How to Handle Broken Promises in a Relationship

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People make promises for two major reasons, according to a study published in the December 2009 edition of “Neuron.” You keep your promises because you feel your honor is at stake and it’s the right thing to do. You keep your promises because it encourages trust and future cooperation with the person you made the promise to. When promises aren’t kept, trust is broken and the relationship can be damaged.

Evaluate Motivation

When promises aren’t kept in a relationship, it helps to investigate why the promise breaker made the promise, according to Michelle Glelan, who has a masters in applied positive psychology, in a “Psychology Today” article, “Why Keeping Your Promise is Good for YOU.” If the only reason for the promise is to buy temporary happiness with the person to whom the promise is made, point out that the resulting disappointment and anger more than outweigh the initial happiness. When you don’t keep your promise, you communicate that the other person isn’t valuable to you and isn’t a priority, which damages your relationship, advises Glelan. When you keep your promises, you demonstrate to yourself that your word has value and that you respect yourself.

Realistic or Necessary

You might make a promise because you feel guilt or pressure to commit. When your schedule is too full to keep the promise and there isn’t any way you could keep it, it’s better not to promise anything than disappoint your partner. Instead, you could say, “I’d really like to do that for you, but there isn’t any way for me to follow through with any promise I might make right now.” In some instances, your promise to do something isn’t even necessary, writes Glelan. Honestly communicate with your partner about the situation, which can prevent future disappointment and erosion of trust between you.

When You Must Renege

Sometimes circumstances beyond your control might intervene and prevent you from keeping a promise. If you must break a promise, let your partner know why and as early as possible. Letting your partner know ahead of time can help smooth the situation because it could allow your partner to make other arrangements or handle the situation herself. When your partner has no warning, it appears that you have again devalued that person, which creates more negative feelings.

A History of Broken Promises

When your or your partner have a long history of broken promises, it can be difficult to trust. Commit together not to make any promise you aren’t certain you can keep. Help one another with respectful reminders and pointers, such as writing a commitment on the calendar or leaving a note in an obvious place, such as the refrigerator or bathroom mirror. Avoid badgering, berating and ultimatums, suggests relationship coaches Susie and Otto Collins in the YourTango article, “So Many Broken Promises -- Is it Time to Leave?” Instead, operate with open communication about how the behavior makes you feel.