Toward Commitment

A Dialogue About Marriage


By Diane Rehm

By John B. Rehm

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In Toward Commitment, Diane Rehm, the nationally known Public Radio broadcaster, and John, her lawyer-husband, open up for the reader their marriage of over forty years, revealing their passionate bond as well as their points of conflict and frustration. In a series of surprisingly honest dialogues, they grapple with their pronounced differences of background, attitude, and expectation. Addressing difficult and important issues-from love and sex and raising children to dependence and independence, from spiritual differences to financial and social needs-Toward Commitment gives readers the opportunity to eavesdrop on a husband and wife bravely analyzing their relationship and confronting the issues that inevitably strain a relationship. Refreshingly candid, these perceptive discussions will resonate with any two people who care enough about each other to resolve their difficulties. A practical guide for married couples as well as a must-read for couples considering that commitment, this thoughtful and ultimately hopeful book will help them become closer than ever.


Assumptions and Expectations


Looking back to the time before our wedding in December 1959, I am shocked by the naïveté of the assumptions I held about the experience we call marriage. In the ardor of intimacy, sexual and otherwise, I gave little thought to what lay ahead. I assumed that children, in some indeterminate number, would come, and that a family would emerge therefrom. I further assumed that, as a hardworking and ambitious young lawyer, I would see my income steadily rise and come to afford a decent standard of living. Most tellingly, I assumed that Diane and I would establish a mutually rewarding relationship, with no special efforts by, or demands upon, me. In short, the way we lived together in the first year of our marriage, before our son, David, arrived, would, in some deterministic fashion, serve as the model for our coexistence thereafter.

These assumptions concealed deep and even dark questions that I would be forced to face in later years, especially in therapy. How would I deal with my strong inclination at times to be alone and withdraw from others?

How would I become sensitive to Diane's need for intimacy beyond sexual gratification? How would I achieve a reasonable balance between the conflicting demands of family and profession? Above all, how would I learn enough about myself to develop into a warm and understanding husband and father?

In short, coasting on easy assumptions, I failed to articulate--to myself and others--any realistic expectations about the many facets of marriage. Unlike assumptions, expectations lend themselves to discussion with the other partner, and thereby to adjustment and accommodation. Assumptions, which by nature tend to be concealed and static, are traps that I fell into. Expectations, on the other hand, can serve as a foundation for a dynamic relationship. At the time, however, it never occurred to me to share my expectations with Diane.

In the absence of articulated and shared expectations, I--and we--blundered upon important truths about ourselves. This process of trial and error proved to be inefficient and emotionally costly. In time, therapy proved to offer a far better way of identifying problems and trying to attack them. At the very least, therapy gave me the support and guidance I needed to become a constructive partner in our marriage. But I am struck by the price we paid for the ignorance with which I entered into our relationship.


Having been married once before, I did come to our marriage with both assumptions and expectations. My first assumption was that this marriage was forever. I vowed to myself that divorce would never again be a factor in my life. I assumed I had learned enough about myself--and how to live with another person--through that failure, that I would be a perfect partner to John. After all, I told myself, I was no longer the same person who had married at nineteen. I was now a "mature" twenty-three. I had lost my parents. I had successfully lived on my own for the first time in my life. I had virtually separated myself from my community of origin here in Washington. I assumed that, because of those experiences, I had become a wiser, more independent person.

John and I enjoyed a wonderful romance, what every young woman dreams of. He was warm, sweet, kind, and attentive. On one of our very first dinner dates, I developed a terrible stomachache, perhaps a result of nervousness at being with the first man I'd dated since the divorce. I was embarrassed, but to my total surprise, John exhibited a kindness and caring I'd never before experienced, even from my own parents.

We went to concerts, to plays, to art galleries, to movies. We went on long walks, talking constantly, glancing at each other, shyly kissing for the first time in the boxwood gardens at the home of George Mason. We loved taking long drives into the countryside and then going out for pizza and wine at Luigi's, talking with each other about our dreams, our fantasies, our attraction to each other. In vino veritas, John said to me, and then had to translate.

I naively believed I understood how to deal with tensions in personal relationships because I had undergone a three-year marriage and the trauma of divorce. So much of what my ex-husband and I brought to our marriage was based on similarities: culture, language, status. Our families knew one another, we came from the same community, we enjoyed the same foods, we understood our heritage. There were good times, of course. For the most part, however, those good times were not spent by ourselves, but rather when we were with friends, sharing laughter and good food.

When the breakup came, after the death of my parents, I knew in my heart that, as much as leaving my husband, I wanted to leave that very same community which had surrounded me for my whole life. I yearned for freedom from the familiar, and my search--both internal and external--was leading me in directions I sensed would allow me to experience that freedom.

When John Rehm came into my life, I believed that he represented all of those "new directions" I was seeking but unable to articulate: a broad worldly outlook, sophistication in music and art, and sensitivity to each and every aspect of my mood, my tone, my actions. When he finally came around to proposing (and writing it down!) I accepted because I knew marriage to John would bring with it an entrée into "the world" that I had never before experienced.

Of course, I also saw in John a tendency to withdraw, to separate himself from me, to "close down." However, I convinced myself that whatever the causes of such episodes--lasting moments or hours--they would magically disappear if we were married. He was, to my eyes, perfect.

Dialogue on Assumptions and Expectations

Diane: The whole question of marriage revolves around assumptions and expectations. I was twenty-two, you were twenty-nine, and we never talked about such ideas. I don't know how that might have affected how we behaved toward each other. What do you think?

John: Well, I think it would've made for an easier relationship, because we would have shared plans, shared commitments, a sense of where both parties were going, instead of making up the decisions as we went along. I think it would have been a more stable foundation for a marriage.

Diane: But you had this whole external set of expectations. Number one, that you would be "in charge" of the family. Number two, that you would be the breadwinner. Number three, that I would take care of the household and the children. And, of course, I shared those expectations. Mine were no different from yours. The area where we differed was in our internal lives: how much I expected you to be a partner to me, and how much you expected to be solitary. That's where the expectations and the anticipations differed.

John: Yes, I agree, and that's where I think the expectations move into the trickier realm that I call assumptions, because the expectations you've just mentioned rested upon my own personality, which had never been tested, because I'd never lived with anybody else before. It took some years for me to gain at least some understanding of who I was in that respect, and that's of course where therapy helped. So it's particularly the area of assumptions, unstated assumptions of which we're largely ignorant, that I think was the most troublesome aspect of our marriage.

Diane: Beyond that, because I did not understand your unstated need, the first year after David was born, you assumed that we were not going to make it. You said to me at that point, do you remember, "I'm not sure we've made the right marriage."

John: I don't recall the specific instance, but I'm not surprised, because for me, how shall I say it, this marriage was a brand-new, unforeseen test of who I was and how I could get along with others. That need had never arisen in my life before. My parents were happy to have me lead a solitary life if that's what I wanted and to follow that course for the rest of my life.

Diane: But why did you get married in the first place then?

John: Good question. Sexual desire was, without question, a powerful motive.

Diane: But you could've had sexual relations with other women.

John: That's certainly true. But somewhere in me, obviously, there was a desire for a more permanent commitment, something I could count on, and I suppose that's another one of the unstated assumptions, lurking below the surface, that I made. In a sense, though paradoxical, I needed some degree of security as well as, within that security, the freedom to be on my own. That's quite a tension.

Diane: And that's where we got into trouble. Because you had the security of coming home to me every single night, or, as the need arose, you said, "I have to work. I have to work six days a week. I have to work seven days a week." So that I was left thinking and feeling, Well, my God, where is he in this marriage? And your excuse was always work!

John: You've put your finger on it. I was both in and out of the marriage at the same time. Or that's what I wanted, to be in and out of the marriage at my choosing. So that, when I wanted to, I would have a companion, beautiful, sexually attractive. At other times I would leave the house, primarily through work, but in other ways as well, as they occurred to me.

Diane: Do you think other young men behave in similar ways? Do you think you're that different from other young men, not only of your generation but of this generation?

John: Well, not that different, though I may be a bit farther along the spectrum. As you and I have discussed before, I am convinced that there's something in the male psyche which does make it difficult to make that commitment. Our literature, culture, movies, are full of instances where young men are dragged into marriage, on the one hand thinking that it's what society expects, but on the other hand resenting it, resenting the loss of freedom that marriage entails. I think many--perhaps most--men go through that, at some level. I think we've known male friends who've been able to balance the two reasonably well, and other cases, not so well.

Diane: You and I have seen instances in the last ten years where parents have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on weddings, and then the couples have divorced or separated within a year or so. Do you think that if I had somehow not been as committed as I was to the relationship, you would've said, "Well, this didn't quite work out the way I wanted, so I'll help support the child, but goodbye"?

John: I think there's a good chance that that would've happened. I've long felt, and I've said to you several times, that your almost irrational commitment to the relationship, growing out of your own prior relationship, is what sustained our relationship at its darkest moments, and that, given my free choice--it's not that clear to me, but there's certainly a good chance that I would've walked away, because I simply was not making, and was not prepared to make, that fundamental commitment to the marriage.

Diane: But what did that fundamental commitment constitute in your own mind? That word "commitment" comes up so often, and yet I'm not quite sure I have an understanding of what the word means to you, what it might mean to other people--other men, especially. You hear young women say, again and again, "This man is not willing to make a commitment." What did that mean to you?

John: For me, commitment meant a dedication to our family, which at times would override, and should override, my own desire to be off by myself, doing things by myself. It was a little easier for me to do so because you were fighting so hard to keep the marriage together. We've been talking about some of the problems I had in making a commitment and what that means. I'd like to ask you, from where do you think came the strength of your desire for commitment, your ability to make a commitment--where did all that come from?

Diane: Well, first of all, deep down, I think I knew I married a good man, though there were times when I was angry, I was frustrated, I was beyond belief at your behavior, at your lack of interest, at your failure to even be part of the family for long periods of time. But remember also that, having been married once before, I was absolutely determined that this marriage was going to be a lifetime commitment. You know, you and I fell in love, and a year later we were married--we didn't really know each other. But I felt this was a marriage worth having, that our first child, our son, was so beautiful, and such a gift from heaven, and that we had a family worth having. I knew you were a dedicated worker, I knew you were loyal, I knew you were committed to the idea of supporting this family that you had, materially but not yet emotionally, and I knew that that was going to be the long-term challenge, to find for both of us that balance. Of course, there was the economic underpinning, but where was the emotional underpinning? That's what I was committed, in a sense, to find.

John: Even at the worst times, you still had something you could rely upon, that sustained you? That sounds truly irrational, when you look at all the considerations at the time, and the nature of my behavior. Why persist in an almost masochistic fashion?

Diane: Don't get me wrong. There were many times when I thought, I can't stand this anymore. I'm going to leave him! I'm going to find an apartment. I'm going to take the baby and live on my own. But still, I felt it was important--and by that time Jennie had come along--I felt these two children needed two parents. Now, that's very different from the thinking today, but that is my old-fashioned--

John: But suppose the husband in question is behaving in a destructive fashion, destructive to the family? Then what? Surely there's no point in maintaining--

Diane: I think you're absolutely right.

John: Did you reach that point in our relationship?

Diane: No, because I think the fundamentals were there. We were economically supported. You loved the children--that was clear. When you were around, you maintained a wonderful relationship with both of them. My complaint was that you were not there often enough, and when you were there, frankly, you were more engaged with the children than you were with me. Or else you were sleeping, claiming fatigue, or claiming that you didn't have the energy for anything.


On Sale
Jan 8, 2004
Page Count
304 pages

Diane Rehm

About the Author

Diane Rehm has hosted “The Diane Rehm Show” on WAMU in Washington, D.C. since 1979. Since 1996, it has been distributed nationally and internationally by National Public Radio to nearly 1.5 million listeners.

John B. Rehm, a highly successful Washington lawyer, both for government and in private practice, has recently retired. John and Diane Rehm live in Bethesda, Maryland.

Diane Rehm has hosted The Diane Rehm Show on WAMU in Washington, D.C. since 1979. Since 1996, it has been distributed nationally and internationally by National Public Radio to nearly 1.5 million listeners.

John B. Rehm, a highly successful Washington lawyer, both for government and in private practice, has recently retired. John and Diane Rehm live in Bethesda, Maryland.

Learn more about this author