One of the most frequently asked questions we hear from people (mostly women) these days is: “What is it about men and commitment?” If you look closely at this question you might notice a few things about it. First of all, it’s not actually a question, but rather an assertion with a question mark at the end of it. It presumes that there is a problem that men have with commitment specifically with regard to relationships The implication is that commitment is a “men’s” issue. Terms such as “commitment-phobic” further reinforce the idea that there is something irrational or fear-based going on with someone who is reluctant to engage in a committed partnership. We are not saying that this suggestion may not have some truth to it, but rather, pointing out the difference between asserting a “truth” and expressing a concern. The danger in making sweeping statements is that they tend to be overly inclusive and highly generalized, and therefore, not necessarily accurate.
So, before we respond to the “question” about men and commitment, we usually try to move from the general to the specific and find out more about the concern underneath the statement. It’s generally not a bad idea to find out more about what that person actually means by the word “commitment,” a term that can have multiple meanings. For example the American Heritage dictionary defines “commitment ” in a number of ways including: “giving in charge or entrusting; a pledge to do something; the state of being bound emotionally or intellectually to some course of action; contractual engagement involving financial obligations; and, official consignment to a prison or mental hospital.” Emotionally bound, obligated, prisons and mental hospitals – such associations with commitment don’t do a lot to make the concept seem particularly appealing, yet these are some of the primary understandings that we have regarding the meaning of this term. Is it any wonder that many of us, men AND women, particularly those who have had unsuccessful or painful experiences with failed relationships, are hesitant to step back into the fire?
And yet, as many of us know, commitment itself isn’t inherently oppressive or liberating. It is neither limiting nor limitless. Neither is it difficult nor effortless. Commitment is simply a stance that one takes in relation to something that is held as valuable and worth sustaining. It is a means through which we affirm a vow or intention to honor an agreement that transcends our comfort, emotions, or personal preferences. It is commitment that enables a parent to awaken four times a night to attend to a crying child. It is commitment that allows an athlete to endure physical discomfort. And it is commitment that allows a couple to stay together, to remain loving in the face of fear or anger, and to be present with each other when their strongest impulses are to disengage, attack, or explode. Commitment allows us to go beyond our most basic survival and ego-based instincts. It is our ability to make conscious commitments rather than be ruled by our emotions that enables us to achieve the full measure of nobility that human beings are capable of.
In his keynote address to the Smart Marriages conference in 2002, Scott M. Stanley PhD. cited a survey of 2300 Oklahoma residents in which 85% of those who had been divorced cited “lack of commitment” as the major reason for the divorce. This “commitment deficiency” showed up on the parts of both men and women. Of the couples who had not divorced, 34% stated that there were times when they thought that their marriage was in serious trouble. Ninety-two percent of this group stated that they were glad that they were still together. And in another study, conducted by Linda Waite, entitled “Does Divorce Make People Happy?” two thirds of those who had experienced great unhappiness in their marriage and stayed together were happy five years later.
Stanley’s conclusion is that while Americans generally believe that once a marriage is down, it’s done – this is often not the case. In actuality, while some marriages will not improve over time, a large percentage of troubled marriages do, and “in the end, many get to a very different place in life.” A significant factor in his process has to do with whether or not a couple shares a clear vision of a future together. While marriage alone of course cannot assure a fulfilling future, it does provide a certain sense of greater permanence that supports a feeling of personal and relational security that enables couples to more successfully hang in there through the inevitable tough times.
Strikingly, Stanley found in a nationwide survey that married men were just as dedicated to maintaining their marriage as were married women. In the same poll, co-habiting unmarried couples were less dedicated to their partners regardless of the amount of time that they had lived together than their married counterparts. Both men and women stated that while they were not averse to living with someone with whom they enjoyed a comfortable relationship, their standards for marriage were considerably higher. Ninety-four percent of young adults stated that they were not willing to marry someone who they didn’t feel was their “soul mate”. The most frequently-described definition of a soul mate is “someone who will take me as I am and not try to change me.” A larger percentage of men than women expressed a strong concern that their marital partner would accept them without conditions.
This degree of acceptance, while desirable, is a tall order for most people. If someone expects unconditional love, then they had better be prepared to provide that to their partner as well. Doing so requires the willingness to accept each other as is, including the judgments, expectations, and criticisms that most of us, at least on occasion, experience. If it becomes a deal-breaker for your partner to judge you, then you are just as guilty of judgment and blame as they are, and if unconditional love is a prerequisite for healthy relationships, then just about all of us are doomed.
A loving partnership, marriage or otherwise, requires tolerance, and forgiveness of our all-too-human weaknesses and imperfections. Waiting for the perfect soul mate will probably result in a pretty lonely life. Rather than waiting, we might instead want to use our precious life energies cultivating patience, compassion, self-acceptance, kindness, and forbearance. When these qualities become more fully integrated within ourselves, we don’t need to find the perfect soul mate because we have accepted the perfection of our own imperfections. True soul mates don’t provide an experience of ongoing bliss for each other, but rather share a partnership in which the commitment is to each other’s growth towards wholeness. While this path may be fraught with obstacles and challenges, its fruits are unimaginably sweet and beyond measure. Try it and see.