When I got married over five years ago, I wondered how things might be different after we tied the knot. Would it feel different? Would making a formal commitment really matter in our relationship?
It does feel different.
For one thing, the stakes are higher. There are legal consequences for breaking the commitment.
But I have to say, declaring our vows before our community felt very powerful. It set the intention for how we want to BE with each other.
It’s like we put our stake in the ground, before our God, before our family, and said “I vow to do THIS.”
In a sense, that was the social and emotional threshold that we crossed.
Sure, we don’t need to make vows to decide how we’re going to be with each other.
But, in my opinion, and in the opinion of authors and experts on intention: a clearly declared intention—a vow—is a very powerful force.
And it plays a huge role in the success and longevity of our relationships.
It can mean the difference between a relationship that lasts and one that’s destined to end.
When Is Commitment Necessary? (and When It’s Not)
Intentions shape our attitudes about a relationship.
So when we go into a relationship with the intention to “just have fun,” we typically don’t have “long term” in mind—or we’re certainly not giving off that vibe.
The problem is, people often do a hybrid version of recreational dating and committed dating…such as going into a relationship to “have fun” and “just see what happens,” but then fall for him, get emotionally attached and be heartbroken when he doesn’t want to commit.
This is why it’s so important to be clear about the type of dating that you’re in.
When you’re just having fun, you’re typically not concerned about whether he’s marriage material. (if you’re truly in recreational dating mode, that is).
The bottom line is, in recreational dating you’re dating just to have fun, you don’t need commitment in the relationship because the purpose of the relationship to have fun.
And to be clear, there’s nothing wrong about having a recreational relationship. It’s ok to want some no-strings fun, if that is the kind of relationship that you want right now.
But in a recreational relationship, when the fun ends, so does the relationship.
When people try to get a commitment in a recreational relationship, or try to get a commitment when one person in the relationship isn’t ready to make a commitment or unsure about it, that’s when things get really messy and painful because you have two intentions at odds with each other.
When Commitment Serves a Crucial Purpose
Commitment is necessary in a long-term relationship where, in part, the purpose of the relationship is to be together for “the long haul.”
Maybe that means through sickness and health, but it definitely means a commitment to each other beyond “just having fun.”
The intention in a committed relationship is different from a recreational relationship in that in a committed relationship, there’s an attitude of commitment—the attitude that we’re in this together through life’s ups and downs.
There’s no attitude that the relationship is going to end “when the fun stops.”
And as I mentioned in my article about commitment in dating and relationships (which lists the criteria for commitment), there needs to be an agreement about what commitment means in the relationship AND what you’re committing to.
So in addition to declaring that you’re both making a commitment (whether that means marriage or another form of a long-term partnership), having awareness of what specifically you’re committing to, such as committing to be true to each other, committing to be dependable, and knowing what that commitment looks like in action, is really important for the success of the relationship.
And then there needs to be alignment in attitude and action.
It’s both having the attitude and taking action on the commitment that you’ll work through whatever conflicts or issues come up in your relationship, and that you’re not going to bounce when the going gets tough.
So is Commitment Necessary?
It depends on the kind of relationship that you want – whether you want a relationship to just have fun or you want a long-term committed relationship.
And your relationship relationship requirements matter, too.
There are lots of kinds of relationships out there.
There are long-term open relationships. There are marriages. There are domestic partnerships.
Whatever arrangement you choose to have, what matters to your long-term happiness is that your needs and relationship requirements are met in your relationship.
Are There Benefits to Commitment? What the Research Says
Most people want commitment.
We have a powerful need and desire for coupling that drives us into and out of relationships.
The desire for partnership is pervasive and universal, reaching back to the origin of our species, spanning almost every culture and civilization.
We have a drive towards commitment because we are social beings and there is security in commitment (by the way, if you want to learn more about the psychology of commitment, attachment theory, and how it impacts your “relationship style,” you can nerd out here, here and here).
Eighty-five percent of people marry at least once. In a recent survey, 94% of young adults stated that finding a “soul mate” was one of their highest goals.
Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs gives us a clue to what we want in relationships.
Once our physical needs are met (food, shelter, sex) we pursue our higher order needs, such as emotional needs for love and pleasure, and our spiritual needs such as meaning and purpose.
As a society, many of us have secured our physical needs, and are evolving to prioritize our emotional and spiritual needs.
Despite the high failure rate of marriage and the availability of other options, why are we still driven to pair up in monogamous, committed relationships?
According to relationship research, there are many benefits to a committed relationship beyond survival of the species:
- REGULAR, SAFE, GOOD SEX: Committed, monogamous partners tend to have more, and better sex than singles and non-committed partners.
- COMPANIONSHIP: We are social beings and are comforted by closeness. Married people tend to be healthier, happier, and live longer than singles.
- INTIMACY: Emotional closeness, love, trust, mutual support, builds and improves over time in a committed relationship, and is much more difficult to achieve in quality and quantity outside of a committed relationship.
- FAMILY: Both children and adults thrive in an environment of stable, long-term, multi-generational relationships.
- ECONOMICS: Committed couples tend to be financially more successful than singles and non-committed partners.
- COMMUNITY: Extended family, neighbors, churches, and other forms of networks of supportive relationships thrive on the stability of committed relationships.
- MENTAL/EMOTIONAL/PHYSICAL HEALTH: Married adults tend to live longer and have fewer mental/emotional problems.
Commitment Can Help When Your Relationship is Struggling
There was one research finding that blew me away because it gives hope to couples who may be struggling.
In The Case for Marriage by Linda Wade and Maggie Gallagher the research results on happiness and divorce said that two thirds of unhappily married spouses who stayed married reported that their marriages were happy five years later.
In other words, the research says that the odds are two out of three that if you are struggling right now, in five years you will be happy.
In the book, they call this the “marital endurance ethic.”
It says that if you stick it out, things will get better.
There’s a light at the end of the tunnel.
There’s a rainbow at the end of the rain.
And when you are in a relationship and you are stressed, you are frustrated, you are in despair, remember that things change, things will not be like this forever.
So that’s important information.
Of course, these are numbers. These are statistics.
There’s more that needs to be said about what actually happens in those five years, other than the passage of time, that helps the relationship improve.
Maybe in those five years the couple lets go of the grievances, forgives one another, and time heals the wounds.
But it would be way too simplistic to say that two out to three relationships end up happy if they just stick it out.
I believe there’s a lot that comes into play in the success of a relationship, including alignment in your visions and relationship requirements, as well as your relationship skills.
Commitment is the Glue
If you want a strong relationship, one that can withstand the ups and downs, you need commitment.
Commitment is the glue.
Think about when you’ve committed to something in your life.
Like a commitment to lose 20 pounds or a commitment to finish school and get your degree…
When you truly commit, you become unstoppable.
When you commit, you direct your intention—and therefore your energy—to the success of a goal.
And in a relationship, it’s a shared goal: creating and living your shared vision.