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Promises, Promises: Easily Made, Easily Broken After Divorce

Promises are easily made, yet easily broken.

Key points

  • A broken agreement can rupture a relationship, yet there can be less motivation to keep agreements after a divorce.
  • Not keeping agreements with an ex can lead to conflict, which research shows can damage children.
  • Making an immediate effort to repair the damage after a broken agreement can help reduce conflict.

In a good divorce, if you have children, you and your soon-to-be-ex will create a parenting plan together. If you don’t have children, you will make some agreements in your marital settlement agreement (MSA) about how to share things like future earnings, credit card debt, proceeds from the sale of collectibles, or even airline miles.

When you are married, you know that a broken agreement can cause a rupture in the relationship. For example, having an affair is a big betrayal of your commitment to your partner. But even small broken promises will erode trust over time. When Mark consistently “forgets” to lock the front door after a prowler was seen in the area, despite his promise to do so, the effect is cumulative. His spouse feels angry and anxious, but also unloved, disrespected, and unimportant. However, it’s important to him to keep his relationship, so he works hard to rebuild the trust. Breaking an agreement erodes trust easily, but it takes time and work to rebuild the trust.

The stakes are different when you’re divorced. You may be less motivated to build trust, or you may think that it would be hopeless to even try. Colin told me that he no longer cares if his ex gets angry at him. He says, “She made her bed and now she can sleep in it.” And Audry told me that she’s given up on Colin ever keeping his agreements. She said, “This parenting plan is a waste of time because Colin will just do exactly what he wants to do, no matter what he agrees to."

Why it's important to keep agreements

Trust after divorce is important if you have children, even adult children. For the rest of your life, you’ll have some contact with your ex, who is your children’s other parent. Your kids deserve parents who can at a minimum tolerate each other at significant events, such as graduations, weddings, or the birth of a grandchild.

While your children are younger and not yet “launched,” you’ll need more contact with your ex to support your children’s sense of, “We’re still one family under two roofs.” Research has shown that parental conflict is the single biggest factor in children’s adjustment to divorce. Parents who don’t stop arguing are damaging their kids, and the damage is often long-term. Broken agreements lead to conflict, and the evidence shows that kids are damaged by this.

Keeping agreements is one way to rebuild the trust that has been damaged by the time your divorce is finished. Because your kids need parents who can cooperatively parent them, your most important job is to reduce conflict with your ex. And one way to reduce the conflict is to stand by the agreements you’ve made. Colin promised to pick up the children at 5:00 so that his ex could meet friends for a birthday dinner. When he was an hour late, Audry again felt angry and disrespected. And her kids saw her frustration and saw their parents arguing at the front door. Small lapses in keeping promises can have big and lasting effects.

Why it's hard to keep agreements

Do you keep your agreements? If not, is it because you’re angry, wanting to hurt your ex?

Or if your ex doesn’t keep their agreements, perhaps your ex, like Colin, doesn’t care about your feelings, or whether you trust him, or whether you can co-parent harmoniously? The person who doesn’t keep the agreements may feel their ex is intrusive or controlling. Failing to keep agreements is a passive-aggressive way of dealing with those feelings.

Don’t make agreements you can’t keep. Some people agree to things to “go along to get along.” Colin hated conflict and didn’t want to argue about the various decisions in the parenting plan. I urged him to think carefully before agreeing to something that he may not be able to commit to. We talked about the importance of trust when co-parenting, and the devastating long-term effects of parental conflict on children. It is fine to say, “I need to think about it,” or “ That doesn’t work for me,” when discussing the various decisions included in your parenting plan or MSA. Be honest about what you can accept and what you will not be able to accept.

If you break an agreement (intentionally or not)...

  • Tell your ex ASAP. Acknowledge what you did or didn’t do, honestly and without excuses. After coaching, Colin told Audry, “I know I agreed to talk to you before I would introduce Max to my new girlfriend, and I broke our agreement last weekend. I think that’s a part of our parenting plan we need to revisit because that agreement isn’t working for me.”
  • Repair, immediately. You can’t turn the clock back to undo something that broke your agreement with your ex. The way to fix it is to talk about it, apologize, and talk about some solutions. For example, Colin might say, “I realized it was against our agreement when I decided to introduce Max, even though I wanted to. I am sorry because it was obviously a shock for you. I want to fix this somehow. So can we talk about how to make the introduction easier? I have some ideas and I’d appreciate your help in finding the best way to bring Marcia into Max’s life.” This can only work if you end a pattern of not keeping agreements. One lapse can be forgiven, but a repeated pattern of not keeping your word will cause arguments and distrust.
  • Think about why you broke the agreement. This is important so that you won’t do it again. Colin felt that he rushed through the parenting plan process because the divorce was so painful. He just wanted to put it behind him. So he agreed to things without a lot of thought and failed to recognize the importance of keeping his word. He was excited about his new relationship and wanted to share his happiness with his son. He didn’t remember that he’d agreed to speak to his ex first. Fortunately, he and his ex were able to work together to make the transition easier for Max, and Colin was careful to stick to his agreements after re-working the parenting plan.

If your ex doesn’t keep their agreements...

  • Stop, if you are triggered. Take a moment or more to calm down and think about the best way to problem-solve this situation. Try to avoid communicating your anger or frustration to your kids, and wait until you feel rational enough to approach your ex.
  • Just the facts, please. You could text, call, or email your ex with your complaint. But my experience tells me that an email might work best. You can describe what happened, what your understanding of your agreement is, and what you would like to happen next. Keep the email brief, neutral, and future-focused.

    After she calmed down, Audry decided to email Colin. “Hey, Colin. We agreed in our parenting plan not to introduce a significant other to Max until speaking with each other first. You went ahead and introduced Marcia before I knew you were going to do it, so I was quite shocked when he came home and told me he’d met your new girlfriend. I am disappointed that you didn’t stick to our agreement. I’d like to find a time to meet with our counselor to review the parenting plan so we can make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

    The advantage to using email is that Colin can take some time to think about it before responding to Audry. Calls and texts often provoke reactions, as opposed to well-thought-through responses.

  • Follow through with your plan. If you want to review your parenting plan with a professional, set up a time to do so. View this as a learning opportunity, a chance to refine your parenting plan so that it works better for you and your ex, and commit to making realistic agreements that you can stick to.

ⓒ Ann Buscho, Ph.D. 2022

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