What Keeps Couples Together?

In January, 2019, Friends Couple Enrichment leader couples met for their annual gathering. This year, Jeff and Kathy Richman, leader couples since 1995, gave us food for thought with a presentation on commitment. Below is a brief summary of some of what we learned:

Commitment

“Darling, you can count on me
till the sun dries up the sea.
Until then I’ll always be
devoted to you” 
— Everly Brothers

This song may reflect the popular image of “happily ever after,” but there are few if any relationships in which neither partner gives the other “reason to cry.”  What determines whether a couple stays together for the long haul?


One answer is commitment.  One researcher, Linda Waite, found that couples who described their marriages as unhappy and five years later described those marriages as happy had not so much solved all their problems as outlasted them. In her words,

 “A strong commitment to marriage as an institution, and a powerful reluctance to divorce, do not merely keep unhappily married people locked in misery together. They also help couples form happier bonds. To avoid divorce, many assume, marriages must become happier. But it is at least equally true that in order to get happier, unhappy couples or spouses must first avoid divorce. In most cases, a strong commitment to staying married not only helps couples avoid divorce, it helps more couples achieve a happier marriage.”

This is not a recommendation that anyone accept and live with abuse from a partner; rather, it is a recommendation not to give up too easily when there is conflict, something that is part of every relationship.

Caryl Rusbult, a Dutch-born scholar and professor, made it her life’s work to study committed couples.  She developed the Investment Model of longevity in relationships. Satisfaction with the relationship is part of the equation, but not nearly all of it; relationships may go through periods of intense dissatisfaction and still continue and evolve, becoming more gratifying.  In addition, members of committed couples don’t see other possible partners as attractive alternatives. They also stay in the relationship because of the amount of time, energy, and money they have invested, because of what would be lost were the relationship not to continue.  

Rusbult also named the “Michaelangelo phenomenon.”  We tend to think that there is a big discrepancy between our actual selves and our ideal selves.  Our loving partners sometimes help us to become the people we aspire to be, like Michaelangelo, seeing the beauty inside us and helping us to grow towards that which we wish to be.

A committed relationship is a true gift.  It is our touchstone and our anchor. These thoughts are echoed in another song, this one from Tom Paxton:

“You could send me away, and I would go
I would go, but I would not go too far.
You could send me home, but you would know
Home to me is anywhere you are.”

–by Kathy Richman


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