Individual Liberty, Commitment, and Marriage


I once learned an important lesson about commitment.

One of our children came home from school and announced that if he did not finish a certain project by the next day, he was going to be in deep trouble. His fourth grade class was completing a study unit on Indians, and he had the assignment to build a diorama on a cookie sheet, showing graphically the habitat of a certain Indian tribe. For several reasons, it really was critical that he successfully complete the assignment that night.

When I came home from work, my wife, Marie, had already spread out on the kitchen counter most of the materials for the diorama. My son was stomping around the kitchen in great frustration, wanting to finish his project, but not wanting to start on it.

After supper, I assumed (since it was Monday) that we would be proceeding with our plans for family home evening. However, Marie said that she felt our fourth-grader had to finish the diorama then or never, and that she had made some decisions that would make it possible for him to finish. Not completely understanding, but taking her word for it, I herded the other children into the living room where we did a few things that passed for home evening.

Periodically, I heard outbursts from the kitchen as the diorama builder insisted that he wouldn’t do another thing. But not once did I hear from his mother the kind of response I think I would have given. At one point, I went in to her and insisted that if he couldn’t be more considerate, we would forget the whole thing. But she gently encouraged me to let her proceed with her plan. That I did, amazed at her calm attitude.

Eight o’clock became nine and even later. I was just tucking the other children into bed when into the bedroom they came. Our fourth-grader, grinning proudly, was carrying his diorama like a birthday cake. It was obvious from looking at it that he had made every piece of it himself. As all the others gathered around, he pointed out to them each item: bark, wigwam, tree, and miniature animals. I glanced at my wife. She was smiling tranquilly.

Our boy placed his diorama on the bedroom counter and went over to his bed. Looking back at his mother, he grinned broadly, and then, though he wasn’t usually demonstrative, he ran back to her, threw his arms around her waist, and gave her a boyish, awkward look of genuine appreciation. In that moment, they exchanged unspoken thoughts of much meaning. Then he raced back to his bed and we left the room.

Touched and amazed, I asked, “What on earth happened? How did you do it?” Marie replied that she had just made up her mind that nothing he could do could make her raise her voice or lose her patience. She had simply decided in advance that no matter what he said or did, she would keep encouraging him and helping him, even if it took all night.

Then she made this significant observation: “I didn’t know I had it in me.”

She didn’t know she had it in her. And she never would have known had she not made the commitment that leaving him, either literally or figuratively, was simply not an alternative. It would have been perfectly reasonable for her to throw up her hands after an hour of honest effort and send him out of the kitchen. But her commitment would not permit that. And so she discovered a reservoir of patience and endurance within herself that she didn’t know was there. She and my son also discovered a higher dimension in their relationship—all because of her commitment.

Somehow, the idea of irrevocably committing oneself to spouse and children seems out of fashion in these days of individual liberation. There is almost endless talk about personal liberty and self-fulfillment; it is in the air, everywhere. There are “rights movements” not only for minority groups and women, but also for children. However, the leaders of these movements—to leave their advocacy undiluted—seldom talk about the serious problems that could be created by a wholesale adoption of their goals. A line from one of the ballads of the student rights movement of the late 1960s reads, “We want our rights, and we don’t care how.”

This current obsession with individualism has already begun to affect attitudes toward marriage and family life. Strangely, the sacred idea of individual liberty—when carried to its extremes—also contains the seeds of selfishness, the enemy of marriage.

Sensing these risky undercurrents, one modern writer has thoughtfully expressed concern about the tendency to blame marriage and family for what some consider their own lack of self-fulfillment:

“People say of marriage that it is boring, when what they mean is that it terrifies them: too many and too deep are its searing revelations. … They say of children that they are brats … , when what they mean is that the importance of parents with respect to the future of their children is now known with greater clarity … than ever before.

“No tame project, marriage. The raising of children … brings each of us breathtaking vistas of our own inadequacy. … [So,] we want desperately to blame [family life,] the institution which places our inadequacy in the brilliant glare of interrogation. …

“Being married and having children has impressed on my mind certain lessons, for whose learning I cannot help being grateful, though most of what I am forced to learn about myself is not pleasant.

“The quantity of sheer … selfishness in … my breast is a never-failing source of wonder. I do not want to be disturbed, challenged, troubled. Huge regions of myself belong only to me. … Seeing myself through the unblinking eyes of an intimate, intelligent other, an honest spouse, is humiliating beyond anticipation. Maintaining a familial steadiness whatever the state of my own emotions is a standard by which I stand daily condemned. A rational man, acting as I act? Trying to act fairly to children, each of whom is temperamentally different from myself and from each other, is far more baffling than anything Harvard prepared me for.

“My dignity as a human being depends perhaps more on what sort of husband and parent I am, than on any professional work I am called to do. My bonds to them hold me back from many sorts of opportunities. And yet these bonds are, I know, my liberation. They force me to be a different sort of human being, in a way in which I want and need to be forced.” (Novak, “The Family Out of Favor,” Harper’s, Apr. 1976, p. 37; italics added)

In other words, “I didn’t know I had it in me.”

The author of this passage senses at an introductory level what the gospel teaches in fully flowered form—marriage is one of the Lord’s primary institutions for perfecting the individual. In the intimacy of the marital relationship, our true selves are exposed and tested enough to permit the discovery of capacities that are in fact great reservoirs of potential character growth. Testing, learning, and growing at this depth are simply not possible in less intimate, short-term relationships.

It is not really that difficult to be polite to Church, business, and social associates. But only the truly compassionate are patient and unselfish with those who, over many years, share their possessions, their checkbooks, and their name. Thus, marriage has the power to develop Christlike character, if those who marry submit themselves to the schoolmaster.

Misunderstandings and differences of opinion are normal in marriage; they are not a sign that a marriage is in trouble. The real issue is how a husband and wife respond to the natural stress and strain. Our attitude about what happens is far more important than what happens. The key element in those attitudes is commitment—a commitment to wait, to listen, to live with imperfection, to “nourish and cherish” as Paul wrote in his beautiful passage on marriage in Ephesians 5:28–29 [Eph. 5:28–29]. This is a commitment never to leave, literally or figuratively, temporarily or permanently.

Thus, far more is at stake in typical marital differences than may be apparent on the surface, because when this kind of commitment wanes, the discovery process also wanes, and so does the process of personal growth.

Some live together many years in formal marriage without ever yielding enough of themselves that the mature and mellow fruit of an unrestrained commitment is ever borne. A story that illustrates the result of such shallow commitments is “The Birthday Party,” by Katherine Brush. A couple who have been married a long time go out to dinner. The wife has arranged the evening with the secret intention of treating her husband to a surprise celebration for his birthday. At the conclusion of their meal, the waiter brings to their table a birthday cake, complete with a pink candle. A small orchestra plays “Happy Birthday to You,” and the other patrons of the restaurant contribute polite applause at its conclusion. After the focus is shifted from the couple, the husband, “hotly embarrassed, and indignant at his wife for embarrassing him, mutters some punishing thing, quick and curt and unkind,” making her cry. And so, the pathetic close of “The Birthday Party” shows the wife weeping quietly and painfully “all to herself, under the gay big brim of her best hat.”

After sharing their lives for so long a time, she should have understood him well enough to know what kind of public display would embarrass him. Similarly, he should have understood her well enough to know how pure her motives were in arranging for the celebration. She would have loved such a surprise—but in his basic self-centeredness, he didn’t think of that.

Not understanding the depth of the commitment made through the act of marriage and perhaps influenced by seductive talk about their “right to self-fulfillment,” many in today’s world who experience marital differences elect to leave the scene of the conflict by either literally or figuratively divorcing themselves from the person they view as the source of their frustrations.

Many of these in time will marry another person, only to find another set of conflicts and frustrations. Once again, they may leave the scene of conflict, somehow believing that they are entitled to live without the inconvenience of dealing with points of view different from their own. (“We want our rights, and we don’t care how.”) Thus, they may never experience what it is to understand a situation from the perspective of another person or to subordinate their own needs to those of others. As a result, they deprive themselves of the experiences necessary to permit the discovery of the meaning of love. They actually cheat themselves of the learning opportunities of mortality.

On the other hand, those who are deeply committed put themselves in a position to make some remarkable discoveries about their spouses and about themselves. Significantly, these discoveries may have profound effects upon individual character development.

If we are not compassionate in marriage, we are probably not compassionate in any important sense. Therefore, we are not Christlike. But if our commitment in marriage is wholehearted, it will not matter what kind of difficulty arises or why it arises; leaving will not be an alternative. In time, through that commitment, our ability to see things from our partner’s point of view and our capacity to control the intensity of our reactions will grow gradually, until we can be unselfish with not only our companion, but—naturally—with everyone else. That will be our real liberation.

When the Savior comes, those who will be able to live with him will be those who have learned, through experience, to live as he does. Celestial means “Christlike.” Thus, those who have developed Christlike personal attributes will be celestial men and women, and the marriages of which they are a part will be celestial, eternal marriages—not merely in duration, but in quality and kind. But for those of the shallow commitment, the selfish heart, and the proud mind, it will not be possible to live with their partner or with the Savior in the eternities. They won’t have learned how. Even the Lord cannot endow us with celestial personal attributes, as if they were our “right.” If that were possible, He would have done so long ago. Our “right” is the opportunity to develop our attributes by applying true principles in the environment of marriage.

In the conclusion of Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit, a new marriage is depicted as the beginning of a descent out of which the only important kind of ascent is possible:

“Then they went up the steps of the neighbouring Saint George’s Church, and went up to the altar, where Daniel Doyce was waiting in his paternal character. And they were married, with the sun shining on them through the painted figure of Our Savior on the window. And they went … to sign the Marriage Register. …

“They all gave place when the signing was done, and Little Dorrit and her husband walked out of the church alone. They paused for a moment on the steps of the portico, looking at the fresh perspective of the street in the autumn morning sun’s bright rays, and then went down.

“Went down into a modest life of usefulness and happiness. Went down to give a mother’s care, in the fulness of time, to Fanny’s neglected children no less than to their own, and to leave that lady going into Society for ever and a day. Went down to [be] a tender nurse and friend to [those in need]. … They went quietly down into the roaring streets, inseparable and blessed; and as they passed along in sunshine and in shade, the noisy and the eager, and the arrogant and forward and the vain, fretted, and chafed, and made their usual uproar.”

Thus did Little Dorrit go “down into a modest life of usefulness and happiness.” Those who view the quiet contemplation of the church house as the essence of the religious life might not understand how there could be great religious meaning in going “quietly down into the roaring streets, inseparable and blessed” into the “usual uproar” of common, everyday family life. But if there is no religious meaning in the ordinary uproar of family life, there is not much religious meaning to life at all. That is where heroism, sacrifice, virtue, and the power and blessings of the priesthood are most likely to be discovered and practiced.

Of course, to “go down” from our pedestals of pride and selfishness into such experiences is also to slip beneath the level of the visible, and the Lord’s work done within the walls of our own homes will not be in full view of an outside audience. For that reason, the lessons learned, the service rendered, the attitudes shaped, the lives quietly changed by the fruits of a true commitment to marriage will never be widely known or understood by outside observers. The principles of love and commitment, and the silent satisfactions that flow from them, are private matters of the heart, known only to those who practice them. Yet, there are no more meaningful satisfactions, for in going down, we ultimately may go up, to the peace and the glory of celestial life.

[illustration] Hearts and minds intertwined in love can withstand conflicts and grow together toward celestial marriage. (Illustrated by Virginia Kuettel Cook.)

Bruce C. Hafen is president of Ricks College, Rexburg, Idaho, and serves as a Sunday School teacher in the Sixth Ward, Rexburg Idaho East Stake.