A friend of mine has been going through some growing pains recently as he's grappled and come to grips with the fact that he makes promises all the time... and often doesn't deliver on them. I've longed been used to having people make a promise that doesn't get delivered on around me, and I've long since learned to not put much faith in people who do so.
When I was first studying relationships in my teenage years, I noticed one theme occurring over and over, wherever women were hurt in a failed relationship: they were accusing men of breaking their promises. It was so incredibly common that I started to see this as a major pattern that a number of relationships hewed to:
- Man makes woman a promise, either to allay her concerns or in the height of passion
- Woman plans her life on the basis of that promise
- Man later breaks the promise
- Woman's life is turned upside down
Now... women aren't necessarily totally innocent victims here either, and I'll explain why below. But as a man, you need to understand the impact and effect you have on a woman when you make a promise to her - and how a promise binds both you and her.
The Nature of a Promise
1. a declaration that something will or will not be done, given, etc., by one: unkept political promises.
Promises are a tricky thing. We revere them in Western culture; a man making a promise is a noble figure... provided he keeps that promise. See: Douglas MacArthur's famous quote to the Philippines of, "I shall return," as he fled the country in the face of the Japanese invasion in World War II, and his triumphant fulfillment of that promise years later. Now there is a legendary promise, we think when we here about it.
A wedding ring is a promise. A vow is a promise. But even men with girlfriends make their girlfriends promises.
What is a promise, and why do we deliver them?
Well, ask yourself this:
Is it you who wants your girlfriend to promise you something? Or is it her who wants the promise?
If you're like 96% of men out there, women want you to promise... not the other way around.
The reason why is because promises are something given by the person in control in a given situation. You can only promise what you can control.
Therefore, Douglas MacArthur can promise he will return to save the Philippines from their Japanese invaders. All the Filipinos could promise, however, might have been that they would fight on... or that they would wait for him. Because that's all they controlled in the dynamic between the Philippines and MacArthur.
And when MacArthur returns, he becomes a hero to the Filipinos. Had he failed to do so, he would've been crucified in Filipino history as a failure and a fake.
But promises are also a giving up of control.
When you promise someone you will be somewhere at a certain time, you look terrible if you try to reschedule a half hour before. The promise binds you to that commitment. You sacrifice control.
Well, okay. A promise is a giving up of control by someone who has control to someone who has uncertainty. So what's the other party gain then?
Answer: certainty and reassurance.
A promise is a trade: you give away some of your control and power to allow the other party to feel secure and reassured.
And simply because of the nature of male-female relationships, it is normally the woman who is pursuing security and reassurance from the man. Thus, this is the reason why the one being asked to make a promise is usually the man, and the asker is usually the woman.
Do you see it the other way? Yes, occasionally. But only with weak men dating much stronger women. We won't talk about that dynamic here, because I'm assuming if you're using the material here you're well on your way to becoming a dominant man - and if you're not there yet, well, you won't be in the weak man's position for long.
What Happens When You Make a Promise?
When I first started working in tire sales, I had a boss named Bill who gave out constant sage advice and pearls of wisdom about managing, sales, and life in general. I appreciated it then, but as I've worked more and more with all kinds of professionals from all walks of life, I've only realized how rare Bill's clarity of the principals of sound management and salesmanship were, and how lucky I was to have him as a supervisor and teacher at so formative a time in my own professional career.
And one of the things Bill told me early on, after I'd just made an unrealistic promise to a customer that was going to be hell to deliver on, was this:
“Never make a promise unless you are 100% sure you can deliver on it.”
Before I received this advice, I probably gave promises out as freely as anyone else. I can remember being a 7 year old in private school, causing trouble and having other kids threatening to go tell the teacher on me.
"No, don't!" I'd cry. "Give me one more chance - I'll be better, I promise!"
I must've said that a hundred times between first and third grade, before my third grade teacher whipped me into shape and transformed me into a model pupil.
Bill's advice made me realize, though: giving promises puts you in a bad position.
It puts you in the position of:
- Having strict guidelines you now need to follow; and
- Having no real benefit to the other party aside from a (usually small) confidence boost.
How about potential gains and losses?
As it turns out, that matters a great deal on the person.
If it's someone with a high degree of uncertainty who's got a lot riding on the outcome, you'll be a saint to them if you make a promise and keep it, and a devil to them if you make a promise and break it. If the individual could care less about the specifics of the outcome, though (e.g., a customer doesn't care when his order is delivered, so long as it's delivered), he'll hardly notice if your promise is kept or broken.
The impact of a promise made or a promise broken is entirely dependent on how dependent on the outcome the promisee is.
And the more dependent on the outcome someone is, the more likely they are to plan their life around your promise, and the more likely they are to use every trick up their sleeves to hold you to it.
The Ties That Bind
Let's say a man's in love. His new girlfriend seems perfect: she's beautiful, smart, witty, and really, really feminine. A charmer in every way.
He feels feelings for her like he's never felt before, and in the heat of his passion he makes her a promise:
"I will never leave you," he tells her. "I will spend the rest of my life making you happy."
A few years pass, and his emotions fade, and he realizes she isn't quite as beautiful as he once thought, she isn't quite as smart as he once thought, her jokes that formerly seemed so witty now seem crude, and her femininity has disappeared as she's gotten comfortable with him and let herself go, both physically and in how she dresses. Where she used to be a charmer, now she's just... not.
Eventually he tells her it isn't working out; she gets upset and tells him he can't leave her. He relents. Later, he meets another girl who is everything his girlfriend used to be... and he cheats on her, and she finds out. She breaks down, crying, and asks him how he could do this to her. "You promised you'd never leave me!" she cries; "You promised!"
Here's the problem with a promise, particularly one with no end-point (forever and ever): it can be used as a tool to control.
Things change. People change. Everyone wants to think that things are "forever"... but nothing is. The natural world is not forever. The way of the world is change and impermanence. If a man and a woman get together, and the woman continually becomes more beautiful and more successful and the man becomes a dependent slob, should the woman stay with the man because, well, they've gone this far, they might as well now spend forever together? Likewise, if a man and woman get together, and the man continually becomes more charming and more successful and the woman lets herself go, should the man stay together with the woman because he just should?
People will use the promises you make to guilt trip you into staying in bad situations. And it isn't just that. Here are all the ways if you make a promise it can be used in your disfavor:
- To keep you in a bad situation you'd otherwise leave
- As a free pass to "let go" (you promised you wouldn't leave, so she can gain weight)
- To guilt trip you and shift bad emotions onto you if you leave
- To make you "responsible" for someone else's life
I'm using "leaving" as the example here, but you could change it to anything else that men promise women:
- "I promise we'll have a family."
- "I promise we'll grow old together."
- "I promise I'll never hurt you."
Now, note, and this is what I referred to earlier in this post... Most women will not take your promises at 100% face value, but they will act like they do.
Well... to hold you to them, of course!
Women are masters of the guilt trip, and they are fantastic at both pressuring men into making promises (by implying they'll leave if they don't get them) and at pressuring men to fulfill them. It's not because women are evil and manipulative - don't be bitter and start thinking this - but rather because they're being self-interested and, get this - they're using men's own self-interested natures to further their own self-interest.
Getting men to make promises is one of women's most fantastically ingenious ways of using another individual's selfishness for their own personal gain. How's this work? Here's a classic example:
- Man wants sex from a woman / doesn't want a woman to leave him.
- Woman tells a man she can't possibly give him what he wants... she doesn't feel sure.
- To get what he wants, the man knows he must make her feel "sure."
- To make her feel sure, the man gives the woman a promise.
- The man gets what he wants, but so does the woman. He gets sex / her... she gets a promise that she knows he will feel at least some obligation to uphold... and that she will pressure him to stick to, too. They pass a commitment point.
Who's being selfish in this example? Both people! Both the man and the woman are being selfish, chasing after what they want. The puppet master in this instance, however, is the woman, most of the time; she's pulling the man's strings to get the promise she wants.
Yet, there are the men who have no problem making promises to women they have no intention of keeping; these men are the puppet masters of the puppet masters, and let women think they have the upper hand when to the men themselves the promises that they've made are simply hot air. Women have an inherent understanding of this risk and realize they're taking a gamble; there's always a chance that a given man's promises may be no good.
The more I've studied the tendency of men to make a promise and women to elicit those promises and hold men to them in romantic encounters and relationships, the more I've come to view promises as a deeply manipulative tool that both sides are using semi-consciously to get what they want.
Men are after:
- Sex and companionship (short-term gains)
Women are after:
- Relationships and support (long-term gains)
The woman's position is necessarily more unstable (trying to elicit long-term commitment from someone in search of short-term benefits is an inherently unstable place to be), so she seeks to bind a man in commitments he makes himself to her.
But she never really knows if she's the puppet master, or merely a puppet who can't see her strings.
There's a far better way to run your relationships than this fool's dance of making promises and trying to stick to them... or not.
Make a Promise Not to Promise
"The only promise I can make you," I like to tell girls, "is that I will always try my best to be honest with you."
I don't promise I will always be honest. I haven't met anyone who always is honest, though I've met many people who will get self-righteously angry at you and tell you you should always be honest... even though they aren't always honest themselves.
But I promise I will do my best to be, and I do. There's not much I don't tell my girlfriends.
I tell girls:
- That I don't want to hurt them, but that I might.
- That I wish I could promise I'd always be with them, but I might not be.
- That I never want to be one of those guys who promises the girl a world, and fails to deliver.
And do you know what the result of this is?
It isn't that they leave me.
And it isn't that they think I'm some kind of rogue, or cad.
No, quite the contrary. They tell me I'm the most honest man they've ever met. And they tell me they like it... a lot. And they come to trust me more than any man they've ever been with, and they open themselves up to me more than any man they've ever been with. They often end up having the strongest emotions for me they've ever had for a man, or may ever have for a man, despite my efforts these days to dampen the emotions women feel for me from getting too strong.
But WHY? Why should a woman like you, respect you, and want you more when you won't promise her the world like every other guy?
It's because of two things:
- A woman knows that a man who makes promises is a man who's giving up his power to get short-term gains (sex, companionship). She knows he's a man who's so desperate for these things he's willing to sacrifice control over his life to get them. And she views him as a weaker man because of this.
- A woman knows that without the dynamic of you making promises to get things from her, your relationship isn't a struggle to determine who's the puppet and who's the puppet master. Instead, it's a relationship between two willing people who admit that nothing is certain and things might not be permanent. You're not trying to pretend you'll always be there, and she isn't trying to pretend she has no fear you're not, or that she unquestioningly believes you will.
This adds so much more clarity to your relationships you might not believe it. It's like operating at a higher level... actually, scratch that. It's not "like" operating at a higher level - it is operating at a higher level.
So do yourself a favor. The next time you feel an urge to make a promise to a girl... stop. Are you really going to uphold that promise? Or are you just saying it so you can selfishly get what you want (whether that's sex now, or not to have her leave you)?
I'm willing to bet it's the latter. Try not making promises on for size next time. You'll be surprised how refreshingly honest - and healthy - your relationships become. And you'll never risk having a girl derail her life to build it around a promise you might later break - or risk getting stuck in a situation you come to regret because you feel an obligation's been made you aren't willing to break.
If you truly have a great relationship - if you are there because you want to be there, and she is there because she wants to be there - and if you truly work hard to keep each other happy, satisfied, and engaged... you will never need to make a promise to keep the relationship together.
Because you'll just want to be.