Intimate partners must trust each other for a relationship to thrive. Their faith in each other’s promises and subsequent follow-through is what sustains their faith in the relationship and in each other.
Most couples agree that automatic trust is not a guarantee. It must be earned on a continuing basis. When couples are committed to the same values and behaviors, they live by them when they are in each other’s presence and when they are apart. They mutually agree that breaking those promises will disrupt the foundation of their relationship.
There are multiple levels of broken promises that create different reactions in different people. Some can be potential deal breakers, like repeated addictive escapes, infidelities, or anything else that is hidden from the other partner and might risk his or her consent were it to be known. When those breaches of trust are repeated, many intimate relationships just cannot survive.
Most broken promises are not intentional, motivated by meanness, or routinely repeated. Every loving couple knows they must be able to endure occasional broken promises, as long as they are not dangerous to the relationship’s foundation. People who love each other try to understand and forgive when those occasional mishaps occur. They weigh them against the good qualities of the relationship and try to let them go.
That doesn’t mean loving partners do not pay attention or just sweep their own transgressions under the rug. Even if the mishaps might be slight and not terribly distressing to the other partner, they still feel responsible for any upset they may have caused and sincerely apologize, committing to be more careful in the future.
However, when any disappointing or offensive behavior happens repeatedly, it can become a problem. Forgiveness can become less automatic when behavior doesn’t change. When small issues are not handled and resolved, they can too easily lead to more crucial offenses in the future.
Even loving partners who repeatedly break promises can no longer continue to excuse those actions that once may have been easier to bear. The good will the couple once counted upon begins to diminish, and the excuses for broken promises simply are no longer believable.
To rebuild trust, intimate partners must be able to rely again on each other’s promises and commitments. For that to happen, they must know themselves and each other more deeply. They must learn to better predict their own future behaviors and be more honest about whether they can actually perform them.
There are many common reasons why partners continue to promise actions and then repeatedly break those commitments. In my work with couples over four decades, I have noted the most typical types of excuses people make when they become habitual promise-breakers. The following six commonly used excuses happen frequently to most couples.
If loving partners can catch them early on in their relationship, they can stop using them when they continuously fail to follow through on commitments. To learn to eliminate repeated excuses and resolve those broken promises, they must first be courageous enough to face those behaviors together, without judgment.
1. Unclear Agreements
Many times, one partner believes the other has committed to a promise when the other does not remember doing so. Or one partner may think that he or she was very clear about a particular agreement, and the other heard a very different message.
Even with texting, many people read something on their phone that was either not intended as it sounded or could be interpreted differently than it was meant. Sometimes what is very important to one partner may be insignificant to the other.
“Honey, I really heard you say something about your needing your cleaning picked up by tonight, but you really weren’t clear on when they closed. I got caught up in something important and didn't leave in time to pick it up. I meant to do what you asked, really. I hope it wasn’t that important.”
Passive-aggressive people are likely to agree to anything their partner asks for in the moment, but have a plethora of ready excuses when they don’t come through, which unfortunately tends to happen on a regular basis. Even when they know they will not be able to or even want to do what the other partner asked, they'll still continue promising they will.
The people who readily promise but rarely come through strongly argue that they absolutely intended to do what they’ve agreed upon, but that unexpected things just always come up. They never admit or agree that they are, once again, likely to disappoint their partners, and can’t understand why their good intent is not enough to be forgiven. They cannot see that they were never likely to follow through, but didn’t want to recognize their own limitations.
“You know that I always and absolutely want to make you happy, and I do everything I can to do whatever you ask. Other things just get in the way. I don’t mean to upset you. You just need to understand that I can’t always do what I promised. It has nothing to do with not wanting to. I never mean to disappoint you, honey. You know that.”
Many people who repeatedly let their partners down are genuinely not able to predict their own availability or resources. They absolutely mean that they will be there at a certain time, do what is asked, change their behaviors, or pick something up before a store is closed.
Perhaps besieged with too many obligations, too few resources, or an inability to recognize their own limitations, they often just cannot adequately predict their own limitations. They may become consumed with their own failures and desperately want their loved ones to just look the other way.
“I’m so careful to write down everything you want from me. I really believe I’ll get things done, but I always seem to run out of time. I promise I’ll do better in the future. Maybe I just try to do too much, and need to try harder.”
4. Fear of Saying “No”
There are people who, for reasons of insecurity, fear of being disliked, or expecting to be rejected if they said what they really feel, just can’t tell their partner that they don’t want to do what the other asks.
Even when a request seems too demanding, those partners feel like the requests are automatic obligations. These people cannot set clear boundaries, because putting themselves first is just not an option. When they are unable to comply, they feel terrible about themselves and plead with the other to forgive them this one time.
“Oh my God, I couldn’t pick up your prescription today. I had to stay home for the repair man, get the kids to the doctor, and get that spreadsheet ready you needed for tonight. I just ran out of time, and now I feel absolutely terrible. Will you ever trust me again? I’m so, so sorry.”
5. Avoiding Criticism in the Moment
There are intimate partners who expect total compliance with any request and are often married to people who cannot bear being told they are inadequate in any way. This unfortunate pairing tends to repeat the same patterns of one partner asking too much, and the other unwilling to admit they don’t want to comply, because they can’t take criticism of any kind.
These partners behave as if they are obligated to serve without question. If and when they cannot perform as they promised, their excuses must be extraordinarily plausible to avoid being seen as a bad person in any way. When confronted with a mishap, their first defense is to blame the other.
“I did seven out of the eight things you asked, perfectly. The eighth was impossible to do in one day. Anyone with the correct information would have known that. Why do you ask things of me that no one could have done in the way you specified? Just so you can find the one thing I failed at?”
6. Unexpected Barriers
A partner seems to have a unique and plausible reason whenever he or she doesn’t keep an agreement. Something new and unexpected always seems to happen that is unusual and unpredictable. These excuses are the most ingenious and creative. It is crucial that the same ones are not repeated, or they lose their impact. Still, over time, these sometimes entertaining and comical-tragic reasons for default tend to create increasing suspicion in the recipient. They will soon be seen as made-up-truths-of-the moment to avoid accountability:
“I knew I was supposed to be home in time for dinner, sweetheart, but the boss came in just as I was about to leave, and his mom was in the hospital with what your mom had, and he really needed someone to talk to. You know I’m the kind of go-to guy that people come to when they’re in trouble, and what could I do? He’s the boss. I figured I’d call you when I could, and I knew you’d understand.”
Any of these incredibly creative excuses would work occasionally, especially if that partner is somewhat reliable at other times. But if the pattern continues, and he or she consistently lets the other down, those excuses might just as well be covering for unintentional or intentional lies. An agreement is something you can count on. A promise is something you have faith in. A commitment is something you rely upon. Excuses that tamper with those beliefs repeatedly and over a long period of time are no longer trustworthy.
Until you learn to promise only what you actually are able to deliver, here are six simple steps to follow if you’ve let your partner down:
1. Admit your mistake up front. Take responsibility for your end of it. It’s really not that hard.
2. Genuinely apologize for your misunderstanding, unsuccessful prioritization, forgetting, or just making your agreement less important than it was for your partner.
3. Ask your partner if this is a recurring disappointment, and if you’ve used those excuses before. If the answer is “yes,” commit to never using them again.
4. Recognize and validate your partner’s right to feel betrayed. Don’t argue, invalidate, or erase his or her feelings.
5. When you next make a promise or agree to a commitment, write it down with your partner, and put it where both of you can see it.
6. Only promise what you know you can do. Even if your partner seems disappointed at the time, he or she will learn to trust you when you do make a commitment.