Honoring Commitments

Honoring Commitments. Psychology Fanatic article header image

Some changes require no more than an insignificant flick, a momentary pause followed by a slightly different action—a change. But many changes fight momentum, challenging past behaviors to implement new directions. These battles require commitment—continuous effort, concentrating on goals, and resisting momentary impulses. Without strong commitment, the powerful waves of addiction, habit and self-interest overpower hopes of a better life. We weary in combat, giving way to resistance and return to unenlightened action. However, making commitments only has value if we establish a pattern of honoring commitments. Otherwise, commitments are hallow, just words that mean nothing.

Commitment is essential; but also, sacred. We can over-commit, promising too many things to too many people, setting up failure. Demands often outweigh our resources, so we must prioritize. Forced changes fatigue the mind and we quickly succumb to the most salient force. Failures to follow through honoring promises, whether in commitments to ourselves or to others, weakens the power of future commitments to motivate.

​“Your word is what allows others to have trust in you and in what you say.  Being true to your word means that you always speak the truth.” 

~Dorothy Ratusny

We make new commitments, arguing why this time our promise has value; but a commitment without the backing of trust is futile. Without a habit of fulfilling promises, commitments lack a motivation push.

Developing a Desire for Honoring Commitments

Erik Erikson suggests that “the reliability of young adult commitments largely depends on the outcome of the adolescent struggle for identity” (1998). Accordingly, a secure sense of self lends to more reliability in commitments. Basically, some seeking acceptance feel pressured to commitment to behaviors they either don’t have the desire or motivation to fulfill after they make the commitment.

Strong relationships enjoy a certain amount of predictability. Surprises arouse emotions, and stir anxiety. A pattern of honoring commitments frees us from too many nasty surprises. Trudy Govier wrote, “we should be as predictable as possible, speak carefully, especially when making commitments, treat promises seriously, and never be deceptive” (1998).

Does Your Commitment have Value?

A string of broken promises devalues commitments. When we use simple excuses as an adequate release from previous commitments, our directed life is sacrificed for the chaos of happenstance. Our partners, friends and family (not to mention our self) quickly learn that our promises for action are bargaining tools with no assurance for future action. For a few morsels of momentary fulfillment, the greater rewards of trust are sacrificed, leaving the lonely wanderer without the abundant resources given by others.

Commitments are complex. When built on flimsy resolve, we lose the motivational benefit. Some commitments are for single action (meeting for coffee or repaying a loan), while other commitments are for life convictions. Yet, we can build a pattern of honoring commitments no matter the significance of the promise.

“​Before I offer, before I commit, I check myself because I know that promises not kept are more painful that promises not offered.”

~Sandra Zimmer

Broken Trust

One of the largest costs of failure to keep commitments is loss of trust. Promises lose meaning when they have little connection to the future. Failure to honor commitments in one area impacts trust and that infects all our communications. Govier warns, “the problem is that distrust in a relationship tends to spread from one context to another. If someone is not reliable about commitments in one area, we begin to fear that she will not be reliable in another” (1998).

Agreed Upon Meaning of Commitment

Not all commitments are specifically spoken. Two people may agree, not knowing that the other person has a different understanding of what is to be given and what is to be received. General commitments without clarification can damage trust without a specific intent of wrongdoing, we may simply misunderstand the actions necessary for honoring the commitment.

An insecure partner feels a lack of reciprocity in commitment, not because their partner lacks committed, but because expectations of the commitment are different. The unconsciously defined commitment leaves a couple disjointed, suspecting disconnection when no evidence exists. Open communication paired with realistic expectations must be implemented to calm fears of rejection—not more undefined commitments.

“The unconsciously defined meaning of commitment leaves the couple disjointed, suspecting disconnection when no evidence exists.”

~T. Franklin Murphy

Commitments and Priorities

Commitments need clarification. A commitment that, “my family is the priority” is vague. When conflicts arise how will this be settled. We can’t easily disentangle clashing priorities. A higher priority on family doesn’t require ruining a promising career, by skipping too many important meetings.

We must constantly weigh actions, consider consequences, and examine trade-offs. A partner’s slight headache is important but still attending a mandatory meeting at work doesn’t universally signal lack of commitment to the relationship. Open communication. Realistic expectation.

“​When our words don’t match our actions, we lose a measure of healthy ownership and control over our lives. Careless language undermines our relationships, chips away at our sense of self and decreases our personal power.”

~Cat Thompson

Because commitments are sacred, demanding significant time and resources, we should skeptically examine demands and implications before committing. The greatest way to honor commitments, giving them strength, is a stingy approach, not readily promising until we’re certain of our ability to fulfil.

​Our word, when given, is gold. Our connections trust us; because they know us. When we say we will be there, they know we be there, save an unforeseen disaster.

We Can Rightly Break Some Commitments

However, we should break some commitments. This may confuse the process, giving license to quitting when resilience should reign. When new facts come to light, we may discover we committed under false pretenses. Because trust is at stake, we must cautiously move forward, examining internal motivations. The allowance for abandoning a commitment, invites justifications, and weakening of character. If the commitment was important in the past, we must ponder why it is of little importance in the present.

Paul Dolan wrote, “commitments matter, then, but so, too, does the ability to recognize when to give up on them. Time is a scarce resource and you should not waste it on remaining miserable. This is yet another difficult challenge as there is no cast-iron way of ever knowing whether you were right to hold or fold” (2014).

​Seeking outside, unbiased guidance may be helpful. The careful evaluation shows self-respect and solidifies our integrity.

Honoring commitments is necessary to flourish. They connect hopes with action. They are the building blocks of trust, creating the security of intimacy. Without commitments, connections are superficial, risking sparse resources available from others in our greatest times of need. We should carefully and selectively commit to change and others.

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Dolan, Paul (2014). Happiness by Design: Change What You Do, Not How You Think. Avery.

Erikson, Erik; Erickson, Joan (1998). The Life Cycle Completed. W. W. Norton & Company; Extended Version edition.

Govier, Trudy (1998). Dilemmas of Trust. McGill-Queen’s University Press; First Edition.

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