A generation ago, marriage was an obvious and assumed step into adulthood and commitment. Today, many people find themselves wondering, is marriage actually the precursor to either commitment or happiness?!
To what extent does marriage define commitment? To what extent does marriage indicate the security and healthy feelings or behaviors that are meant to come with it? Does marriage contribute to, let alone guarantee fidelity, financial security, trust, or happiness?
Let’s face it, marriage does not in and of itself guarantee a commitment.
We are all too aware of the statistics about infidelity and divorce. So walking down the aisle and signing a document do not in any way guarantee a real commitment.
At the same time, the experience of commitment is a necessary component of a healthy, securely functioning bond that lasts.
The reason for this is that commitment provides several necessary psychological conditions necessary for a relationship functioning. One, commitment signals a safety that contains the inevitable ups and downs, arguments, disappointments, separations and hurt feelings that come in any healthy relationship.
Couples who make it to the stage of commitment enjoy an enormous sense of safety which actually helps their fighting and arguing feel more contained and more solution-oriented. It is the basic mindset that “no matter what we’re up against, we’re going to figure it out.” When there is not an exit strategy, the motivation to come to disagreements with a solution mindset is much greater.
A solution mindset is absolutely crucial to a healthy relationship. Couples in unhealthy relationships fight as if they are in a courtroom where one person will be found guilty and punished! In the absence of commitment, the inherent “punishment” is breakup!
Healthy couples fight as if they are struggling to reach a mutual understanding in which they make things better for both people…. Because Obviously no one is going to be tried and hung! This is your boat partner, you want them alive and well!
So commitment is necessary for a relationship to be truly healthy over the long haul. Sometimes, people commit to giving their best to one another but do not marry or make a similar long term, indefinite commitment, because they realize that they are either in a certain phase of their life or there may be other reasons to separate. These relationships can function in a healthy way, and the partners can agree to separate for good reasons.
But what if you want a relationship to last your lifetime, and/or to support children? Clearly, commitment is going to aid the healthy functioning of that bond. The next question is whether marriage is the way or the only way to achieve that commitment.
I believe that the answer to that question has to be answered between the two people making that commitment. The benefits of marriage are important to consider.
The ceremony is meant to be a right of passage, an alchemical transformation in which two people transform into something they were not prior to the ceremony. For many people this ceremony is a spiritual and religious event in which a higher power is instrumental in that transformation.
Whatever your faith, you might agree that a sacred mystery occurs when two people vow to place one another and the bond as important as themselves.
Our human egos are wired to protect our own wellbeing; to commit to make this other person as important as yourself and to truly understand that your partner’s emotional, physical and spiritual wellbeing is in no way separate from your own is a radical surrender and transformation.
I do believe that a healthy, committed, long term relationship must undergo this right of passage. However, some couples do undergo this transformation without the legal papers of a marriage document. Some undergo it with the legal papers but without a fancy ceremony or party.
I would argue that the legal portion of marriage does tend to hold people accountable to their commitment, but that it does not make the commitment or the bond healthy. People in a healthy bond will want to hold themselves accountable with or without any legal consequences.
So, in summary, a healthy, committed relationship that lasts over a lifetime is a radical and extraordinary achievement.
It requires and deserves a transformation deep within each individual. While a marriage ceremony and the legal ties that go along with it absolutely serves this purpose for some couples, I would not argue that either the ceremony or the legal ties can be assumed to contain this transformation. Nor is it the only way to obtain the transformation.
So if it is an extraordinary, lasting relationship you want, look inside yourselves and ask if you are ready for that right of passage called marriage. If you are, design the ceremony, the community participation, the legal circumstances, and the spiritual assistance that you need to achieve this!
I am a psychologist, psychoanalyst, author and teacher who helps clients get to the root of and heal their relational difficulties. Download my free eBook "How to Be an Extraordinary Partner" or enroll in my Marriage & Commitment Course today!
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