CASE STUDIES; the Art of Commitment: Dissolving Power Struggles in Couples Therapy

By Hendricks, Gay; Hendricks, Kathlyn | Psychotherapy Networker, September/October 2001 | Go to article overview

CASE STUDIES; the Art of Commitment: Dissolving Power Struggles in Couples Therapy


Hendricks, Gay, Hendricks, Kathlyn, Psychotherapy Networker


In working with approximately 3,000 couples during the past 20 years, we have made several discoveries about commitment that made a profound difference in how we view the whole therapeutic enterprise.

Here's what we found:

- Problems in relationships almost always contain hidden problems of commitment, and two problems in particular--committing to outcomes that cannot be controlled and committing in name only--account for much of the distress.

- Although the breakdown of a relationship is almost always caused by a hidden commitment problem, the breakdown itself is the perfect opportunity to learn how commitment really works. If resolved, the breakdown can serve as the prelude to a new level of intimacy in the relationship.

- Therapists who understand and apply two concepts about commitment--that the results you get reveal the actual commitment you've made, and to make a change in a relationship, each participant must take 100 percent responsibility for the current situation--can eliminate a great deal of energy-draining work in the treatment of couples.

The Big Mistakes

Most of the couples whom we see have little understanding of how commitment really works. Correspondingly, we see the same commitment mistakes being made repeatedly. Of these, two stand out as being the most common and the most troublesome.

The first mistake is that people commit to outcomes (which cannot be controlled) rather than processes (which are always within our control.) The opening line of Epictetus's Art of Living (written 2,000 years ago and considered humankind's first self-help book) says, "The secret of happiness is realizing that some things can be controlled and some cannot." Nowhere is that truth more apparent than in close relationships. To use a familiar example, a traditional wedding vow commits us to "love, honor and obey" the other person "until death do us part." This is an outcome commitment, and is doomed to failure from the start. None of us has any control over whether we will wake up loving and honoring another person on a given morning. Feelings by their very nature are beyond our control. What's within our control is how we deal with our feelings once we discover them. We can ignore them, pay attention to them, speak frankly about them, tighten our shoulders to hide them. Some of these options obviously make for better relationships than others.

The second mistake is a failure to understand a profound truth about commitment: In all times and every way, we are getting exactly what we're committed to getting. Here's why this discovery is both troubling and potentially liberating: All of us have unconscious commitments--hidden from our own view and surrounded by a wall of defenses--which sabotage our conscious commitments. We've found that there is only one quick, foolproof way to find out what we're really committed to, and that is to look at the results we're producing. For example, even if we think we're committed to spending more quality time together, a quick look at the results will tell us whether we're achieving it. If we're not spending more quality time together, we have to admit that we're not actually committed to it. To present a clear example of the principles, we've selected a case in which the work does indeed proceed relatively smoothly. As any experienced therapist knows, however, the snap-finger magic of rapid change is largely in the domain of late-night infomercials, not in the real world of normal office practice. That said, there are ways to speed up the process of change through a deep understanding of commitment. In the following example, there are numerous points at which we ask for commitments of one sort or another. Based on our experience, we believe these moments to be crucial to increasing the speed at which couples make changes. …

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