Chapter 16 Commitment and Loving More Than One Person

Chapter 16 Learning Objectives

Upon reading this chapter, the student should be able to:

  • Discuss the concept of commitment and the ethical priorities commitments involve and require.


Watch this video or scan the QR code to see learn more about loving two people at the same time.

I have no doubt that most people, if not all, could fall in love with and be loved by any of a number of different people. One is deluding oneself to think his or her spouse is the only person he or she could have been happily married to. Otherwise, it would be miraculous ever to find one’s love anywhere among the billions of people on the planet, let alone in the same neighborhood, church, classroom, office, bar, or party. Of course, in some anxious cases it seems difficult to find any sort of even pleasant date let alone ideal mate, but for the most part, one probably meets a number of people throughout one’s lifetime to whom one could be satisfactorily or well- married.

Unfortunately, sometimes one finds such other people, and is mutually attracted to them, while one is in another relationship and having some difficulty in it. The temptation then is sometimes to end the first relationship and begin a new one. Almost any relationship where time is spent together, whether it is at work, at college in a roommate situation, or whatever, can develop friction or problems in it, particularly where people are living together (whether married or not), since living together does not always give the breathing room or time for both preparation for and recuperation from being together that dating or more infrequently meeting gives. There can easily arise the temptation to look for greener pastures and begin anew with someone with whom one does not seem to have any problems. …Yet.

In terms of love relationships, commitment demands that the “committed to” relationship take precedence over the other, new and potentially loving relationship. If one does not understand or appreciate commitment, one could be continually moving from relationship to relationship without ever making progress beyond certain troubling places.

Commitment or promise does not mean keeping a relationship that is an irreparably bad one; it means trying to work things out in one that has some problems instead of immediately abandoning it. This is easier to do when one realizes all (or almost all) relationships will have some problems, so there is more point to solving the present problem in an already established and growing relationship than in abandoning it for a relationship that will likely also have some sort of problems, and which does not yet have the value, basis or foundation the first has.

In his last movie, Clark Gable has a line where just after his wife or lover has left him, where he is asked by a buddy to go out with him to meet some new girls. His reply is, no thanks, since he doesn’t want to have to start from scratch all over again and go through all that. There is something repetitive about most good relationships one person could have (discussing one’s past, one’s concerns and interests, and one’s dreams and hopes, etc); so there is a point to trying to solve new problems with old relationships rather than starting somewhat repetitive new relationships that eventually also run into old problems.

Imagine a businessman starting a new business and abandoning the present one every time his business had some problems.  He would probably not get as far as if he worked out the problems of the already established business.

None of this means one should not cultivate new friendships and loved ones (or new businesses) along with the old or established one(s), but one should just not do it at the expense of the established, primary, or committed to one, since that one has the right to come first and because it (often) has more potential, by virtue of its past, if the problems can be solved than does one that is just beginning. This is in general, of course, depending on the nature and severity of the problem(s).

A marriage vow is essentially a promise; and promises, just because they are made, bestow an obligation on you to try to keep them; that is the point of them. Marriage vows do not say “love, honor, and cherish till death do us part, forty thousand miles, or the first sign of problems, whichever comes first”. If your spouse learns to play bridge and wants to do so, and you do not; or if your spouse leaves the cap off the toothpaste tube, and you do not want it left off, that is hardly grounds for divorce or separation, but perhaps for separate toothpaste tubes or some separate times for each of you to follow the pursuits you are interested in that the other is not.

However, any promise can lose its obligatory force if some conflicting ethical principles are strong enough to override it. This does not mean whim or some weak conflict. If a man were to promise to avenge the death of a friend whom he wrongfully believed murdered, only to later find out that his friend had in fact been the wrongful aggressor and that his killer had acted in self-defense, was innocent, had a family, was a good person, etc., then the promise for vengeance loses its obligatory force and should be broken. Likewise, if you were to promise to meet someone for a date but passed by an auto accident where your help was needed to save a life or prevent further injury, you would be excused from or justified in breaking (your promise to keep) the date. Or a child might promise its mother to obey the baby sitter only to find out that the baby sitter made unfair, harmful, or terrible demands of the child, who would then have the right, and hopefully the sense and the ability, to break the promise.

Marriage vows, being promises — solemn, and often public promises about a long term relationship — impose an obligation on those taking them, but even marriage vows can be justifiably broken or dissolved under certain circumstances; or put another way, they can lose their bindingness just as any promise can. This should not be over a trivial, petty, or reasonably reparable problem or occurrence; but it should be where the problem is incurable, or where the cure is unfair to one or both, or the harm done so great that it cannot be forgiven, forgotten, or ignored and abided, or the potential bad so great that it should not be condoned or risked.

In a traditional household where the husband works at an outside job and the wife works at keeping the home, rearing the kids, etc., if the man gets sick and stays home for a few days, it is not usually catastrophic; whereas if the woman gets bedridden, the man may not only have to do his outside work, but also see to some or all of the “woman’s” tasks as well. Housewives don’t get sick pay. This often wreaks havoc for the man unprepared and unhappy to do these things. Hence it has been said that many a fallen woman has been forgiven — but never for falling ill.

Well, a bad virus may be good reason to break a date (a promise to go out with someone), but it is hardly good reason to break a marriage vow — a more substantial promise about a long term commitment. On the other hand, if one is continually subjected to unjust, undeserved physical or mental abuse which can take many forms, from beatings to repeated public or private embarrassment or ridicule, or perhaps even just continued stifling of legitimate personal growth and development regarding deserved opportunities for happiness, then the perpetrating spouse, if there is one partner inexcusably or unjustifiably at fault, has forfeited his right to have the other spouse remain obligated to the marriage vow, obligated to stay married. (Of course, if there is an excuse, such as a brain tumor, for, say, shrewish behavior or wife beating, then the vow can or perhaps should remain in force, particularly if the problem is reasonably treatable.)

In the past, the general tendency was to keep marriage vows (stay married) and feel obligated to those vows no matter what the cost, the conflict, or the dreadful behavior; in the present, perhaps too many break their vows or give up too soon, seeking divorce, in the face of weak conflicts or problems. Today, too many long term benefits are sacrificed for short-term happiness. In the past often people sacrificed themselves too much for their marriage; the present overreaction to that causes people to sacrifice their marriages too soon for themselves. Too much sacrifice of self often caused the unwitting sacrifice of marriage (by actually further harming the marriage or the family), but too much or too easy sacrifice or dissolution of a marriage often today causes unwitting sacrifice of self (by preventing the joys of solving the problems and further building a relationship that has an already established foundation). Too many people expect too much too soon of a marriage relationship and quit something before they have given it a reasonable chance to succeed. Some have said of marriage that the first fifty years are the hardest. Living together, whether married or not, involves a roommate relationship as well as a loving relationship; and the roommate part of it, as in any kind of roommate situation, can be difficult, particularly if one or both have unreasonably or unrealistically high expectations of the other or the situation.

Marriage also involves a financial partnership (even if there is only one breadwinner), with decisions and disagreements about disbursements of funds. Parenting also gives ample opportunity for marital disagreements and disappointments. Parents have financial, emotional, educational, and companionship obligations to their children which sometimes cause disagreement between parents and which often drain the energy they would have for each other. Rearing children is often a joy but sometimes a burden which takes its personal and relationship psychological toll. Married people also often have parents and siblings of their own to whom they have family obligations — some of which can also cause strain in a marriage.

Marriage and living together can also thwart needed, and important or desirable, privacy. Some people need more privacy (even from people they love) than others, sometimes just in order to think, regroup, or relax.

Marriage or living together can particularly be a burden to individuals who do not view their partner’s personal or career problems or the relationship’s marital problems or conflicts as “team” problems whose solution would be a benefit to both and whose sharing lessens the burden for each, but who instead see them as their own undeserved and unearned added personal responsibilities that detract from their individual happiness.

People who want or need to devote almost all of their time and energy to their own individual goals — whether it is simply having fun or whether it is to intensely pursue an education or career or to start and build up a business, will often not have the personal resources to channel into developing a marriage or living together relationship, except with luck or extremely careful and sensitive management and “teamwork”, or at least patience and understanding by their spouse.

At any rate, the roommate aspects (she gets up early, wide awake, wants to talk; he is a slow, silent riser; he is a night owl, she passes out after 9:30; one is messy, the other neater, or messier, or also messy but in different ways; neither cooks, both hate to clean up; one is a gourmet, the other likes only meat and potatoes; one wants junk food, the other wants health food; one is quick to anger, the other does slow-burns too long; each has moods the other, at some time, is bound to disturb or be disturbed by; one wants companionship and the other is too busy with outside interests or too tired from them; etc., etc., etc.) are some of the hardest parts of a relationship to cope with, and yet they can be coped with in time generally. And a vow demands that the attempt to cope be made. But some people give up too soon, not really honoring their vow and their obligation, because they did not expect these kinds of problems. And in getting out of a temporarily bad situation, they do not give themselves the opportunity to solve the problems and to go on to have a really worthwhile relationship with a person they have loved, perhaps do love or could really love again in an even better, more satisfying, more understanding, and more desirable relationship.

I cannot point out what kinds of marital problems justify divorce (except to point to severe and obvious examples such as brutality, total laziness and irresponsibility, cases of alcoholism resulting in abuse and torment where treatment is refused and disdained, etc.) and what kinds are reasonable to try to solve even when that means taking much time and effort. To some extent it is an empirical matter in that social scientists can or could probably find out what kinds of problems tend to arise in different relationships and which of them are generally solved without too much sacrifice by what kinds of people and personalities; and what kinds of problems wreak too much havoc even in trying to solve them. This can be done in part on the basis of accurate reports on what sacrifices couples have felt worthwhile and why, on what problems they feel have been worth solving in what ways and why, and on the basis of reports about problems which could not be solved, could not be solved in a reasonably non-sacrificial way, or whose solution did not make the marriage worthwhile anyway. There needs to be more information about what the practical demands of marriage or living together are or can be. And I assume different types of people will have different kinds of problems; for example, the dependent housewife type married to the paternalistic provider will not necessarily have the same kinds of problems as two egalitarian working types married to each other. And there needs to be more practical information about what attempts were tried, which ones failed or succeeded, and why they did. People should not be prevented nor discouraged from trying to solve a previously unsolvable or unsatisfactorily solvable problem, but neither should they be required or encouraged to try if there is no reason to expect success.

Much work of this sort will relate to all kinds of relationships, and love relationships at all stages, not just to marriage relationships. Further, in regard to relationships that involve sharing domiciles I suspect many of the same things are true of people who “only” live together as of people who are married. Of course, there are some differences and sometimes friends, neighbors, relatives, etc. may put added pressures on a “living together” relationship, not to mention whatever legal differences (such as having next of kin rights, certain ownership or

inheritance rights, etc.) there might be between marriage and living together. However, the worth and work of overcoming certain difficulties (and the pain and frustration of failure) is still the primary issue both for marrieds and living-togethers, as well as for people who are simply in love, going (steady) together, pinned, or engaged. Further, in all these cases there is a loss when a worthwhile relationship is abandoned too easily whether either or both partners recognize that loss or not. And though people sometimes think that dissolving a living together relationship that goes bad is easier than dissolving a marriage, I suspect that is only true in terms of the legal costs and impediments (apart from palimony suits), not the psychological ones. I doubt it is ever easy to end a relationship that one entered with endearment, enthusiasm, and hope, particularly with a person for whom you still feel great attraction and affection but with whom somehow you are unable to get along as you should. All the self-doubt, guilt, and/or anxiety connected with bad character judgment, failure, and/or defeat can occur over the dissolution of any kind of relationship. Whether married, living together, or just going together. Sometimes, as the song says, “breaking up is hard to do.”

I have often felt that getting a divorce was sometimes even perhaps psychologically easier than terminating a living together or going together relationship. A lawyer can handle the negotiations and details, run interference in uncomfortable or intransigent cases, and can give some emotional support, as can a judge. And they can give some reassurance to you about the legitimacy of your cause (though sometimes, unfortunately, judges and opposing attorneys can be unreasonably and unfairly demoralizing). Further, there can be a psychological finality to a divorce decree that is missing from simply breaking up or moving out. This can help the relationship avoid an even more painful lingering death and can help prevent the pendulum or yo-yo effect of repeatedly trying and failing to get back together again.

At any rate, I would like to emphasize that there can be a beauty and worth for both people in keeping a relationship, growing together, overcoming obstacles, solving conflicts, sharing some of the beautiful moments as well as some of the not so beautiful moments. Life-long loved ones can have a bond and a wealth of experience and understanding that in many cases strangers can never have. To celebrate a fiftieth anniversary that is only the result of having tolerated each other or having stayed together in spite of the relationship is to celebrate a travesty at best and a wasteful tragedy at worst; but to celebrate a fiftieth anniversary where there has been growth in satisfactions, kindnesses to each other, deepening feelings of attraction, and a treasury of shared moments and stored memories is to experience something of a distinctly human nature that is most valuable, even if it has meant some difficult and strained moments and a certain amount of thin along the way with the thick. This is true whether the anniversary is of marriage, living together, or friendship. Lifelong friends have a kind of rapport and relationship that new acquaintances cannot experience. This is not to say, of course, that lifelong relationships are the only good ones; they are not; nor are they necessarily the best ones in all cases, but there is a special value to them that is worth trying to achieve if not too great a sacrifice is necessary.

When I first read Lederer and Jackson’s The Mirages of Marriage (Lederer 1968), the part in the latter part of the book on establishing quid pro quo, on working together to re-build or establish a better relationship out of one that had deteriorated seemed to require an amount of work that seemed not worth the effort, even if it worked. Some of the procedures they suggested for establishing honest, effective communication, learning one’s own body language, understanding one’s own and one’s partner’s “real” messages, etc. seemed to call for effort above and beyond the call of duty to save a relationship. They seemed embarrassing, tedious, painful, and so basic as to be practically childlike or asinine. A relationship that required that kind of work to be saved seemed to me at the time to be one better scrapped or left to die in peace.

The authors agreed much time and effort could be involved (p. 287): “Naturally the more hate-filled the spouses, the more discordant the marriage, the more difficult it will be to start afresh with a new quid pro quo. “Getting the marital process back in balance often can be a long and arduous task.  Even with professional help it may require a year or more.  In some cases, however, spouses working on their own may be successful in only six to eight weeks, or perhaps a few months, provided both have a keen desire to solve their mutual problems….”

To me at the time, the “only six to eight weeks” and, that, only in exceptional cases, seemed hardly a time period to be excited about. I figured that in less than a year one could easily even be engaged or married to a new person, or at least well on their way to a more satisfying new life than trying to fan dying embers could possibly be. I could not then see the point of their, or any, proposed therapy, even if it worked, if it was as long and arduous as they pointed out. Now I can see the point. It is in the notion of saving a relationship that has once been good and could now be better, and even better than a new one, though it is at a present low point. I am certainly not saying all relationships are salvageable or that all should be salvaged regardless of the cost.

I am only saying that there are techniques, such as Lederer’s and Jackson’s, that can be (often successfully) employed; and that there is a point to it — that helping a relationship grow and flourish, even with some sacrifice, can be a good thing that is simply unlike the alternative good thing of terminating the first relationship and beginning a new one. So the answer to “Why bother, even if it would work?” might be “Don’t you want to experience at least one long-lasting relationship that for the most part is a good one; we have the start; let us go on and build on that start, if we can.”

I still believe that most rational, moral people with some sensitivity and understanding can, and should, work out their differences without too much difficulty or acrimony; but I realize not everyone is rational, moral, and understanding. Relationships involving one or two people who cannot or will not cooperate may best have to just be terminated. And there are some cases where people have changed too much and/or learn they have such divergent and incompatible goals or desires that they cannot fairly compromise or achieve the goals of both. Further, there are some (perhaps rare) cases where even good, concerned, understanding, and rational people cannot figure out what is causing the problem or what is wrong; they just know they are unhappy with the situation but do not know why.  More knowledge and insight is needed — though still nothing like psychoanalysis or anything else as intricate and possibly irrelevant.

The Streisand-Redford relationship in The Way We Were I think illustrates a case where there is just too much and to significant an incompatibility in what the partners want out of each of their lives to avoid or reconcile without asking an unfair sacrifice by either or both just in order to maintain the relationship in an active ongoing way. In part it was unrecognized when they first became involved, and in part it grew with their relationship. It is easy at the early stages of a love relationship not to notice, not to think significant, or to work around some differences. Also, circumstances may not arise until later that cause or allow some incompatibilities to surface. Some of these incompatibilities may not be reasonably resolved within a continuing close relationship. Feelings may still be loving ones; but living together in or outside of marriage may just not be satisfactorily possible.

The following are two examples of situations in which problems were hard to exactly describe or uncover before even attempting to solve them. Yet they still did not require mysticism, therapy, or genius to figure out. In the movie Ryan’s Daughter, the girl of the title role at some very young age marries the village school teacher who is much older and a widower. The scene is a small Irish community in 1917.  The girl is inexperienced and fairly naive about romantic relationships and about the sexual and related emotional aspects of relationships. On their wedding night, for intercourse her husband invokes no foreplay, or play of any sort. The act is all under huge covers with heavy nightgowns simply hoisted far enough to manage, and lasts only long enough for her husband to obtain his rather quick, somewhat perfunctory, climax. He is solicitous to her well-being afterward, but has as little understanding about how that might be brought about as she has. He was obviously acting in an obligatory way for her in having intercourse on their wedding night and the only reassurance he needed from her was that he had not (physically) hurt her too much.

After a few months she was seen by the community priest looking sorrowful, as she often had since her marriage. The priest takes this opportunity to chastise her for her seeming eternal and public display of moping self-pity or unhappiness even though she has never spoken to anyone about it. He points out that her husband is a fine man and a kind one, a good provider, solicitous for her happiness, etc. He ends his lecture by demanding of her “What more could you possibly want!” And her answer is only “I don’t know; I don’t even know what more there is.”

At least she had knowledge enough to know there might be something more; but many may never know even that much, and not just in sexual or related areas. A woman, for example, may feel unhappy in a domestic role or socialite role, even if married to a wealthy man who provides not only affection but also all sorts of modern conveniences or even household servants. She may not even realize how unhappy she is or why, if all of society holds her role up to her as one to be sought and her place as one to be envied.  Likewise the husband may be unhappy or unfulfilled (even unknowingly) in his role though it is what he has been taught to seek and though again the community may hold him in very high esteem for it, also not realizing its possible detractions. Perhaps some of the most difficult cases are those in which one is doing everything one is expected to, or has achieved what he or she desires or has been brought up to want, but is troubled by some sort of dissatisfaction they cannot exactly point to, and never even thinks to look then at this desired or praised situation as being the cause. The goals society or are parents set for us may be satisfying to strive for and to achieve at first, just because they are goals and because the praise of others for our endeavors and for our achievement is satisfying; but the goals may not have any real internal value or merit and holding on to them may be hollow and dissatisfying once that is vaguely felt but not clearly realized.  And this kind of situation makes complaint difficult and unappreciated. You would get responses like “I should have your problems! It must be really tough trying to figure out what to have the maid do next;” or “trying to figure out what time during each day you should schedule the racquetball court.” Or, to a despondent war veteran, “you got your medals for being in the war — what more do you expect; you should be grateful you got back alive and in one piece since so many others did not,” (but this may be the cause of the problem — some feeling of undeserved opportunity or inadequacy in fulfilling it).

The other case, though one that was less involving of the total relationship but just as difficult to diagnose, was that mentioned earlier involving my friend and me where she seemed to get or be depressed or weepy the day after particularly happy days we shared. That the weepy days even followed and only followed such good days was not noticed until after a great many occurrences. Only then was it even realized that there was perhaps some particular problem, as opposed to just passing arbitrary moods, let-downs from the previous days’ pinnacles, or a number of different, unrelated problems.

Neither of us could figure out the cause. And the problem was not terribly defined for her; she only knew that she felt weepy or depressed, not why or over what. Then one day, for no particular reason, it came to us.  I was not telling her enough about how much I had enjoyed or appreciated the day before with her. It was not that I did not appreciate those days, nor that I did not make it clear at the time how much the occasion or the time had meant to me. It was that I was not making that clear again the following day, when she needed or expected to hear it.

She always sent little cards (greeting cards or just personal notes) to whoever said or did something particularly nice for her or when some event or function had been held. I sent thank- you notes for parties or gifts and I also was appreciative of nice things that were said or done or of times with friends that were spontaneously enjoyable. But I did not send notes about these latter types of things, nor did I usually comment on any given day about how nice a previous day had been. I would comment at the time or show appreciation at the time, but not on the following day unless there was some specific reason to reminisce then or to bring it up again. In fact people who sent cards or notes, or who made nice comments, about immediately past nice times that were more or less accidental or that were spontaneous, or equally caused and enjoyed by them and by me, made me feel somewhat uneasy. To me it almost even seemed (and still does) to cheapen or trivialize the experience by treating it the same as any formal and often empty occasion that required a formal and often meaningless response. I simply attributed her notes and/or store-bought greeting cards about these kinds of situations to some kind of empty etiquette she had learned at an early age or to some kind of female nicety, and I actually tried to ignore them so I would not see them as trivializing what had been terribly important to me. But it turned out this was not empty etiquette on her part, but a way of actually showing how important the occasion was to her; and my not doing so was evidence dimly felt by her that it was not as important to me. In part it was dimly felt because it was not only unsubstantiated, but contradicted by all my other behavior. Hence her feeling that things were not as important to me as they were to her never arose close enough to the surface for her to identify it as that, but it did come close enough for her to somehow feel a kind of general sadness or disappointment. In the future we realized we had this different appreciation of expression about previous days’ joys and she tried not to expect them from me while I tried to remember to give them regardless of how demonstrative I had been during that previous day.  All this took months before a problem was seen or the simple solution found; yet it was months of weepy days that might not have had to be; or that could have gone on forever or eventually grown to cause a great deal of damage had not some small ray of light appeared from out of nowhere.

One Aspect of Commitment

Part of what it is to make a make a marriage commitment is to try to overlook in many cases little things that might otherwise bother you, such as your partner leaving the cap off the toothpaste or wanting to watch some particular television series that seems especially inane to you. There are probably millions of kinds of things that could be annoying if you let them be annoying. The point is to try not to let them be. The point of the marriage commitment (vow) or any kind of relationship commitment is to try to work things out or to try to ignore them when necessary or more appropriate. Leaving the cap off the toothpaste is not grounds for divorce, but it should also not be grounds for touching off anger (more about controlling feelings shortly) or larger problems which may become grounds for divorce.  Commitment, making promises, taking vows all mean that certain things have to be overlooked or have to try to be solved rather than just being counted as reasons for growing less loving, angrier, or for leaving.

Let me give a simple example of how making a commitment changes or creates obligations. Consider being asked out on a date by someone you hardly know and with whom you have no special reason to have to go out. Not really feeling like going to a movie or a dance or whatever the occasion, or not feeling like going to it with them is sufficient grounds for not accepting the date (though, of course, one should generally show appreciation for being asked and be polite and tactful in one’s refusal). But if you make or accept the date, then later simply “not feeling” like it is not sufficient grounds for not going, particularly if it is to something like a prom and you do not break it until the date is at the doorstep with his tux and flowers or her new expensive dress. Not being in the mood is sufficient grounds not to accept the date, but insufficient grounds to break it, particularly if your acceptance has put into motion time- consuming, expensive, or careful plans and/or generated high expectations. Making a date creates an obligation that requires a stronger excuse or justification to break the date than is necessary for simply turning one down in the first place, which may require no reason at all. Illness, accident, catastrophe, a greater obligation to a friend or relative, or any of a number of things may allow one to justifiably or excusably break a date, but they have to be relatively important. There does not have to be any (important) reason at all not to accept a date in the first place.

Similarly, one in general (that is, apart from arranged marriages, shotgun weddings, etc.) is under no obligation to enter a loving relationship, engagement, living arrangement or marriage with anyone; but once one has, he or she incurs an obligation to stay in it − an obligation that is not irrevocable, but one which requires a relatively important justification or excuse to revoke it. Now since hardly any relationship is possible, I suspect, where two people love everything about each other — snoring, hoarding covers, stealing joke punchlines or never laughing at them,being too neat or not neat enough, not being interested in some things that are important to you, inability to balance a checkbook or too demanding that it be balanced, being to lazy or too compulsive, etc., etc. − commitment and assumed obligation require that irritating, but not ignoble, behavior should either be ignored, isolated, or cured in some way without being allowed to become a true impediment or detriment to the relationship. Again, social scientists,clergymen, marriage counselors, or even comedians could point out the kinds of pitfalls to be watched for, avoided, ignored, muffled, solved, or just laughed at, rather than allowed to get out of hand. Promises or commitments or vows mean simply that one’s word has to be tried to be kept — not in spite of all circumstances nor even in spite of overwhelming other conflicting duties, such as some duties to one’s self, but — in spite of many, particularly relatively unimportant, circumstances.

Feelings and Commitment

When two young, starry-eyed people marry, promising to love, honor, and cherish till death parts them, they often cannot imagine their feelings will ever be any different for each other, any less romantic or intense. Yet it is unlikely that particular feeling will remain very long into their marriage. Although we can have some control over our feelings and our reactions to them, feelings are not the kinds of things it is wise to make promises about because we have less control over them than we do of our actions. One can reasonably promise to act kindly or lovingly toward another, but one cannot reasonably promise to feel lovingly (at least not in the starry-eyed way) toward another. It is a hollow, though well- intentioned, promise because we do not have the kind of control over our feelings that is necessary for accepting total responsibility for them. Similarly, we cannot reasonably promise not ever to become attracted to anyone else, but we can meaningfully and reasonably promise not to act on that attraction in a way that would undeservingly hurt our mate.

Now we do have some control over our feelings and our reactions to them, and to that extent, our commitment to love does obligate us to try to keep loving feelings and to try to act lovingly, or at least civilly, in spite of (temporary) feelings to the contrary. One of the best ways to control feelings or to have the proper, though not necessarily the natural, response to them is to understand them — understand nuances in them, understand exactly what we are feeling, understand how feelings are likely to change (naturally) over time, and understand our normal and natural responses to those feelings and their effects. This enables us to know whether it would be wise to let those natural responses occur even if we can avoid them, whether it would be wise to display them in private if we cannot avoid them, or whether it would be wise to try to modify the feelings or our responses to them if we can partially avoid or control them.

For example, it is important to understand the difference between hate and anger, particularly that anger is temporary and may be over something that can be resolved before it gets out of hand. One may think one hates (or at least no longer loves) one’s mate and be tempted to retaliate for a supposed wrong since he or she has no love left to lose anyway. Retaliation by a spiteful or hateful act may cost one a relationship that could have been (easily) salvaged had one not aggravated the situation, but let the anger pass instead. And if one could not behave properly around the loved one while angry, one should isolate oneself from the loved one for a short time to try to let the anger pass before doing or saying something one might legitimately regret. In such a circumstance one might even say something like “I am so mad right now I think I had better go (out, to my study, to the office, to the tennis court, to the gym, for a long walk, fishing, or wherever) before I say something really stupid that will make you mad too and that I’ll regret saying.”

It is important to understand disappointment, frustration, and hostility too and to be able to recognize them and their specific cause so that you do not take out those feelings on your partner or channel them toward him or her, especially when he or she is not to blame for them.

You do not want to kick your spouse or the dog when you get home because the boss kicked you or because you made an error at work that really upsets you about yourself. The better you can understand how negative feelings work in you and how you can deal with them so as to work through your problems and rid yourself of, or deal properly with, the negative feelings without doing damage, the more likely you will be able to keep such feelings from (further) damaging your relationship when they arise. Experience and self-understanding should help you learn and develop new ways to better cope with such negative feelings as you grow.

Knowing, for example, that anger subsides can sometimes allow you to help make it subside faster. Venting it by talking things over with a friend or third party, even complaining to them about your partner in an angry way, can help you explode out of range of doing damage to your relationship, as long your friend or third party understands this is temporary and therapeutic and can be trusted to be discreet. Just trying to smash the cover off of a tennis ball can help get rid of the rage until you can discuss the problem in a civilized or even humorous manner with your spouse.

If I am being moody and irritable, my wife can get me to talk about it and quit acting that way quite often by asking with obviously phony sweetness whether she needs to drive me to the hospital to have my burr removed by the proctologist of my choice. Sometimes I have tried to say I was just having fun being irritable, but if she laughs at that it makes me laugh and then it is really hard for me to retain my irritability.

Of course, I would claim she has the worst kind of anger, because when she is mad at you, she won’t tell, gives the cold shoulder, mutters under her breath, and builds to a crescendo of hostile resentment until you cannot miss that she is upset. Asking her what is wrong compounds the crime because then you also demonstrate your insensitivity and ignorance. Guessing out loud what I think she thinks I may have done wrong is stupid because she takes that as a litany of confessions to crimes I must feel I have committed and am only admitting under duress, giving her that much more reason to be angry. Getting her to talk about what she thinks (or, for sarcasm, imagines) I have done wrong is the hardest part of resolving most of our disagreements. What seems to work is to use her interest in law to demand to be charged with the crime I am being held for so that I can plead guilty and beg for mercy or prepare my defense.

I know a widow who had nothing but wonderful things to say about her 35 years of marriage. One day I asked whether it was all as rosy as she seems to imply; “weren’t there days you couldn’t stand your husband?” “Oh yes,” she said, but I would do something about it, like one day I asked him ‘Wouldn’t you like to go fishing today with Fred and George — I’ve packed lunches for all of you!’ He got the point, the fishing gear, the guys, and out of the house for a while.”

Realizing how former angry times have been only temporary and have lapsed into episodes you can now recall dispassionately, analytically, or even humorously, should help you get through a present angry episode, since you can believe, even if you do not quite feel, that it too will fade like the others.

And it is not impossible to control your reactions to being angered or hurt and to be able to respond to and express that anger or hurt in a civilized way. I have seen people even be able to modify their pain responses (or reflexes) when there was some reason to do that. I have seen chemistry students accidentally pick up in their bare hands, and yet not drop, nearly red-hot crucibles that contained the products on which their grade depended, products that took them two weeks to prepare. It feels like something is biting you, but you have learned not to make any sudden moves in chemistry class because you can spill something important. And even when you realize your sudden pain is coming from this crucible you are holding which moments earlier you had heated red hot in a Bunsen burner, you do not fling it down and watch your grade spill out all over the counter or floor. You set it down very carefully, move back, and then making sure nothing is around to knock over, you jump and clutch your fried fingers with your other hand.

In my later teenage years, I thought it would be “cool” to try to learn to be able to deal in front of others with sudden and obvious pain by just calmly saying something like, “Gee, that really hurts,” instead of by jumping around and cursing or screaming. I practiced by imagining situations and by thinking about what I should have said after the times I failed. I finally perfected it and it was fun to watch people’s faces when I had just obviously been hurt (say by a child accidentally whacking you in the ankle with a heavy toy).  I would think that if people can do these sorts of things it would not be impossible to learn to express anger just by saying you are very angry. (This may not be the most effective expression, however — some people seem to require a more graphic demonstration before they will believe you — but it is perhaps the best place to start, since many people will apologize or cease their behavior the minute they understand they are doing something that is provoking. If someone does not, you can always escalate to appropriately hostile behavior yourself. And if you say it nicely you may not make them defensive, hostile, and belligerent, as you otherwise might.)

Anger and feeling unloved or unloving are often temporary. Just as special moments of tenderness and closeness may be fleeting, so often are moments of anger or distance. It is important to know that though one feels angry or hurt or unloving and unloved, such feelings can pass, and actions which needlessly prolong or deepen such negative feelings should not be initiated. In moments of anger it is often best either to remain silent, or if comment is imperative, then the comment should not be needlessly hostile or aggravating of the situation. One can usually express one’s side or one’s views or even one’s anger in a civilized manner without thereby having to further alienate the other person. General decency alone demands this; commitment in a loving relationship increases that demand, though not infinitely or in spite of prolonged and/or really terrible behavior. Commitment and concern for your partner, along with the understanding that the negative feeling will pass, should help you not worsen the situation, and should help the relationship better survive relatively minor adversity or momentarily alienating situations.

Key Takeaways

  • Commitments (such as promises, vows, mutual agreements, etc.) bestow obligations of varying strengths or degrees on one to keep them.
  • The more important the commitment, the stronger the obligation there is to keep it.  Insofar as any commitment can legitimately be overridden, stronger, more binding ones require a much higher ethical justification than weaker ones to do that.

Key Terms

  • A marriage vow is essentially a promise; and promises, just because they are made, bestow an obligation on you to try to keep them; that is the point of them. Marriage vows do not say “love, honor, and cherish till death do us part, forty thousand miles, or the first sign of problems, whichever comes first”.

Chapter Review Questions

  • Question: In terms of love relationships, what does commitment demand?
  • Question What is the point of a marriage vow?

License

Chapter 16 Commitment and Loving More Than One Person Copyright © 2017 by Richard Garlikov. All Rights Reserved.

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