here are a few ways your can exercise your will over your emotions:
- Decide to take “divorce” out of your dictionary. My husband, Bill, and I have counseled couples back to happiness from all kinds of crises: loss of a child, loss of a home, all kinds of addictions, affairs, and a whole lot of “I’m tired of trying.” The Bible does give a few allowances for what we call the 3 A’s (Affairs, Abuse, Abandonment) — but just because you feel you can file for divorce doesn’t mean youshould! Look at Hosea and Gomer in the Bible. That’s redeeming love, the kind of love God specializes in. If you decide before God to take divorce out of your vocabulary, then He can meet you at this decision point and begin rebuilding your desire for marriage and your desire for your mate. If you have to dig up some motivation, think of:
- your kids.
- all the time your have invested in this relationship.
- the stat that has shown that couples who are miserable now, but stick it out a few years later, rate their marriages and lives happier than those who went ahead and got the divorce.
Just start where you can. Start by saying, “Ok God, I am deciding to stick it out.” Even if you don’t feel like you want to. Tell Him you’re willing to be made willing.
- Decide to choose joy. Sometimes life is not fair. Sometimes marriage isn’t fair. It is for richer or for poorer, sickness or health, and for better or worse. Jim and Sally Conway, in their book titled Traits of a Lasting Marriage, surveyed couples who had long-term happy relationships and the secret they discovered was that those couples had decided to be in long-term happy marriages!Deciding to choose joy, to be a happy person regardless of the circumstance, is a decision that will create happiness. If you go looking for happiness as the goal, you’ll never find it, because you have no control over circumstance and you don’t have control over your spouse. But you do have control over yourself and your emotions. If you choose joy, soon you will find you have it. Some things to help you choose joy might be:
- Finding a prayer partner of the same sex to pray — not for your spouse, but for you! Have your prayer partner pray that you can experience all God’s best regardless of the choices your spouse makes.
- Making a list of the best traits of your mate, (there may only be a few) then deciding to compliment one each day.
- Doing things you love that are not related at all to your relationship: lunch with a friend, a walk at the beach or lake, a day at the spa even. Sometimes you just need an emotional time-out to regain hope and strength.
- Decide to be the best. A woman asked me if she had to submit to a husband who wasn’t living up to his part of the spiritual leadership bargain. She said, “It doesn’t seem fair.” She’s right. It isn’t fair. Nonetheless, both spouses can’t just wait it out to see who will step up to the plate and be the bigger, better person. Someone has to choose to serve the other in love first. You can hold on to being right, but you will probably be left holding just your opinion — and not your marriage.I always recommend to women that they obey God, submit to Him and seek to please Him — then trust Him with the results in their relationship. In over 25 years, I can’t remember one woman who was ever sorry she obeyed God. Even if she couldn’t save her marriage, she saved her integrity — and her spouse’s behavior couldn’t take that away.
Life is full of choices. Obedience is a path to God’s protection for you and your future. Wisdom is a gateway to happiness (Proverbs 3:13-20). We need to remember these things and make wise decisions for life — even when we don’t feel like it.
The Half-Hearted Marriage
Commitment means making a choice to give up other choices.
Why Do Couples Fear Commitment?
Commitment means making a choice to give up other choices. This simple truth explains why marriage can be so difficult. We don’t like to give up options in life, and our culture screams at us to hang on to them all. But great marriages are based on a deep commitment that casts aside all options but one.
More and more couples fear committing in marriage because they have seen so many marriages fail. Since marriage seems so much like gambling, many hedge their bets. For example, many couples live together to test their relationship, even though studies show that living together before marriage increases the risk of divorce.
Likewise, 94 percent of singles believe that finding one’s soul mate is crucial for marital success. Too often this belief compels singles to search for the perfect mate – someone who does not exist. Fear of making a mistake contributes to this way of thinking.
Sliding vs. Deciding
Reluctance to make a clear choice can lead to a tentative relationship that fails to build lasting love. It has become common to make all sorts of relationship changes without a clear commitment in marriage; this includes having sex, living together and having children. Even once married, people slide into things that are immensely important without really planning. For example, many couples slide into huge credit card debt without talking together about how they are using money. Similarly, and more important, too many couples slide into having children without ever deciding together to be the best parents they can be.
Deciding is very different than sliding. The word decide comes from a root word meaning “to cut.” You cannot make a commitment without deciding to cut off other options that compete against what is most important.
My associates and I have been researching commitment and sacrifice in marriage for years and have been finding fascinating differences between how the average man and woman operate. How the typical man feels about sacrificing for his wife or girlfriend is strongly linked to his commitment to the future with her. Think of sacrifice as all the small, medium and large acts in a relationship when one partner gives up something for the other without resentment. A man tends to give most completely to a woman once he has decided, She is my future.
In contrast, research suggests that women begin sacrificing when they have developed a strong emotional bond with a man. In some relationships, this means that the woman will give up a lot for her man long before he does the same for her. After years of sacrificing, she may end up shocked to find that he won’t commit.
Choose This Day
We live in a “maybe I do” world. There’s a big difference between “I do” and “maybe I do.” You do not need to have said the vow “as long as we both shall love” to be living that way. You are not committed if you have not decided to give up other options and give your all. Sadly, many couples never reach their greatest potential in closeness because their commitment never became clear enough to provide the security
essential for true intimacy. Further, more couples than ever have gone too far down the relationship path by sliding rather than deciding.
When marriage gets tough – and it will get tough at some point – you need the assurance that I chose this; I’m going to do whatever it takes to make it work. Otherwise, it’s too easy to say to yourself, I never really signed on for this.
If that sounds like you, you can still decide, today, to commit to your marriage. Marriages thrive when both partners make choices, each day, for their mate, their marriage and their families.
Ecclesiastes 11:4 says, “Whoever watches the wind will not plant; whoever looks at the clouds will not reap” (NIV). We live in a world of wind watchers. Are you waiting until conditions are perfect before you commit to your marriage?
The Power of Commitment
It is Christ alone who gives us the power to love others in a committed way.
My most brilliant achievement was my ability to persuade my wife to marry me.
— Winston Churchill
The great philosopher Socrates once wrote, “By all means, marry. If you get a good wife, you will become very happy. If you get a bad one, you’ll become a philosopher.”
Some time ago, my parents were visiting and I asked them about the secret to their 55-year marriage. Without hesitation, Dad said, “Senility. I wake up each morning and I can’t remember who this old girl is. So each day is a new adventure.” When Mom finally quit pinching him, he got serious.
“In a word?” he said. “Commitment.”
You don’t have to stand in the checkout line long to know that commitment is not a hallmark of our culture. Standing near the chocolate bars the other day, I picked out a tabloid and read of Rex and Teresa LeGalley, a young couple who want to ensure that their recent marriage will stand the test of time. After all, it was Teresa’s second marriage and Rex’s third. So they drew up a 16-page prenuptial agreement that specifies such details as what time they’ll go to bed, how often they’ll have sex, which gasoline they’ll purchase and who will do the laundry. Says Teresa, “This is the plan that we think will keep us married for 50 or 60 years.”
When I told this to Dad, he had another one-word response: “Ha!”
Occasionally Hollywood surprises us with some good news, though. Famed singer and actress Bette Midler, who has been married for 13 years to artist Martin von Haselberg, was asked about the key to their marriage. Midler responded, “Separate vacations.” Then, like my dad, she got serious. “We’re committed,” she said. “We’re in it for the long haul. Besides, you really don’t get to know a person until you’ve known them a long time, and we don’t know each other yet, even though it’s been 13 years. Sometimes it’s been a struggle, but amazingly we didn’t give up.”
When asked by US magazine about the secret to his 41-year marriage, James Garner, the star of Maverick and The Rockford Files, said, “Consideration. You have to care for [your spouse] and do a lot of forgiving and forgetting. It’s a two-way street. A lot of people don’t get married because they know they can get out of it at any minute. Hey, it was difficult for me to make that commitment, but when I make them, I stick with them.”
Marriage is a Joyful Privilege
I remember reading of an elderly couple whose family had thrown a golden anniversary party for them. The husband was deeply touched by their kindness and stood to thank them. Then he looked at his wife of 50 years and tried to put into words just how he felt about her. Lifting his glass he said: “My dear wife, after 50 years I’ve found you tried and true.” Everyone smiled their approval, but not his wife. She had hearing trouble, so she cupped one hand behind an ear and said, “Eh?” Her husband repeated himself loudly, “AFTER FIFTY YEARS I’VE FOUND YOU TRIED AND TRUE!” His wife shot back, “Well, let me tell YOU something — after 50 years I’m tired of you, too!”
Thankfully, commitment doesn’t need to be like that. Marriage is not a life sentence; it is a joyful privilege. Paul Brand, the missionary doctor who worked for many years among leprosy victims in India, said these challenging words: “As I enter my sixth decade of marriage I can say without a flicker of hesitation that the basic human virtue of faithfulness to one partner is the most joyful way of life … I have always trusted my wife completely, and she me. We have each been able to channel love and commitment and intimacy to one person — a lifelong investment that is now, in old age, paying rich dividends.”
Obedience Breeds Commitment
A friend once told me that his parents always got along. That he had never heard them disagree, and he had certainly never heard them argue. I finally stopped laughing long enough to tell him that I couldn’t say that about Mom and Dad. But I never doubted their commitment to each other. What kept them committed? Simple obedience to the One with whom they had the most important relationship of all.
Often at night, I came into Mom and Dad’s room and found them praying together. Or reading the Bible together. They knew that “unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain” (Psalm 127:1). Mom told me one day, “Only with Christ at the center of our marriage, at the center of our home, at the center of everything we do, can we experience the greatest joy and fulfillment possible.” My wife and I have made a commitment to read the Bible and pray together before we go to sleep each night. We haven’t always achieved that goal. In fact, sometimes we have gone through weeks of neglecting it altogether. But when we follow through on this simple commitment, it can make a world of difference in our marriage. For one thing, I find it very difficult to read passages like Colossians 3:12-14 aloud to my wife without it having a dramatic effect on the way l treat her.
Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
It is Christ alone who gives us the power to love others in this way.
Believe me, ours is not a perfect marriage. But I am far richer when I remember the three “Cs” of a great marriage: Communication. Commitment. Christ.
It may not be the deepest thing you’ll ever read, but I’d rather be a happily married man than a philosopher. Any day.