May 17, 2013 6:45 pm

How do you cope with a broken promise?

People make promises on behalf of future selves they cannot know will fulfil them. Look at a promise as not so much a binding contract but an act of commitment and trust

The Shrink

An illustration depicting broken promises©Laura Carlin

“How do you cope with a broken promise?” asks a reader. Whether we consider it a forgivable mistake, or proof that nobody can be trusted, will be partly dictated by our underlying views. Many of us ignore complexities and adopt rigid views about the world and other people, perhaps because it helps us to cope with anxiety and uncertainty. So while some end up with a rose-tinted view of human nature, others hold a cynical one in which any outward decency invariably conceals ugly conscious – or unconscious – ulterior motives.

In the real world things are usually a bit more complicated. So whether we are dealing with a broken promise to give up drinking; or one to spend less time at work and more time with the family; or one to keep a secret, we would do well to take a good look at the specifics and try to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes: how did they view the promise in the first place? What were the reasons for their behaviour?

The question: “How could they do that?” may surface and resurface in our mind. The fact is that people often make unrealistic promises, based on wishful thinking, rather than carefully considering matters. Or they act impulsively. A promise may also be broken if it rests on assumptions that turn out to be wrong. (For instance, it would be unfair to be cross with someone for failing to call as promised if they were stuck somewhere with no mobile reception.)

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True, a promise should not be made unless there’s good reason to think it will be possible to keep it. But we’re all human and fallible, and if in retrospect it becomes clear that a promise should not have been made, should we also accept it does not have to be kept?

Dealing with a broken promise requires flexibility. But if you’re faced with a chain of broken promises, the time had better come when you remove your trust from the person concerned, not from the whole of the human race.

. . .

The Sage

Did you ever commit to meeting up at some pre-agreed time and place with your school friends when you were all grown up? It’s a promise many have made and almost no one has kept, without any sense of guilt and betrayal. Similarly, you’d be appalled if an old friend kept their once-valued promise to shoot you if you ever bought a Phil Collins album.

No one feels bound by such promises since we accept that we are now very different people and no adult should be bound by the whims of the adolescent they once were. But although the rate of transformation tends to slow after our teens, we never stop changing. So how can we, as adults, make promises on behalf of the people we will be in five, 10, 20 years or more?

The problem is most evident with wedding vows. We know that people and their feelings change and that even marriages, which start with the best intentions, can end up on the rocks. But still we make promises on behalf of future selves who we cannot know will fulfil them, because marriage loses its meaning without a genuinely open-ended commitment.

The problem resolves itself if we think of promises, especially for the long term, not so much as binding contracts but as acts of commitment and trust. When we promise to love and to cherish, till death us do part, our primary concern is not to agree to the terms and conditions of the Marriage Act of 1949 but to indicate our sincere intent to do all we can to ensure what we promise comes to pass.

Even more everyday promises are like this. Our main duty is to honour the commitment we have made and repay the trust that has been put in us. The broken promises we rightly resent are the ones where this will and resolution were lacking. Anyone who thinks that keeping a promise is simply doing what you said you would and nothing more is confusing it with the cold-minded legalism of a contract.

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The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England. To suggest a question, email shrink&sage@ft.com

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