Commitment and Dependency in Marriage

By Nock, Steven L. | Journal of Marriage and Family, May 1995 | Go to article overview

Commitment and Dependency in Marriage


Nock, Steven L., Journal of Marriage and Family


The persistence of marriage, like its dissolution, is the result of many factors. Research on the variables that contribute to persistence in marriage focuses on commitment, a term that is frequently used to describe individuals and relationships, yet one that is rarely defined and even less often researched. This article takes a small step toward filling that gap. The research reported here is an attempt to study commitment in marriage, especially as it is structured by various forms of dependency.

Commitment is presumed to be influenced by dependency (among other things). The married woman without gainful employment or marketable skills is believed to be more constrained in her options than an employed wife. Indeed, much of the increase in divorce since the late 1960s may be the consequence of women's entry into the paid labor force (see Cherlin, 1992, and Greenstein, 1990, for reviews of these arguments). Employed women have alternatives to abusive or loveless marriages that unemployed women do not.

Yet not all unloved or abused wives divorce their husbands. Research has shown that repeatedly battered wives, for example, will often remain with their husbands because of dependencies that constrain them--economic dependency in particular (Steinmetz, 1987). This research does not attempt to explain why abused wives remain with their abusive husbands. Nor does it attempt to explain divorce. Rather, the comments made about these topics are offered to illustrate conventional uses of the concept of commitment and to make the point that commitment and persistence are separable phenomena. Even were it possible to develop a full theory of why some marriages do not last, we would still lack a theory of commitment because the behavior of persistence is different from the concept of commitment, despite their obvious relationship.

COMMITMENT

Commitment is typically invoked to explain why people engage in a consistent line of activity--a point made by Becker over 30 years ago (Becker, 1960). With respect to marriage, for example, we might explain the persistence of unions by reference to the commitment of spouses to their marriage or to one another. As noted above, however, the behavior (staying married) is not the same thing as commitment. Becker suggested that two elements characterize commitment as a source of consistency. First, an individual does something that creates an interest in his or her following a consistent line of action. That is, some interest that was initially unrelated to a particular line of action is now linked to it because of something the person has done. Second, the individual becomes aware that his or her continued action has implications for the originally extraneous interest(s). When a person marries, for example, this action creates, for him or her, a stake in the continuation of the union. If it fails, then there will be consequences that would not have occurred without the marriage. Thus, the marriage created an interest that had not previously existed. For the married person, this may be the love, security, or tangible property elements that are part of intimate relationships. Many such interests are created by the marriage and are threatened by its termination. Domestic relations law recognizes the stake that partners have in their marriage in the legal principle of consortium. Spouses rely on one another for such things as domestic labor, sexual intimacy, and fidelity.

Over time, many spouses will invest massive amounts of time and energy in their relationships, while foregoing alternative relationships, in an effort to keep these spousal benefits flowing. Indeed, for many, if not most, spouses, protecting the marital relationship is as important as protecting any other major personal interest, be it health, sanity, or integrity....Historically, the law has recognized and protected this unique interest through its concept of consortium. Such elements as domestic duties, interaction, affectional intimacy, love, and sexual intercourse are among the factors typically recognized under the law, and when their infringement is deemed an offense according to statute or court decision, monetary damages can be exacted. …

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