Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

How Committment Makes Marriage Last

May 23, 2011

Why do some couples stay married despite major troubles while others divorce because they feel they aren’t as happy as they think they should be? It is in the level of commitment they share. Level of commitment derives from three factors: level of satisfaction, size of investment, and the quality of alternatives.

1. Level of satisfaction. Couples experience commitment when important needs are being met and the attachment they feel toward the romantic partner meets those needs. Thus, the more a person "needs" the relationship, the more likely he or she will choose to remain.

Despite the tendency of our individualistic culture to label dependency as bad, it is essential for successful relationships. What relationships need is interdependence, a voluntary and healthy form of dependency.

When there is a balance of power in the relationship, there is less opportunity for exploitation or abuse of power. Interdependence is the opposite of power. There is equality in their decision-making and each is able to influence the other. A relationship is pleasurable when couples cooperate. They become involved with each other’s efforts and accomplishments and unselfishly give of themselves to each other.

Unequal dependency occurs when partners differ as to how central their relationship is compared to other forms of life satisfaction. When both partners place similar value on their relationship, they allow more of their needs to be met and their mutual commitment grows.

We develop feelings of dependency and attachment when our partner:

- has similar attitudes and goals.

- has care and concern for our interests and well-being.

- is able to give empathic understanding, acceptance and emotional security.

- freely expresses his or her deep personal thoughts, feelings, fantasies, hopes and dreams.

- draws close to us with physical affection and sexual fulfillment.

- shows a strong liking for our positive qualities.

Ideas about what love is and how it is expressed influence our judgments on how satisfied we are. Feelings of satisfaction are influenced by the type of relationships we experienced with past romantic attachments, parents and friendships.

2. Investment in marriage. The value of a relationship grows with time. A couple accumulates a store of shared experiences that give their lives meaning. The size of the investment binds couples together.

Over time, couples depend on each other's habits of thinking, expression and basic assumptions. They become increasingly accurate in anticipating and correctly identifying their partner’s feelings and attitudes.

Couples also use each other to remember past events. They don’t have to remember a particular event or detail because they know their partner remembers it. The more interdependent a couple is, the more their memories

are jointly held between them. To lose a partner is to lose memory - to lose a part of oneself.

More importantly, a person comes to view him or herself on how their partner sees and responds to him or herself. Personal identity is strengthened when couples share common meanings, perceptions and understandings.

Relationships blossom when partners give each other freedom, support and acceptance in helping each other grow and develop along unique paths. A partner’s support and encouragement helps a partner express his or her best self.

Their investment becomes an investment in each other. It grows as they aid each other in becoming the good and desirable person each wants to be. Their relationship has a history of the many reciprocal acts of love and personal sacrifice each has made for the other’s well-being.

Social and cultural ties. The couple gathers mutual friends, shared financial commitments, possessions, children and in-laws. There are memories, love and obligations that are uniquely associated with their relationship. They bind each other together. The welfare of the children is a powerful inducement to maintain their marriage. Divorce is expensive in both financial and emotional costs.

Each partner also has a set of cultural and religious norms about the appropriateness of when and under what conditions a marriage should be dissolved. The strength of these norms and the social costs of violating them are a consideration in keeping their marital vows.

3. Quality of alternatives. In the past, couples in unhappy marriages went to great lengths to work out their difficulties. Now there is less tolerance for abuse, alcoholism, chronic conflict, and infidelities. Even so, divorce is bleak and daunting when one considers the economic and social consequences, especially when children are involved.

In abusive relationships, low income, low education, and no money on hand are factors in preventing women from leaving. Low self-esteem, reinforced by the abusive partner, convinces dependent partners that they are not going to get their needs met elsewhere.

There are periods when marriage satisfaction dwindles, when reality does not meet expectations. During these times of vulnerability, an attractive alternative may become a threat to a relationship. Couples with strong commitments ignore or minimize the attractive qualities of others.

They also put on rose-colored glasses when it comes to their marriage. They minimize negative qualities or flaws in their relationship. They redefine destructive past events in more benign ways. They over-estimate how influential they are in their ability to control the course of the relationship. Finally, they keep hope alive that the future of their relationship will be good.

These three factors, level of satisfaction, size of investment and quality of alternatives that help couples act constructively when their marital partner engages in an action that is potentially destructive to their relationship.

It is the research of the late psychologist Caryl Rusbult that helped define this investment model of commitment in romantic relationships.