In the human psyche competitive commitments occur when the individual is having difficulty committing due to their commitment being in two or more directions at the same time. These commitments are competing due to the reality they are in direct opposition to one another (i.e., freedom versus security).
In most cases, the competing commitment is stronger than the commitment to change, which creates an immunity to change unless the underlying assumptions are uncovered and acknowledged as not working.
Competitive commitments are one example of a seemingly unhealthy desire, at the core of a need to maintain an ambivalent situation, which is creating havoc but appears to have no solution to the client. Uncovering the false assumptions of the client becomes critical to resolution.
A typical competitive commitment in couple’s therapy is the love affair outside the marriage/relationship. The client is stuck in the competitive commitment to both his wife and the other woman (obviously, the gender could be husband and the other man or same sex partners that are permanent versus casual).
Understanding the client’s protective frames in their struggle to resolve their competitive commitment are suggested here as a possible treatment strategy. Protective frames are self-created views about reality (B. Wilson and L. Wilson, 1999) a concept originally conceived by Michael Apter the founder of reversal theory.
Apter’s book The Dangerous Edge (1992) proposed three protective frames. A confidence frame allows one to approach the edge of danger, while experiencing feelings of both high arousal and feelings of protection simultaneously. The individual pushes and has no limits. They seek excitement and look for the exhilaration of danger. The confidence frame can be appropriate or inappropriate and needs to be tested carefully for accuracy. This frame is not only relevant to people who work in physical danger but also anyone who puts themselves at emotional or mental risk as well.
A safety frame allows the individual to feel there is no danger and no immediate possibility of slipping into danger. The individual seeks security, avoids anxiety, and feels an absence from stress and strain. The safety frame can also be inaccurate and this sometimes leads to catastrophe. Date rape, home invasion, and unexpected redundancy are examples.
A detachment frame allows the individual to participate in what is going on, but only as an observer. The detachment can be manifest physically, mentally, or emotionally. The detachment frame features putting others at risk while standing back, a self-substitution, fantasy or make-believe, and retrospection or being stuck in the past. Although detachment may be positive at times, switching off at the end of a hard work day, this frame can also lead to ruminating and unrealistic fantasies.
The Deconstructing Competitive Commitments Model (B. Wilson, 2019) suggests Apter’s protective frames concept can be applied to clients who are dealing with the indecisiveness of a competitive commitment. The model provides a structural basis to explore, with the client, potential protective frames that may be contributing to the client’s distorted view of reality. As the model displays, clients are stuck between two oppositional commitments that are constantly being reinforced by their own inappropriate protective frames.
These frames have the potential to keep the client in a state of ambivalence for as long as the client is willing to resist their need for change. The effective therapist will work with the client to help identify any inappropriate protective frames that might be contributing to the competitive commitment at hand. This process has the potential to be a catalyst to the client’s insight and personal agency.
The next step would be for the client to make a positive commitment to change, possibly a self-contract witnessed by someone who would hold them to the commitment. During this phase, the therapist could assist the client in identifying what the client is doing or not doing to create change. The therapist would also help the client identify any false assumptions that contributed to the competitive commitment. Finally, there might be some hidden competitive commitments that surface in the unveiling of the client’s ambivalence and these would also need to be addressed.
Competitive commitments happen in therapy all the time. Clients are constantly presenting with issues that are permeated with ambivalence and indecisiveness. Should I do this or that? “I want both” or “I want neither” is a common expression of frustration verbalized by clients. Through Deconstructing Competitive Commitments therapists may provide a more productive alternative to treating ambivalence in clients.
Bruce Wilson, PhD has been a registered psychologist in Australia and New Zealand for over 20 years and is currently in private practice at Mind Health Care in Geelong, Victoria, Australia.
Apter, M.J., (1992). The Dangerous Edge: The psychology of excitement. New York, N.Y.: Free Press.
Wilson, B. & Wilson, L. (1999). Offense Mechanisms in Couples. Journal of Family Psychotherapy, Vol 10(2), The Haworth Press Inc.