Relationship Advice: Why do those that love you make promises they can’t keep?


In the classic movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” George Bailey tells the love of his life that he’d lasso the moon for her.  Typically, partners demonstrate their love for each other by (among many things) making and keeping promises in the relationship.   George’s offer is good for wooing, but there would be no way that he could ever live up to his promise.  Should Mary have thought that George’s love was insincere just because his promise was overly ambitious?

Of course not- although George benefits from us watching the rest of the movie.  Promises from loved ones come in all shapes- from nebulous ones about general behavior “I promise I’ll be nicer to your mother,” to concrete and specific tasks “I promise to call you on Friday,” and grand gestures “I’ll move across the country for you!”  Romantic promises have the instant benefit of making one feel like the other truly loves and cares for them.  One who is promised something gets an instant boost of positive feelings, and if that promise is kept the relationship is often strengthened.  The risk is what happens when that promise is not fulfilled, or flat out broken.  We have all come in contact with people who promise something with all the love and authenticity in their heart, and then completely forget about it the very next day.  What gives?

In the context of relationships, people tend to let their feelings get the better of them when it comes to promising.  Research shows that people who feel most for their partner make promises more often and with more ambition, but are not any better at keeping them.  The feelings direct the motivation and the size of the promise (i.e., the more love they felt, the more ambitious the promise became), but not the follow-through.  George’s promise to lasso the moon indicates that he really loves Mary; making grand gestures to secure her love in return. In reality, this may look like your partner promising to pick up the dry cleaning, get groceries, and deposit those checks all before returning home.  However, once a promise is said, it’s really willpower that steers the behavior.

People in love often lead with their feelings but not their follow-through.  There might be an expectation of an ambitious and purposefully difficult promise in order to prove that love.  While everyone might be good at feeling love and a desire to please their partner, not everyone is good at time management (love may make the promise, but willpower keeps it).  Promises are comprised of two parts: verbal intent and task completion.  If someone is good at being responsive but not great with self-discipline they may not be able to fulfill their promises.  In other words a person sincerely full of love might frequently over-promise and under-deliver.  In a strange way, those that feel more for their partner might actually let them down and endanger the relationship more often.

What this means is that one cannot judge their partner’s love necessarily based on their ability to fulfill promises.  In fact, it may be the case that your partner’s love may be fueling your partner to over-promise and let you down.  Well-meaning individuals typically promise more to their romantic other than what they can actually complete.

How have loved ones broken promises (both big and small)?  Were you able to give them the benefit of the doubt or did it erode your relationship?

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