Many American adults choose not to honor their wedding vows when their marriage hits harder times than they expected. The failure of marriage commitments has increased among baby boomers since the 1990s. A recent report from the Pew Research Center cites a divorce rate that has roughly doubled between 1990 and 2015 among adults over age 50.
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The weakness or absence of lasting commitment in many marriages is magnified by the divorce rate of baby boomers who are remarried. Among this group, the divorce rate has tripled since the 1990s.
Younger adults are also contributing to the problem. The divorce rate for adults younger than 50 is about twice that have adults who are older than 50.
Know What Your Commitment Means
Benjamin Karney is a professor of psychology and co-director of the Relationship Institute at the University of California-Los Angeles. In a university report, Karney is quoted stating, “When people say, ‘I’m committed to my relationship,’ they can mean two things. One thing they can mean is, ‘I really like this relationship and want it to continue.’ However, commitment is more than just that.”
Karney and his co-director for the Relationship Institute psychology professor Thomas Bradbury conducted an 11-year study of 172 married couples. They discovered that there is a difference between couples who say, “I like this relationship and I am committed to it,” couples who say, “I’m committed to doing what it takes to make this relationship work.”
Karney and Bradbury discovered that those couples willing to make sacrifices in their marriages and do the work or more likely to remain married. They were also more likely to have happy marriages.
In popular culture, love comes in many flavors—all with the same label but different ingredients. But only one love is infused with lasting commitment. This love is found in marriages where couples willingly make sacrifices for each other. Their love is deeper than the emotional excitement they feel toward each other. Sacrificial love is altruistic, given without self-interest. A husband or wife expressing this love does so to fulfill the needs and dreams of their spouse with the goal of cultivating and sustaining a thriving relationship. It’s the kind of love the Bible refers to in 1 Corinthians 13, known as the love chapter.
Avoid Negative Comparisons
Additional research by psychologist John Gottman sheds light on what contributes to a lasting marriage commitment. Gottman’s research at the University of Washington in Seattle derives its conclusions from decades of studying hundreds of married couples. Gottman has discovered that the way a spouse goes about comparing their partner to other potential or imagined mates has a profound effect on the strength of his or her commitment to the marriage relationship.
We’re familiar with the husbands who compare their wives negatively to other women, and wives who wish their husbands were more like other men. An example is a husband who warms up to the compliments he receives from the attractive woman he works with and dreads going home to his critical wife. Another example is the wife who appreciates the kind compliments on her appearance she receives on her appearance from the kind man next door and wishes her husband would turn off the TV and notice her more.
A spouse who contrasts her partner’s negative attributes against more desirable attributes sets themselves up to betray their commitment. He or she entertains thoughts that they can do better. By doing this, they imagine themselves being happier with a different person, perhaps someone they know or a stranger they meet in a bar or online. Many fall into the illusion that images they see in pornography can become their reality. People in marriages where one or both spouses have slipped into this pattern chip away at their commitment until no desire remains to work on and solve problems that inevitably arise between married couples.
Focus on Your Spouse’s Best Attributes
All spouses make comparisons. Those who make positive comparisons focus on their own partner’s best attributes.
Consider the wife who appreciates her husband’s public displays of affection. He holds her hand as they walk through the mall. He also compliments her in front of friends. Husbands who display public affection for their wives seem rare to her, and she grows to value her husband more in comparison to other husbands.
Or consider the husband who appreciates that his wife flirts with him. He likes that she brushes against him when they’re working together in the kitchen. She smiles and winks from across the room. She also sends kisses to him via text messages while he’s at work. He doesn’t know any other men whose wives give them as much attention as his wife gives him.
A spouse who feels gratitude for their partner’s positive attributes is likely to feel that losing their partner would be disastrous. Their appreciation of their spouse’s positive traits cements their commitment to the relationship and erects a wall of security around their marriage.
Adjust Your Focus, When Necessary
The problem of failed marriage commitments is one that has a solution. The solution is in married persons adjusting their focus. One useful adjustment is to not think so much of their own needs and wishes that they fail to honor the needs and wishes of their spouse. The other adjustment is to focus on and cultivate an appreciation for their spouse’s best characteristics.
A version of this post also appeared on LifeZette.com.