As I look back over my week, I see a long list of commitments I followed through on. I planned all my lessons and showed up on time to teach all my classes. I exercised with a friend, as I had promised, and went to a meeting I had signed up for. Overall, my follow-through was pretty good, but when I look at the things that I didn’t follow through on, a pattern is pretty clear: almost all of the things I didn’t do were things I had promised to my husband or myself, and to no one else. Why is it so much easier to follow through on things that we promise to other people than on promises we make to our partners?
Why We Don’t Prioritize Promises to Our Partners
1. The consequences seem less severe
If we fail to follow through on commitments outside of our relationship, the consequences are often serious. We may lose a job or ruin a recommendation we need for the next job. A missed medical appointment could be impossible to reschedule for weeks or even months. A friend might stop extending invitations. The results of not following through within our relationship can feel mild by comparison. We might just promise to follow through later, or our partner might take on the task, and the only obvious consequence is that our partner is irritated.
2. We are more worried about upsetting others than about upsetting our partner
Many of us have a strong urge to present ourselves well to the world around us. To make sure that others maintain a positive view of us, we try to avoid letting them see negative or upsetting aspects of our characters. Our partner, however, has seen so much of us, the good and the bad, that over time we stop worrying so much about letting them see our not-so-great parts. This leads naturally to being more concerned about whether we upset others than whether we upset our partners.
3. We trust our partners to forgive us
One of the wonderful aspects of a healthy relationship is the level of trust and acceptance that develops between partners. Each person can feel confident that when they make mistakes, their partner will love them anyway. Unfortunately, it can be tempting to take advantage of this acceptance by our partners by letting them down instead of letting someone else down. After all, we have no assurance that other people will respond with the same love and acceptance as our partners will.
Consequences of Letting Our Partners Down
Hopefully it is immediately clear why the second and third reason listed above are problematic. They both show a disregard for our partner’s feelings and a willingness to take advantage of our partner’s kindness. The truth is, though, that even the first reason is problematic because it is based on a very serious misunderstanding. Even though the consequences of letting our partners down may seem minimal at first glance, making a habit of it can have serious effects on our relationships. Over time, trust begins to fade as our partners wonder whether we are going to let them down this time like we did the times before. They may begin to nag because they worry that if they don’t, we won’t follow through. Ultimately, they begin to feel taken for granted in the relationship, and rightly so. When we put our commitments to others above our commitments to our partners, we communicate to them that they are the least important people in our lives when in reality the opposite is likely true.
Am I perfect on following through with commitments to my husband? Sadly, no. Just today, I was supposed to call and reserve a spot in the kennel for our dog for our trip out of town next weekend, and I didn’t do it. I didn’t forget, I simply prioritized other tasks that needed to get done today. My husband was gracious about it, and I will take care of it as soon as I can, but it saddens me that I put other things above my husband’s request. Going forward, I am going to focus on prioritizing my commitments to him because this week has forced me to think about what I am really communicating when I put others before him. Hopefully it has done the same for those of you who recognize yourselves in this post. Let’s make sure that what we communicate to our partners is really what we want them to hear.