Broken Promises

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While you’re at it, while you’re acknowledging the exact nature of your wrongs, don’t forget one wrong you might’ve committed that is so central that it may overshadow all others and be key to this whole business of reconciliation.

Broken promises.

Embedded in every wrong is a broken promise; a promise either declared or implied, clearly pledged or vaguely expected, guaranteed or merely hoped for. Sometimes a broken promise is the only wrong. Sometimes that one wrong is enough.

Adultery, for instance, is a broken promise. When your husband finds out you’ve been having an affair, you may actually be surprised that he cares about those vows you made so long ago. You might not think they’re so germane or vital. After all, you’re the one who broke them. The person who breaks a promise is the one who hasn’t been taking the promise as seriously.

Some promises were made so long ago, and there have been so many changes, you might think they’ve been revised. When you made your weddings vows, you might have been very young; things might’ve been very different, then. Your husband couldn’t keep his hands off you, he didn’t have that belly, he had some hair, you were both poorer, but his career was just taking off. Now, he’s been passed over for promotion four times, grown balder and fatter, and you haven’t had sex in three months. You might think you’re the victim of a bait and switch scheme. You may think that he broke the vows first by becoming a fat, bald middle manager who hasn’t gone down on you in years. You acted as though the deal was null and void.

If you really felt that way, then it’s better to say something than to just act as though the promise no longer applies. Sit down and say, “You’re fat, bald, and boring, and I’m horny and need someone with more money. I want a divorce.” I know, you wouldn’t do that. You’d feel like a witch. Is it better to protect his feelings, say nothing, and have an affair?

Many promises are made in haste because you didn’t want to talk. You agreed to clean out the garage that weekend because you didn’t want to have to tell your wife you had plans to play golf. She’s already pissed that you play so much golf and you didn’t want to have that fight again when she asked you to clean out the garage. So, you made a promise and deferred the fight to Saturday morning when your buddy was in the driveway and you’re loading your clubs. When you get home, there’s going to be hell to pay, not just because you didn’t clean out the garage; but because you broke a promise made in haste.

If you’re not sure whether you broke a promise, just ask yourself if you’ve been getting a lot of nagging. The presence of nagging is a constant irritation that obscures, but indicates, a broken promise. If she’s on your back all the time to clean out the garage, it’s not because she’s a nag, a shrew, a hypercritical, impossible-to-please, woman; but because you promised to clean out the garage and didn’t.

There are some promises that you’re held to, even though you never explicitly made them. This promise is assumed when you take on a role. When you climb into your car and drive down the highway, for instance, you don’t raise your right hand and swear to drive considerately, to give others space to stop, to go promptly when the light turns green, and to signal your turns; but you should hear the reactions from others if you fail to do so. They have a reasonable expectation that you will drive as if you have your life in your hands, and theirs, too.

Fatherhood is another example of an assumed promise. You never signed on the dotted line to become a father, you never stood up and recited vows; but the child and the mother of your child have some reasonable expectations of you. At the minimum, you owe child support, assistance in rearing, love and concern, and an assurance of safety.

In all those cases, you are held to a promise you never made because it is inherent in the role you took. Others have a reasonable expectation of you. What, then should you do in cases when the expectations of others are unreasonable?

Your husband expects you to drop everything, wait on him hand and foot, constantly be at his beck and call because that’s what his mother did for his father. You never promised to be that kind of wife. In this day and age, he shouldn’t expect that kind of wife. He shouldn’t be angry that you don’t have dinner on the table at exactly six o’clock when you don’t get home until 5:30, after a long day’s work. He shouldn’t be angry, but he is.

In this case, it was his mother who made the promise for you. It’s not fair; it won’t hold up as a contractual obligation in court; but his mother’s promise is something you’re going to have to contend with. You’re going to have to acknowledge that you broke the promise his mother made on your behalf, if you’re ever going to reconcile your differences.

You see, there are objective wrongs and subjective ones. The objective wrongs are those that everyone recognizes. Subjective wrongs rest in the feelings of the person who regards himself as the victim, as your husband does in this case. They look unreasonable, they sound whiney, you believe the supposed victim is just being a big baby, you could accuse him of playing the victim; but, to the person who has the expectations, they’re very real.

What should you do when there are unreasonable expectations? Do you have to apologize? Is this something for which you have to make amends?

In a just world, it would be his mother apologizing and making amends to you for setting you up to fail; but you can’t wait for justice if you want reconciliation. No, you’re not to blame for failing to meet unreasonable expectations, but you are responsible; responsible in the sense that you are able to respond.

What is the best response to an unreasonable expectation?

“No.”

That’s it. You have to say no, and follow it up with actions, like you mean it. If you haven’t said no, or have said no ambiguously, then it’s reasonable to assume you have accepted the expectation. Maybe that’s what you have to apologize for: not saying no.

Why don’t people say no when they need to? It’s hard to say no. Saying no involves being honest and inviting conflict. It puts the relationship at risk. But not saying no is the same as making a promise you can’t keep.

So, if you have looked within and found a broken promise to add to the other wrongs you have committed, then you probably have found even more misdeeds: a failure to be honest and an avoidance of conflict.