Marriage as a Covenant Relationship

Many of the great religious traditions of the world teach that marriage is a covenant relationship. The idea behind these teachings is that covenant partners are to cleave or adhere closely to one another exclusively, through think and thin. Spouses become preeminent in each other’s lives, and no other priority displaces the marriage relationship from its highest status.

A covenant relationship is different than a contractual relationship. Family law scholar Bruce Hafen clarifies this difference and how it plays out in marriage. He said: “When troubles come, the parties to a contractual marriage seek happiness by walking away. They marry to obtain benefits and will stay only as long as they’re receiving what they bargained for. But when troubles come to a covenant marriage, the husband and wife work them through. …… Contract companions each give 50 percent; covenant companions each give 100 percent. Marriage is by nature a covenant, not just a private contract one may cancel at will.”

Types of Commitment

In a covenant relationship, the parties are fully committed to each other, heart and soul. Scholars in the social sciences study commitment in marriage. For example, marriage scholars Howard Markman, Scott Stanley, and Susan Blumberg in their book, Fighting for Your Marriage, have identified two kinds of commitment: Constraint commitment and personal dedication. Constraint commitment comprises external social forces that keep marriage together. For example, couples may stay together because of social pressure, high expense of divorce, or for the sake of the children. Personal dedication is an “intentional decision and desire to maintain or improve relationship for mutual benefit” and “involves sacrificing for it, investment in it, linking personal goals to it,” and “considering partner’s welfare-not solely your own.”

Having constraint commitment isn’t all bad-it certainly can help keep marriage stable and couples can lean on it to weather the storms of their relationship. But research shows that personally dedicated couples show a greater priority for the relationship, greater satisfaction with giving, and are less likely to seek greener marital pastures.

Threats to a Covenant Commitment

Couples face major threats to the covenant commitment needed to make a marriage last and thrive. One is widespread consumerism in marriage. “Starter marriages” have become popular; a marriage that lasts no more than five years and then can be reevaluated and continued or terminated on a whim. Consumerism in relationships is evident in movies, as well. In a popular movie, a character explains that men should be like toilet paper: “soft, strong, and disposable.” With a consumer approach to marriage, couples are more prone and willing to discard their marriages in the same way as they do paper products. Another threat is the acceptance of divorce as a remedy for marriage problems. While some divorces are warranted and are in the best interests of all parties, research has shown that those with divorce acceptance attitudes were also less likely to work hard at enriching their marriages.

Building a Covenant Commitment

What can couples do to safeguard their marriages as covenant relationships?

Faith. Religious faith strengthens marriage, regardless of the religious tradition. Research shows that religious couples are more likely than others to have successful marriages, marriages marked by a stated willingness to wed the same person again, an absence of discord, and a low probability of divorce. Religious beliefs often emphasize that couples have sacred obligations to one another and to their children. Thus one’s faith becomes a sacred incentive to love and care for their partner. Couples unified in a faith often see God as a principal partner in the relationship. Couples who practice their faith together are more likely to have less conflict, to reach a mutually satisfying resolution if there is conflict, and to remain committed to each other and the marriage when conflict does occur. Many religions that emphasize marriage as a sacred covenant have divorce rates far lower than US and world averages.

Intentional dedication commitment. This kind of commitment involves a firm resolve to improve your marriage and a willingness to change. For example, it is a commitment to changing behaviors and attitudes-such as resolving differences in a more healthy way, spending a date night alone together, or resolving a personal hang-up that is interfering with your marriage. Refuse to settle for “second-class” commitment (i.e., constraint only) as a foundation for your marriage.

For Further Reading:

The Power of Commitment
By Scott Stanley

Additional Websites

Consumer Marriage and Modern Covenant Marriage
By William J. Doherty