Communication — 29 October 2003
Promises made and kept – fuel trust

Promises come in large and small denominations. They are one way of
extending good will, security and trust between people. We promise to
love, to help, to be there, and to invest in each other. How well we
honor our promises _ earns us a record of integrity.

Some promises are so enormous that they challenge even the best intentioned promise makers. ” To love and to cherish till death do us part”, is one of those challenging vows. Promising to feel love for your partner for the rest of your life is a daunting task.

We can promise to act lovingly most of the time and to do our best to
remember our partners cherished traits. But, feelings are complex and
evoked not programmed. Love for children can be unconditional; love
between partners is earned.

The smaller, daily verbal commitments we make can and should be honored.
Part of our sense of security in interpersonal relationship is based on
our ability to trust others promises and keep our own. An honest man
keeps his word.

Parents promises to children are vital and yield great power. “If you
behave nicely while we are out to dinner, we will buy you a surprise
gift tomorrow”. A promise like this is akin to an employment contract.
You do something for us (be quiet and patient while we are at the
restaurant), and we will compensate you for it. If parents “forget”,
renege, or change the terms, they do not honor their part of the
negotiated agreement, and may leave the child angry, confused and hurt.
“But  you promised?”

We teach children to keep their words and be reliable. Adults must be
vigilant about their part of the contract as well. When the promised
reward is not provided, the child’s security is shattered. Children seek
to learn the ways adults operate so they can emulate them and become
successful adults. When the adults falter, the children may become
bewildered about themselves or their parents.

The child may doubt his own behavior: “Maybe I wasn’t good last night? I
thought I was.” Or, “If the powerful adults promise but do not keep
their word- who can I trust? “Should I keep my promise next time?” When
unkept promises become pattern- children lose respect for the adults and
may become confused, angry and depressed.

Promises between adults get transacted in a similar fashion. They begin
with trust that the committed acts will be carried out and may
deteriorate to mistrust and disrespect for those who fail to follow through.

In couple relationships, the integrity of each partner is gauged, in
part, by how well he or she comes through with the spoken promises. “You
said you will come home early tonight.” “You promised to call the
service person and mail my urgent packages”. “I counted on you to do
what you said you would do”. “I am so disappointed, because I don’t know
if I can count on you”.

Since intimate partnerships are based on trust and reliability, when one
partner fails to keep his word, the confidence and comfort of the other
partner begins to falter.

There are many reasons why mates may not keep their promises. The most
common one is that life is so demanding that many promises can not
possibly be carried out. Partners depend on each other in so many areas
that when other demands arise, like jobs, kids, friends, etc. they may
slack in their obligations to one another.

For some couples unkept promises are ways of intentionally or
unintentionally resisting each other. If they are in a power struggle,
or one partner feels pressured or controlled by the other, he or she may
disappoint the partner in order to prove his or her independence.

Angry partners often find themselves faltering on their promises as a
form of punishment. “You didn’t do what I asked you to do, so I didn’t
do what you requested.” This form of an eye for an eye is an immature
and very destructive behavioral pattern. Dishonoring one’s promises only
damages the promiser’s integrity.

Some people fail to realize the implication of not keeping their
promises. They take their own words very lightly and do not understand
why others get upset with them. “So I said I would come and help you
but I fell asleep, you can’t blame me for that!” This individual fails
to appreciate the significance of his help and his friend’s reliance on

Other people make promises to keep the moment pleasant. The harmony they
seek prevents them from denying a request. They commit to several
activities at the same time. Clearly, only one of these promises can be
kept. These individuals trade pleasing people at the moment for
disappointing them later.

Still other people find more pleasurable endeavors than the ones they
committed to, so they renege on the original promise. This is a
self-centered approach, which may ultimately leave the person friendless.

To keep your promises, you need to

  • Have respect for yourself and your words.
  • Realize that keeping your promises is part of your integrity.
  • Accept that promises are contracts and carrying them out demonstrate
    your being an honorable individual.
  • Know that being trusted to keep your word _ is an aspect of good
    friendships and healthy relationships.
  • Make only promises you can keep and remember them.
  • Avoid resorting to unkept promises due to anger, power struggle,
    defiance, or retribution. Your word reflects upon your character.
  • Executed promises between mates enhance trust, respect and love.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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