Have you ever had a single line of text change your marriage? It’s only happened to me once and the line in question came from marriage experts Gay and Katie Hendricks: “In all times and every way, we are getting exactly what we are committed to getting.” Take a moment to sit with this idea. Take a moment to let it in. Consider the idea that, somehow, you are committed to getting all of the problems and challenges you experience in marriage throughout the day. That’s right, you are committed to, say, a partner’s control issues, sarcastic comments, or lack of affection.
(Of course, there are limits to this thought experiment. It works with minor irritations and conflicts and is certainly not a guiding principle when confronted with major traumas or abusive situations.)
Most of us recoil at the very thought of this idea. We feel deep resistance to it. Our minds flood with defensive thoughts: “How can that be?” “Why would I be committed to all this struggle?” or “I’m not the problem here.”
But if you can let these initial waves of resistance move through, if you can open to a radical sense of curiosity, then this simple thought experiment can change your marriage and your life.
Why? It flips our ordinary way of viewing marriage on its head. We’re wired to think that most of our problems originate from outside ourselves. This wiring sounds like, “If only my partner were more loving or more engaged,” or “If only my extended family wasn’t so crazy” or “If only the world weren’t so out of control.” If only these things changed, we think, then I could finally be happy.
The thought experiment posed by the Hendricks’, however, challenges you to set these thoughts aside, if only for a moment, and to instead wonder how you might be creating these problems for yourself. At first, this idea might sound totally depressing. But, in the end, it’s actually radically empowering. Because if you played a role in creating these problems, then you must also have the power to change them.
So how can you make the most of this shift in perspective to what the Hendricks call 100% responsibility? Take these steps.
1. Identify Your Unconscious Commitments.
The first step is to see these commitments more clearly. To do that, it can be helpful to ask yourself, “What are the problematic results I’m getting in marriage?” “Where am I stuck?”
Then, write down your answers.
For example, many people tell me that they feel upset at their partner for not caring enough, doing enough, or loving them enough. If that’s the problematic result you’re getting in marriage, write down, “My partner isn’t caring, engaged, or loving enough.”
2. Ask Yourself, “How Am I Committed to This?”
Now for the mind-blowing question: “How am I committed to getting this result?”
This isn’t one of those questions that you ask, think about for 15 seconds, and then leave behind. No, this is a question on which to meditate. It’s a question to plant in your mind and then sit with for a while.
Once you have reflected on it, write down the one to three ways you are holding this pattern in place.
For example, if your partner doesn’t show you enough love and affection, your question becomes, “How am I committed to having an unaffectionate partner?”
Once you look closely at this question, you might notice that you have a part to play in this dynamic. For instance, it might be that you’re expecting affection but also not giving your partner enough of it. Or it might be that you’re not following through on key projects, chores, or tasks around the house. Or maybe there is fear holding this dynamic in place: your fear of being vulnerable, showing your true emotions, and asking for what you really want.
3. Build One Commitment-breaking Habit
Do you really want to change this commitment?
It’s a question worth asking because most of the time we actually benefit in some way from these dysfunctional commitments. We get to feel in control. We get to be right. Or we get the badge of honor that comes with being a modern day super dad.
But assuming your answer is “yes,” that you want to change this commitment, the final step is to create a new commitment-breaking habit. It’s something you can do every day to interrupt the momentum of the commitment you have identified.
If you’re committed to having an unaffectionate partner, for example, your new habit might be revealing your inner experience to your partner (and — for bonus points — doing it from a place of kindness).
If you’re committed to a marriage where you constantly fight about fairness, it might be building the habit of one radically generous act of contribution to your partner each day.
If you’re committed to never spending quality time together, it might be setting aside 20 minutes to share your experiences at the end of each day.
This new habit will help you disrupt your old commitment and develop a new one — a commitment designed to give you a different, better, result.
Nate Klemp, PhD is the coauthor of the newly released The 80/80 Marriage: A New Model for a Happier, Stronger Marriage. He is also the coauthor, with Eric Langshur, of the New York Times Bestseller Start Here: Master the Lifelong Habit of Wellbeing and is a regular contributor for Inc. Magazine, Fast Company, and Mindful.