The romance of commitment

The romance of commitment July 28, 2011

The romance of commitment
(Nola.agent, Flickr)
Men are justifiably famous for lacking commitment, enjoying irresponsibility and freedom as long as we can reasonably stretch it, and oftentimes several yards past that.

One manifestation of this artful dodge is that marriage ages have gone up and up in recent decades along with the cohabitation stats. Divorce numbers bear out the same fact on the back end; younger couples are more likely to divorce than older pairs, likely testament to our immaturity. Commitment, as it turns out, is the province of mature adults, and as scholars like Kay S. Hymowitz argue, men are increasingly foreigners to the region.

There are myriad reasons for the abovementioned realities, and the present state of marriage is heavier fare than this piece can tackle. I only want to address the issue of commitment, its lack and its need.

The former is apparent to all, or at least to most of the women I talk with and also many of the men who avoid the topic. But what of the need?

Passionate feelings will get a relationship off the ground, but they won’t carry it aloft for long. “Sexual desire may be a powerful impetus for bonding in animals but is an enormous barrier to comfortable relations among human beings,” penned psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, no great lobbyist for traditional Christian morality, by the way. “The reason is that sexual desire is rarely exactly reciprocal between two persons….”

We know this intuitively (just ask couples how their sex lives have been over the last couple of weeks), though we often foolishly and selfishly reject the ramifications. But the ramifications are as obvious as they are unavoidable. “[N]o one wants to lust after an unwilling, or even less willing, partner; nor does anyone want to be lusted after, and be the ‘sex object’ of, a more lusting partner,” says Szasz. Ergo, while boundless passion may work wonders if you’re trying to create a hook-up culture, it makes a lousy foundation for a lasting relationship. At some point, usually early on, people’s interests fall out of alignment and the gears clash. If there isn’t more to fall back on, trouble pops up quickly thereafter.

Where mere passion won’t serve, sacrifice will. And not once in a fever. For a relationship to last, partners must be willing to lay down their life over and again, to reliably set mutual interests — even the personal interests of the other — ahead of their own. This kind of mutual submission keeps the gears in sync.

Reliability matters because trust is what counts here. Fickle hearts do not firm marriages make. Women can correct me if I’m wrong, but observation and personal failure tell me that more often than not they want passion backed with promise. Temporary romance can spring and wither like a weed. For real romance to take root and grow, it needs the kind of trust that can only flourish with serious commitment.

Question: What do you think prevents men from commitment?

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  • What prevents men from commitment? Immaturity and perpetual adolescence. I also think that women feed this when they con’t hold men accountable and when they give themselves to men sexually before there is a commitment.

    • Hymowitz has some interesting things to say about this, particularly the idea of pre-adulthood, a sort of elongated adolescence. She points to movies like Knocked Up to make the point. The movie is funny because it rings so true.

    • I know for me – 25 year old guy, something else that roadblocks commitment is simply never having a good example of marriage before me. I’m scared to commit because all I’ve seen are arguments, hurt, and just a little joy. It’s made me think twice about pursuing marriage.

      • Great point, David. I think that’s one reason why cohabitation has basically quadrupled since the 1980s. The bad experience of others can powerfully dissuade us from trying ourselves. It is possible, however, and — from limited experience — wonderfully rewarding. It might be worth seeking out the models you’re not seeing around you now.

      • Thanks Joel!

  • I see the consumer culture mindset playing a role in relationships today. And if men or women view their relationships like they view products, there’s nothing keeping them from always keeping an eye out for the next best thing. I hear this cliche often in movies: why commit to something good if there’s something better out there?

    We don’t commit because we are consumers even in our relationships, scheming to get all we can for free, always looking for the latest and greatest, and breaking up when we feel that our date/spouse no longer “delivers.”

    • There’s truth to that. “Marriage was once a sacrament, then it became a contract, and now it is an arrangement,” said James Q. Wilson. The trouble is that we’re trained to believe there’s always a better arrangement. We need to train our thinking back the other direction — toward sacrament.

      • John Benson

        Joel, I sort of careened of Mike Hyatt’s page to find this; topic intrigues. Am totally there with Covenant and Sacrament. Joan and I hit a hard patch, some years ago, but due to the temporal and eternal meaning of Covenants, from the One who can do no greater than swear by Himself, it didnt enter our heads that we would not stay married. We also had lunch every week, during the hard time. I know covenant is not homologous to sacrament, but both ultimately anchor what we do here and now, in something and Someone of vaster size and scope and strength.

  • James

    I am a single man, well past the age most people marry. Not all single men my age are immature or perpetual adolescents. That is far too broad of brush stroke and an overused cliche. I have seen many of my Christian friends divorce. My own parents, while not divorced, have a lousy marriage. So perhaps I’m afraid to commit because I’m afraid of creating another bad marriage? I believe in the sanctity of marriage. Why am I labeled immature because I’m waiting to make sure both my future wife and I are really ready to take this important step? Many (most?) Christian young people are sleeping together before marriage. After they get married, all of that is swept under the carpet and not discussed anymore because they’re now considered good little Christians who have a passionate, mature marriage and are ready for leadership in the church. Yet I’m still considered immature because I’m single.

    • I certainly wouldn’t say someone is immature because they’re single. The Orthodox celebrate and encourage monasticism for some, and bishops must be celibate. I think there are many men and women who are not given to marriage, are unready for it, or have not found the right match. What Hymowitz and others have tracked is the rise of what they call pre-adulthood, a period that allows men to push back responsibility further than in previous generations. That certainly doesn’t capture the experience of everyone, but it’s a noticeable trend.

      The point of the piece is to say that, given the need for stability and reliability in a relationship, the habits and lifestyle engendered by such pre-adulthood are not conducive to lasting relationships.

      You speak of watching young Christian friends divorce. You speak of me. I’m not holding myself out as someone who has figured all this out and conducted myself perfectly. I’ve failed. In my case it was immaturity that helped end my first marriage. Such a dissolution is complicated but my part was selfishness and being unloving. Living through that dissolution “grew me up” in a lot of ways. I know how to drive a marriage into the ground because I did.

      Commitment isn’t just tying the knot. It’s a lifestyle of putting the mutual interests of the marriage ahead of personal interests. That’s what’s necessary for marriage to flourish and romance to endure.

  • What a huge question. I think, however, we cannot solely blame men. The feminist movement is partly to blame and together with promiscuity (e.g. Sex in the City), pre-marital sex has become the norm rather than an aberration. Why would a guy commit when he can “get what he wants” without commitment? True, that is not the right way of looking at it because sex within a committed relationship is so much better. Yet, I think that is how a lot of guys look at it.

    • I think that’s accurate. The hook-up culture has lowered men’s entry and exit cost where relationships are concerned. Easily accessible pornography might also play into it.

  • Tim

    As a guy in a dating relationship but not yet married. Who wants to be committed to my girl (she’s great, and commitment is what I want for her and myself).

    Is trust and values the only foundation needed really? Bc interest fade and de-align?

    • I’m not sure I understand the question. Here’s a stab at it anyway.

      Trust and values are important, but the content of the trust and the values is what matters. When I mentioned in the comment above that we need to get reacquainted with the idea of marriage as a sacrament, the reason is that there is the power of God’s grace in a sacrament. God’s grace empowers us to mutually submit and sacrifice our own desires. Without it, we can’t succeed in the kind of marriage to which God calls us.

      I’ve written a few other posts about the sacrament or mystery of marriage that might be helpful. You can find them here.

  • Mike

    Part of the reason why many men have not committed to marriage is that:
    A) No-fault divorce
    B) Divorce often favors the woman

    Women initiate 2/3 of all divorces in America, and often it is not for reasons of adultery and/or physical abuse. Furthermore, in some cases “no fault” divorce should be more accurately termed as “ulilateral” divorce, meaning that even if the man doesn’t want the divorce to occur, it can still happen.

    Also consider how much the man loses out in most cases. He often does not get custody of the kids or even in the case of joint custody does not get the be the primary. Unless there is overwhelming evidence contrary to the parenting ability of the mother, she will get the kids (even in the case of a “no fault” situation). Furthermore, financially he often gets the short end of the stick. Before he had to provide for one household, now essentially he’ll have to provide for two off the same income. Adding insult to injury he can’t even write off the kids as dependents at tax time because he doesn’t have primary care, although he still has to pay child support (and not uncommonly alimony as well).

    So it’s no wonder that many men are hesitant to tie the knot, esp when they can get the same benefits (e.g. sex, kids, companionship, etc) without it. “I know you didn’t cheat on me or beat me but I don’t love you anymore. I’m leaving. And oh by the way I’m taking half your stuff with me, and I’m taking the kids”.

    • Mike, thanks. Great points. I’ve not seen that 2/3 figure you mention above. What’s the source of that? I know a guy right now in exactly the situation you describe.

      • Mike

        Source of the divorce rate initiation by gender here:

      • Mike

        Also consider this line in the wiki section.

        “Evidence is given that among college-educated couples, the percentages of divorces initiated by women is approximately 90%”

        Something to think about.

    • John Benson

      I am glad I followed Hyatt to this page. Interesting threads of thought.

  • I’m increasingly convinced that core emotions compel humans to behave the way they do. So what emotions prevent men from living a life of commitment?

    Judging from the comments already posted, it is pretty clear that fear plays an important role. Fear of failing, fear of being responsible for another, fear of losing independence, fear of vulnerability all work to keep men from committing in the first place.

    The more subtle emotion at play is shame. How have we as men made commitment _feel_ like something safe, valuable and worthy of pride for our peers. Except for a quip at anniversary time, I’d say rarely, and instead we harass our friends and relatives with words of shame. “But you are so young!” “Poor guy can’t come out to play because of the ball & chain.” “Come on. Your wife will still love you if you stay late and finish that report.” Our culture shames men into not investing in relationships. It is more common to hear a man complement another on his golf swing than on their commitment to their wife. (Aside: I’ve actually had a twitter follower call me a ‘man-gina’ for wanting to honor my wife with romantic gestures!) In that context, it is no wonder that so many men simply decide commitment isn’t worth it.

    As always, my opinion which is mine.

  • Please stop perpetuating the stereotype of men being not willing to commit, when women are the ones who constantly reject Christ-loving men every day in favour of “bad boys”. If women truly want men to commit to them, they should start accepting invitations to form romantic relationships with men who are looking forward to lifelong commitment.

  • Pauline

    Andrew, It is really hard to accept invitations to form romantic relationships with Christ-loving men when said men never ask them out…it goes both ways.

    • Pauline, it is hard for a Christ-loving man to ask a Christian woman out when her focus and attention are on the “bad boys”. Single Christian women who want Christ-loving men to ask them out need to be friendly and open to Christ-loving men and stop rejecting in their hearts before the men even have the chance to ask.

      • Andrew, I think you might be hanging out with the wrong prospects. There are many, many Christian women that are surrounded by men who simply show little or no initiative.

    • I think this point is exactly right.

      • There are many, many Christian women who, when you show initiative and pursue them, will reject you without a second thought. Then they start complaining about “Christian men afraid of commitment”.

        The point is, please stop thinking that men are the only ones to blame. Women are as equally unwilling to commit to God-centered romantic relationships.

  • Here is a funny video (not made by me) about dating Christian women that is also very sad because it is very true. How is it possible for commitment to exist with this kind of dysfunction?