by Elise Ellsworth
What is marriage like when you reach eighteen years? My husband and I reached that milestone this past week. Eighteen years of fun dates, moonlight, romance, hand holding and batting our eyes…? Well, not quite. We have had our share of romance but also our share of troubles – cross-country moves, job loss, illness, financial challenges, the births of our seven children, and in-law strain have all played a part in our marriage. Not to mention the constant day-to-day annoyances that crop up when two sometimes grumpy, sometimes hungry, sometimes tired, adults share the same house.
When we were first married I asked my dad the secret to a happy marriage. After all, he and my mom had been married almost twenty-five (now forty-five) years. His answer surprised me – “commitment.” Not romance. Not dates. Not even kindness. Commitment. But it’s still the best secret to a happy marriage I have ever heard.
The traditional marriage vows, some version of which is still used by most couples in the United States, include the promise “to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and health, until death do us part.” An article in Health online (March 2015) listed the events that lead to divorce – illness, job changes, childbirth, living apart, trauma, becoming empty nesters and infidelity. Wouldn’t the marriage vow promises cover all of those? So why has divorce become so prevalent?
I think the real problem with marriage in America is that people don’t keep promises anymore. It’s not about ill health, unattractiveness, aging, financial troubles or any of those other “causes” of divorce. All of those were much more prevalent years ago when the divorce rate was also much lower. It’s about dishonesty. It’s about breaking our word.
A vow is defined as “a solemn promise.” A very important promise. Unbreakable. Unalterable. No fine print. No backsies. A vow is different, more important.
One solution to the marriage problem lies in correcting America’s honesty problem. We can train people to be better partners and better communicators. But what happens when a spouse loses a job, or when a more attractive option comes along, or when one spouse is diagnosed with a long-term, incurable illness. The five love languages and some better communication strategies may not be enough. We may not feel much love at all. Should we throw in the towel and head for the door? This is when the power of commitment shines through and we teach our children powerful, eternal lessons about the nature of love. Love means sticking it out and making it work.
One of my favorite findings about marriage comes from the American Values Center for Marriage and Family. They found that unhappily married couples who stick it out are much happier a decade later. And 80% of couples who divorce report being just as unhappy or more unhappy than before. Commitment is indeed the secret to a happy marriage.
My husband and I are as happy now as we have ever been. This week I took time to reflect on the promises we made to each other over eighteen years ago. And I agree now more than ever with my dad’s estimation that “commitment” is indeed the key to the success and happiness of any marriage.