Unless you’ve just returned from a decade-long trip to Mars, our societal lack of commitment to relationships and marriage shouldn’t be all that surprising to you.
Reva Seth, First Comes Marriage
I’ve been reflecting on Reva Seth’s book, First Comes Marriage, with a goal of applying her ideas to those of us who are already married. This particular chapter has my mind heading off in all sorts of directions…
To summarize, Seth makes the rather obvious point that a marriages flourish best within a context of total commitment. She correctly observes that we live in a commitment-phobic culture, and tend to associate commitment with being trapped. From there her logic gets a bit squishy to me. I hear her saying that within the arranged marriage community the idea that “divorce is not an option” is taken more seriously than it is with us romance-based relationship nuts. I don’t think that’s true (I’m sure some people head the altar with the attitude of, “Well, if this one doesn’t work out I can just trade it in for a different model,” but I haven’t met many of them). What I DO think is true is that people in arranged marriages start out with almost none of the romance-based fog that creates impossible expectations.
The truth is, commitment IS constraint. What’s hard for our anxious selves to trust is that it is a constraint that can be worth it, so long as it reflects a wise and thoughtful commitment. In the arranged marriage community, this sort of thoughtfulness is left in the hands of the “grown-ups,” not the twenty-year-olds. This makes a lot of sense to me, but my attempts to relate this to us already marrieds takes my mind off in several trails. I’ll follow just one of those here….
My economist friend, Scott Cunningham, first helped me understand the concept of “sunk costs” in business. To summarize, sunk costs refer to the investments we’ve made in a project in order to get it off the ground. These are resources we will lose if the project fails. Psychologically, the more we’ve invested in a project, the harder it is for us to admit that it’s not going to work. Sunk costs are what keep people hanging on to bad stocks as they watch their investment go down the drain. I suspect you can see how this can work in marriage. The more years we have in, the more kids we have, and the greater the financial entanglements, the harder it is to admit, “This is not working!” And it’s rarely “good” when we can’t admit to what we are thinking and feeling.
Those of you who are stock-brokers are no doubt familiar with the dictum: If you wouldn’t buy a stock today, then you shouldn’t own that stock today. This is the broker’s way of combating the psychology of sunk costs. Don’t keep losing just because you can’t make peace with what you’ve already lost! Sadly, some people begin to apply this way of thinking to their marriages (“If I wouldn’t marry this person today then I shouldn’t be married to this person today.”) This way of thinking especially takes hold when couples have ignored the issues in the marriage for long enough to move all the way through anger to disaffection (see the Alienation Cycle here).
So, let’s see if I can pull this together… I’m agreeing with Seth that the commitment of marriage can lead to a very rich life. I’m quibbling a bit with her contention that commitment isn’t constraint, because it is. It only begins to be a painful constraint when we’ve not tended to hard work of weeding the marriage garden of unrealistic expectations and anger.