Your partner broke a promise. Again. They promised to do more around the house. But they didn’t. They promised to stop criticizing you in front of your friends. But they haven’t. They promised to stop over-spending or gambling. They haven’t done that either.
Maybe they broke an even bigger promise—and had an affair.
Broken promises, big or small, corrode trust, said Ashley Thorn, LMFT, a psychotherapist who helps families, couples and individuals facing all kinds of struggles and transitions.
“And without trust in a relationship, there is no feeling of emotional safety, which rids partners of their ability to be vulnerable and connect with each other.”
There are many reasons why partners break promises. The first reason, of course, is that they didn’t want to make the promise in the first place. “Sometimes a person will throw out a promise just to appease their partner or stop a fight, but they didn’t really want to make the promise, may disagree, or feel it’s unfair,” Thorn said.
Second, partners don’t prioritize the promise. That is, if you promised to clean the bathroom, but you don’t consider how you’ll fit the cleaning into your schedule, and you don’t set reminders, you probably won’t follow through.
Third, the promise isn’t specific. This actually often leads partners to unintentionally break a promise, because both of you weren’t on the same page. For example, you ask your husband to manage his drinking better. But what does “manage” mean exactly? Because, as Thorn said, it could mean a million different things. It might mean everything from not drinking at all to not drinking when you’re out to drinking only one drink.
And, lastly, one of the most important reasons promises get broken is because the couple doesn’t work on them together. “Problems in relationships are never one-sided,” Thorn said.
This includes infidelity, too. “Affairs are always a symptom of a bigger problem(s),” which might include being rejected or not being respected. So if you want to stay together, saying, “it’s your problem, it’s your fault, and you’re the one who needs to clean up your act,” won’t fix the underlying disconnects or strengthen the relationship. Of course, infidelity is complex and creates a lot of pain, but it’s important for both spouses to work through it together.
In the drinking example, the couple would talk about how the husband can keep the promise and how the wife can support him (or what her role will be), she said. “Maybe they decide that him having one beer when he gets home from work is reasonable, and that the wife will do the same.” Or maybe she doesn’t drink, but can share her appreciation when she sees him keeping his promise.
Below, Thorn, founder of 4 Points Family Therapy in Sandy, Utah, shared additional suggestions for helping couples navigate promise making and promise keeping.
Pinpoint the specific promise. Let’s say your spouse promises to be nicer to your family. Again, what does this entail exactly? Does it mean calling and texting your family? Does it mean not making sarcastic jokes or bringing up certain touchy topics? Does it mean pitching in more at parties?
Set detailed goals and timelines. For example, a husband feels like his wife is more dedicated to work and the kids, and requests that she prioritize their relationship. According to Thorn, setting specific goals and timelines would look like this: scheduling a date for 5:30 p.m. every Friday night, and rotating who picks the activity and sets up childcare; and spending 15 minutes checking in with each other after the kids go to bed. The husband also agrees to communicate his need for connection more often, and the wife agrees to sincerely listen and try to understand, instead of getting defensive, she said.
In another example, if a partner promises to help around the house more, this might look like: “I will start doing the dishes after dinner, taking the garbage cans out on Thursdays, and picking weeds once a week.”
Bring up a broken promise—not matter how small. Thorn encouraged readers to be assertive with their partners around broken promises. “Let them know what promise you feel has been broken, why you view it as broken, how it made you feel, and what you’d like to see be different.” Also, make sure the promise feels reasonable and realistic for both of you, Thorn said.
Seek professional help. If you’ve done all of the above and promises continue to get broken, it’s time to see a therapist who specializes in working with couples. This is especially important when infidelity has occurred. Therapy can help you sort through and heal the hurts, identify the underlying issues and bolster your bond.
For instance, when Thorn works with couples, she helps them name what’s needed to repair the trust in their relationship. She asks each partner to share what the four elements of trust— honesty, dependability, consistency and transparency—mean to them, and to make requests based on their definitions. These are some requests partners make: “I want you to tell me if the person you say you broke things off with tries to contact you.” “I want you to tell me if you’re feeling detached from me.” “I’d like you to come home at the time you say you’ll be home.” “I’d like to be able to trust that I can talk to you without getting the affair brought up every time.”
Couples also learn healthy ways to navigate emotions and conflict, and commit to spending more time together.
Over time, broken promises, big or small, deplete a relationship’s bond. Knowing how to create promises and working on promises together can help to protect them. And if they’re still broken, seek counseling. As Thorn said, “Everyone has a limit to what they can take, and no one deserves to be in a relationship where they continually feel hurt, and that trust is violated.”