By Melissa Ritter, Ph.D.
Keeping promises is considered a measure of one’s worth—we prize being “as good as our word.” Yet each of us has struggled to keep some of our promises, often feeling like failures when we've been unable to do so.
Why is it sometimes hard to keep a promise?
Promises are avowals of intent, large and small, that mark a wide range of interpersonal events—from marriage to specific behavior toward another person to the completion of tasks at home or at work. Promises require us to declare a conscious objective: We will love our partner for life. We will never do the thing the other person does not want us to do (or always do the thing they want us to do). We will get the job done.
But people have so many out-of-awareness thoughts and feelings, we may not “know” of our unconscious ambivalence about a stated commitment.
There are a number of commonly understood reasons promises are broken, including that our feelings, capacity, or circumstances have changed over time. The fading of romantic love for one’s partner is emblematic of this—what once was is no more. The death of a loved one, the loss of a job, the birth of a child, falling in love, and developing illness, to list but a few, are all events that can shift our feelings and consequent behavior—often monumentally. We may no longer have the capability or willingness to keep a specific promise, or it may no longer benefit those concerned to do so.
Less obvious are the internal conflicts that are out of our awareness at the time a promise is made. Take the forever promise, as in, “I will love you forever,” “I will be your friend forever,” or “I will stay with you forever.” Most of us have said something like this to at least one person in our lives. And most of us meant it sincerely when we said it. At least we consciously believed we did.
However, only a fraction of our thoughts and feelings are in our awareness at any moment, and we often focus exclusively on those feelings that are most favorable and least threatening to our sense of well being. So, we know we want the other person in our lives forever, but we might not be aware of concurrent feelings of doubt, fear and anger. Or we might have some vague uncertainty hovering at the edges of awareness—Hmmmm, maybe I am not so sure—but we don’t attend to this feeling, because we imagine it would put our connection to the other in jeopardy.
People are psychologically organized to protect against emotional distress by keeping unsettling thoughts and feelings out of mind. We don’t want to acknowledge that our romantic partnership requires strained compromise, or that our unhappiness at work is interfering with our job performance.
How It Plays Out
We are reluctant to face painful realities.
A young man in my practice lamented the end of a long-term relationship with his partner. They had lived together for many years—forever had been promised—and the breakup was extremely distressing for them both. “I loved him, I really did,” he said tearfully, “but I sort of always knew…it wasn’t as deep and enlivening as I wanted.”
From very early in this romantic relationship, my patient felt contradictory emotions simultaneously: He loved his partner, while also hazily sensing dissatisfaction and despair, feelings that did not draw his conscious attention—after all, he and his partner did make a cozy and gratifying life together.
To acknowledge significant negative feelings was frightening to my patient. He did not want to lose the relationship, but was also dimly aware of irritation, boredom, and loneliness. As this conflict entered his conscious awareness, he was able to explore—with relief, as well as anxiety—previously unrecognized feelings. He emerged sad, but also hopeful.
The same phenomenon can interfere with keeping less significant promises as well, like promising to complete a task by a certain deadline. When you say, “I will have it to you by next week! No problem!” your conscious intent to do the job on time is wholehearted—you are going to do what you said you’d do. You want to.
But, hold on: Maybe you unconsciously resent having to do the task, or are worried you won’t do it well enough, or regret choices that led to this unwelcome demand on your time. And so, somehow, the work doesn’t get completed because a part of you never wanted to promise you’d do it in the first place.
Should We Ever Promise?
Trying as best one can to keep promises is crucial. These interpersonal contracts facilitate trust and love. But since so much is out of our awareness, are we all doomed to keep making promises we cannot keep?
People will always struggle against themselves. We disregard human complexity when we harshly criticize others—and ourselves—for "failing" to feel and behave exactly as promised.
But we can make a concerted effort to know ourselves better, to attend to that which we might prefer to ignore. Then, when we make a promise, we can be alert to the possibility of having contradictory feelings. This is one goal of psychoanalytic therapy: to bring out-of-awareness thoughts and feelings into our conscious minds. But, of course, one needn’t enter therapy to look inward with friendly determined curiosity before making a promise.
Melissa Ritter, Ph.D., is a psychologist-psychoanalyst practicing in New York City. She is a supervisor and faculty member at The William Alanson White Institute, as well as co-editor of this blog, Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Action. She is co-chair of the White Institute LGBT Study Group, and clinical supervisor at The City University of New York and Adelphi University.