The difference between involvement
and commitment is like ham and eggs.
The chicken is involved; the pig is committed.
– Martina Navratilova
“Why do you marry these men?” I asked when she announced her engagement to husband number six. “Why not just date them, or move in with them?” I said, knowing that one time she’d married a man she’d met only four weeks earlier while having coffee in Starbucks.
Her answer: “I marry because I believe in making a commitment.”
She meant this sincerely. Beverly believed that each time she’d said “I do,” she was making a commitment. If commitment merely meant putting two feet in, I’d have to agree. But commitment reaches far beyond our initial steps in. Commitment is about stepping in and then staying with what we’ve stepped into.
Beverly had no trouble declaring her undying love and commitment in the fair weather days of courtship. What she had trouble with was the part that came next: the part where marriage gets dark and stormy, sometimes for days; the part where we’re lonely and cold and it can be hard to imagine that we’ll ever see sunshine again. The part where we’re wondering what we were thinking when we got ourselves into this crazy mess in the first place. Which is precisely where making a commitment really pays off.
Nearly fifty percent of people who vow to stand by each other for better or worse, decide, at some point, that they’ve changed their minds. Given the rigors of marriage, I’m not all that surprised. Marriage is a demanding endeavor and every one of us steps in while initially lacking the skills we will need in order to be successful.
Unfortunately, marriage cuts us no slack just because we’re beginners. Marriage demands, from day one, that we learn to handle our differences, that we understand ourselves and our partner, and that we learn to stay calm under pressure. It requires that we advocate for ourselves, while being considerate of each other; that we effectively learn to fight and then make peace, that we somehow maintain our perspective even when we’re in over our heads.
When I got married, I had no idea that I was signing up for all that. I stepped in and only then could I know what marriage would require.
When my kids were young, the whole family took a trip to Disneyland. Despite the fact that I’m terrified of heights, I let myself get talked into accompanying my eight-year-old son on a rocket ship ride. Within seconds of liftoff, I knew I’d made a mistake. While he was gleefully pretending that he was an astronaut, I was in the seat behind him, white-faced and queasy, gripping the handrail. There I was, some twenty feet in the air, going around and around for a period of time just short of eternity.
Take a deep breath, I said as I contemplated my options. I had quickly ruled out the possibility of having them stop the ride. Can you imagine being the kid whose mother has to come off because she’s in a panic? And clearly I wasn’t going to jump out. The option that remained was to figure out what to do with myself for the duration.
Marriage offers us a similar challenge. When the going gets rough, we can choose to step out or choose to stay in and discover what it will take to make the most of our ride.
Granted, commitment in a marriage requires more than figuring out how to keep oneself from hyperventilating for ten minutes on a ride in Tomorrowland. No one would have a high quality marriage if commitment was simply a matter of refusing to bail or if it meant closing our eyes and gnashing our teeth for, say, fifty years, just waiting for the infernal thing to be over.
Commitment is about willingness. It’s about not only staying on the ride, but mobilizing a desire to tackle what we encounter, one hitch and hurdle at a time. Under stress, when we’re tired, when we have no idea what to do. When things are going well and when we’re at our wits’ end.
As it turns out, the commitment we make is to ourselves. We commit to raise our own standards as a partner, to simply give it our all.
Where do you want your marriage to go? When it’s off course, what will you do? How far and how high are you willing to reach?
Putting two feet in is a starting point, not a destination. The destination, well…that’s up to you.