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For Your Marriage

Marriage Today covers current trends and research pertaining to marriage and family life in today's world.

What Happens to Commitment When the Going Gets Rough?

I never cease to be amazed at all the effort invested in gaining a better understanding of commitment in marriage. Don’t we already know what “commitment” means and why it is essential for couples? Not well enough, according to the researchers who do this kind of work.

A just-published study out of the University of California Los Angeles indicates that commitment in marriage is not one dimensional. The researchers behind the study point to a crucial “second” dimension of commitment that greatly benefits many couples.

A first dimension of commitment is witnessed in couples who are very happy or satisfied in marriage. When a husband and wife truly “like” their relationship, they feel committed to spending their tomorrows together.

But what about couples who feel dissatisfied in their marriages? The hope for them is that a second dimension of commitment comes into play, what the researchers describe as an “inclination to maintain the relationship.” If this happens, the prospects for a troubled marriage could brighten.

UCLA’s Thomas Bradbury, one of the researchers, discussed the findings of the study, which analyzed the relationships of 172 married couples over the first 11 years of marriage. A professor of psychology, Bradbury co-directs the university’s Relationship Institute.

“What kinds of commitment work when the going gets tough?” That is the question to ask, he told me. What marital commitment is needed when “you are not getting what you want in your relationship?”

Bradbury, together with UCLA psychology professor Benjamin Karney, also a Relationship Institute co-director, and Dominik Schoebi, a former UCLA postdoctoral scholar now at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, have just published their study, which is titled lengthily, but informatively: “Stability and Change in the First 10 Years of Marriage: Does Commitment Confer Benefits Beyond the Effects of Satisfaction.”

Schoebi is chief author of the study, published by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Here is the study’s “take-away message,” as Bradbury explained it:

“It is easy to make money in the stock market when the economy is soaring, … it is easy to love your new car when you drive it off the lot — and it is easy to ‘be committed’ to your relationship when all your needs are being met.”

But, Bradbury continued, “there is a tremendous difference between saying you are committed to the relationship versus going the extra mile to demonstrate commitment to the relationship.”

Going that extra mile, he said, “reflects a genuine intention and inclination to do the hard work necessary to check in with your partner, make sacrifices for your partner and put your partner’s needs ahead of your own while expecting nothing in return.”

The couples in the study willing to make sacrifices were more effective in solving their problems, the researchers found. In this context, Bradbury noted that “the second kind of commitment predicted lower divorce rates and slower rates of deterioration” in a relationship.

Commitment, a Resource to Mobilize

The “inclination to maintain the relationship” can fulfill a stabilizing role in a marriage under stress, the study proposes.

However, in addition to its stabilizing role, it appears to me that the inclination to maintain a relationship is a sign of hope for couples because it may result in behaviors that, over time, lead to greater satisfaction for them.

The study suggests that this dimension of commitment could prompt spouses not only to sacrifice on behalf of their marriage, but to discuss hard topics together, make needed apologies, inquire about each other’s feelings or in other ways prioritize the relationship.

How seriously should this kind of commitment be taken? The study concludes that when either a husband or wife is “below average in his or her inclinations to maintain the relationship,” their marriage is “at elevated risk” of eventually breaking down.

Furthermore, “a lack of relationship maintenance efforts on the part of just one partner … may be sufficient to undermine the relationship,” the study says.

It calls commitment’s second dimension a “resource that can be mobilized to prevent negative behaviors and habits from further eroding” a marital relationship under stress.

Moreover, there are signs that as a commitment “component,” it can result in “relationship-enhancing behavior.”

Commitment and Compromise

Karney, the other UCLA professor behind the new study, commented on the two dimensions of commitment it examines.

“When people say, ‘I’m committed to my relationship,’ they can mean two things,” Karney said. Their meaning might be, “I really like this relationship and want it to continue.” However, he stressed that commitment is more than that. “It means doing what it takes to make the relationship successful.”

In a long-term relationship, “both parties cannot always get their way,” Karney said. When a husband and wife have a dispute, one choice for each of them is to say to the other: “You’re wrong. Listen to me!”

But there is a second possible choice. Karney said that if the relationship is “really important to me, I’m willing to say, ‘I will compromise.’” The goal, then, is not “to win this battle.” For, “the behaviors I might engage in to win this conflict are different from those that are best for the relationship.”

Bradbury, too, underscored the need for compromises in marriage. People who end a marriage may say that “they were very committed” to it, he observed. But successful couples in the study “were able to shift their focus away from whether ‘I win’ or ‘you win’ to, ‘Are we going to keep this relationship afloat?”

That, said Bradbury, “is the ideal.”

About the author 
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.