As I reflect on all the couples I have counseled over the years, I have come to the conclusion that the ultimate secret to their success depended on one thing: commitment. In fact, studies have shown* that the number one reason for divorce is not money or infidelity but lack of commitment. The couples that successfully get through crises are the ones who are committed to their marriage.
In our disposable society, a marriage is as expendable as a computer. You buy it knowing that you will have to replace it within a few years. But a marriage is not a computer. It is a serious commitment that requires work, and while it may seem much easier to leave the relationship when the going gets tough, the truth is that it is not necessarily so.
Most of us already know the damage divorce can do to our children, our health, and our wealth, and many people decide to stay married for these very reasons, including some who have no real hope for it to improve. They think they married the wrong person and that if they could marry someone else, it would be better. They may not intend to terminate their relationship, but the thought does cross their mind.
In order for a marriage to improve, a mental shift must take place. You must commit to success instead of looking elsewhere for something or someone better. If divorce is always an option lurking in the back of your mind, you lack the commitment to make it work and you will not be able to be fully present in your relationship.
It takes two to tango
Part of being committed to your marriage or at least trying to make it work is to realize that it is not all about the other person. What do you bring to the table?
Most of the things that really bother us about our partner are only partially about them and largely about us.
A relationship takes two to tango; there is never one party that is entirely innocent. What responsibility do you take in your relationship? Is your spouse an evil monster with psychological problems or do you play a role in triggering such undesirable behavior? Most of the things that really bother us about our partner are only partially about them and largely about us. Why would a particular incident bother you tremendously but appear insignificant to your friend? Each one of us has our own unique history as well as natural tendencies.
We may have grown up feeling ignored or not fully heard by our parents. It is no wonder when we try to get our spouse’s attention and he/she is checking email and not responding that it may stir up strong feelings for us. Maybe our spouse was in the middle of something important and not intentionally ignoring us, but we feel emotionally charged by the incident.
Our external triggers, as real as they may be, are only a symptom of a greater problem. That problem is our story and ourselves. By working on ourselves and becoming more conscious about why we react the way we do, we can learn how to be more effective in relationship and have more compassion for our spouse. Begin to notice how much ownership you can take for your feelings/reaction. How is this conflict compelling you to grow?
Furthermore, these points of conflict are a blessing in disguise. Marriage is ultimately an opportunity for growth and healing. The challenges that we face are there to do just that, to challenge us to become better and more balanced people. A woman who is exceedingly proper and rigid about manners marries a man who is sarcastic, loud, and loves to rock the boat. While these issues cause friction in their relationship, their frustrations with each other are really a call for them to become more complete people. He needs to work on becoming a little more appropriate and she can benefit from lightening up a bit.
Couples in crisis who want their marriage to succeed and are willing to invest in their relationship are almost always successful.
In my experience, couples in crisis who want their marriage to succeed and are willing to invest in their relationship are almost always successful. This holds true even for the most egregious breaches of a marriage. It is astonishing how even in such cases it is possible to salvage a marriage by committing to making it work. The ones who lack that commitment are the ones who don’t always make it.
Even in a case where only one spouse is committed, the changes he or she can make on their own can have a ripple effect and shift the inertia of the relationship. While it will be much harder than if both are committed, when one spouse begins to change and create safety in the relationship, it often allows for the other one to let down the walls of resistance and leads towards greater connection.
While you may be afraid of committing, once you decide to commit, you will actually feel much more relieved. A quote from a Starbucks cup: “The irony of commitment is that it’s deeply liberating- in work, in play, in love. The act frees you from the tyranny of your internal critic, from the fear that likes to dress itself up and parade around as rational hesitation. To commit is to remove your head as the barrier to your life.” It is often the case that indecision is what feels so uncomfortable and enslaving. Once we muster the courage to decide to commit, that stagnant energy can now move and propel you forward for the good.
Excerpted from Rabbi Slatkin’s new book Is My Marriage Over: The Five Step Action Plan to Saving Your Marriage, available for download at www.theRelationshipRabbi.com/is-my-marriage-over
* With this ring . . . A national survey on marriage in America. (2005). Gaithersburg, MD: The National Fatherhood Initiative