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Balancing Freedom and Commitment

I once saw a poster of four cows in four intersecting pastures—each of them with their head stuck through the fence eating the "greener" grass in the next pasture. It looked utterly ridiculous until I realized how accurately it reflects our tendency to be dissatisfied with our own situation (whatever it happens to be) and to think another alternative looks better. While this tendency exists in many trivial areas of our lives, it happens in very important areas as well—like whether to be single or married.

People are forever trying to decide whether it's better to be married or single, together or alone, involved or independent, committed or free. I must admit that this is not a question I considered prior to my marriage at age 19. But that was 1955, and most of us at that point didn't know we had a choice. While a lot has changed since then, there's still a lot to learn about being married—and about being single. We need to take a more objective look at the pros and cons of being married and of being single if we are to find much real satisfaction with either state.

What's good about being married?
It can give you a sense of belonging, a feeling of security and stability, an ongoing involvement with a sense of continuity, a home base, a feeling of closeness and intimacy, and a feeling that the future is more certain.

What's bad about being married?
It can bring less control over your time, a need to account to other people, a tendency to lose your identity and get wrapped up in roles, pressure to conform, boredom with routine, and a sense of obligation loaded with shoulds and oughts.

What's good about being single?
It can give you a sense of excitement and adventure, control over your own time, more freedom to grow as an independent person, a right to privacy, a sense of your own individuality, and the ability to make your own decisions without compromising or being accountable to others.

What's bad about being single?
It can bring a feeling of being detached and alienated, a feeling of loneliness, more anxiety and risk, fewer supports, a limitation in what you can do alone, and less certainty about the future.

Since being married and being single both have some positive aspects as well as some drawbacks, this puts us in a dilemma all our lives. We usually go through life doing a balancing act between trying to satisfy our need for commitment and our need for freedom. Whenever we get too far out of balance, we feel a need for whatever is missing.

For instance, if you're in a committed relationship, you may be enjoying the sense of belonging that's involved. But at some point this belonging begins to feel restrictive and you feel a need for more control over your life. If you gain your freedom, you may enjoy the excitement that comes from being on your own. But at some point this independence begins to feel lonely and you want more togetherness. If you enter another committed relationship, you're then likely to start the cycle all over again. This pattern can become a life-long revolving door of marriage/divorce/remarriage unless you get clear about the process that is taking place.

Unfortunately, when you feel dissatisfied with your marriage, you're likely to think it's your spouse who is "the problem." You may decide to get a divorce as a way of getting rid of the problem. Then if you remarry, you may eventually begin to feel the same kind of dissatisfaction with that marriage. At this point, it becomes clearer that the problem had less to do with your particular marriage partner and more to do with marriage itself.

I feel fortunate that I somehow recognized this fact during a period in my own marriage when I seriously questioned whether I would be better off ending it. As I contemplated life alone (or eventually with another man), I came to see that it was preferable for me to stay married and go about changing the rules of the marriage.

While marriage certainly involves some tradeoffs, you don't have to give up everything positive about the alternative choice. Unfortunately, you may have seen freedom and commitment as mutually exclusive, thinking that you must lose your freedom if you're married or that you must forego commitment if you're single. In order to find satisfaction with either being single or being married, you need to strive to incorporate more of the benefits of both choices into one.

Both men and women can be better satisfied with marriage if they redefine what it means to be married. You don't automatically have to lose control over your life, lose your sense of identity by merging it with your spouse's, become immersed in your marital roles, or lose touch with your personal goals. You may feel that somehow the pursuit of individual "freedom" takes away from your "commitment" to the marriage.

Quite the contrary. If you fail to bring a degree of balance to your marriage, the day will almost surely come when you will feel resentful at having given up so much, and you'll either leave the marriage or resign yourself to a deadened relationship. By pursuing a relationship that is based on fairness, respect, honesty, and trust, you can satisfy your needs for both independence and belonging—and avoid the endless search for greener pastures.

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