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When Promises Don’t Pan Out: What to Say When Your Partner Never Follows Through

The true challenge is how do you get someone to care about what you care about in the same way?

You talked about the to-do item. You agreed on how important it was, your partner promised they’d handle it, but they didn’t follow through. Promise broken. This wasn’t the first or second time, either. It feels like the ball gets dropped all the time. A happy marriage this doesn’t make. 

On the surface, this issue is about something not getting done, and that’s frustrating. But really this involves expectations. You know how you’d do something, and when your spouse doesn’t match that, it’s unnerving and even scary. The person you rely on isn’t there for you, and that makes you feel alone. 

Feel being the important word here. Any number of issues might be at play. It could be that your partner is tired, stressed, or simply preoccupied, and, in fact, the task might not be a priority, so while you want to talk about the importance of following through, the true challenge is how do you get someone to care about what you care about in the same way?

So what do you do when your partner doesn’t follow through? How do you approach it? Fatherly talked to four therapists about how to have the conversation. They all agreed that it was key to stay calm, be intentional, and make it collaborative. After that, there are various routes to get there. Here’s their advice:

1. Approach with Curiosity, Not Anger

You want to find a time where you can talk and listen, which can be hard when you have young kids, but you need privacy where no one feels being watched. Instead of asking, “Do you have time to talk?,” ask, “Would you be willing to have this conversation?” It’s a different approach and stresses the desire to really hear each other. 

Then you have to come with more than anger and frustration. That gets people defensive, and, “You’re off and running and here we are fighting again.” Be clear and calmly say, “When you don’t follow through, I feel …” and find those softer feelings, like sadness or fear, which are are always underneath. It make it less about the incident and more about what it creates in you, and that has a better chance of being heard. 

But also say, “I’m curious about what’s going on. Can you tell me?” and listen to your partner’s take. It might be, “I didn’t realize it was so important,” or, “When you ask me to do something, I’m doing four other things.” It gives useful information, but you want to propose, “I know this might be a stretch, but this week could you take care of …” You’ve made it specific, doable and everyone has had their say. “That makes all the difference in the world.”  — Pam Monday, marriage and family therapist in Austin, Texas

2. Create Conditions That Promote Change

People get tripped up trying to change two things: their feelings and someone else. The first matters because something is bothering you. The second rarely works. People sense the attempt and it triggers the “fixing reflex” and brings resistance.

But you can create conditions to promote change. It helps to be flexible, and that means staying away from believing your partner “always” or “never” does something. It’s likely not that absolute, and when you can think about when your partner has followed through, the temperature goes down and it’s less oppositional. 

After you lay out the issue, turn the tables and ask for your partner’s thoughts and suggestions. Usually, people come in with the answer, making the other person feel powerless and giving little incentive to problem-solve. But when you open it up, you both have feelings about the situation. When you work together, it strengthens your bond. Neither of you has the solution. The best solutions come from a collaborative mind.  — Diana Hill, clinical psychologist is Santa Barbara and co-author of ACT Daily Journal

3. First, Understand How You Want to Be in The Conversation 

It’s about figuring out how you want to be in this conversation. Otherwise, you’ll come with testiness, resentment and eventually contemptuousness. Four steps will help you get that focus. 

Awareness. Think about how you might approach your partner with your words, body and mood and what the response might be. 

Mindfulness. Sit with what you’ve imagined, not defending or reacting, and if it causes stress, it helps to box breathe: inhale for four counts, hold four, exhale for four, hold for four. Stay with it until you calm down. 

Intentionality. Re-assess what you’re likely to say and whether you’re being more open and empathetic, and ask, “Is this who I want to be?” 

Practice. Say the words out loud to hear and feel how they’ll land. Tone is overlooked but it’s what people react to, and regardless of your intention, if your blood pressure is up, that’s what your partner will experience.  

When you finally have the conversation, you still may have to occasionally catch yourself. In those moments, say, “Sorry. That’s the not how I wanted to say that.” It models how to apologize, make corrections and resolve conflicts. It’s contagious. — Richard Sackett, licensed psychologist in New York City

4. Give the Right Kind of Positive Reinforcement

As obvious as it sounds, when your partner follows through, give positive reinforcement, but also realize that “positive reinforcement” has many definitions. Some people might like thanks and praise. Others don’t. It can almost feel like a trick. You have to know what your spouse responds to. 

But realize that you can make a request and nothing happens. It’s perfectly fair to say, “We talked about this. Do you think you could do it by the weekend?,” adding that you feel disappointed or frustrated because “we thought something could get off our plate.” You can even say, “Let me know if you won’t do it, because it’s stressing me out.”

Like not being able to change anyone, you have no control of the outcome, so it’s best to let go of that. All you can do is express your needs in a reasonable, assertive and kind way. While the result can’t be guaranteed, you’re not stewing or causing damage to the relationship. It’s also your best shot. If you say nothing, nothing will change. — Debbie Sorensen, psychologist in Denver and co-author of ACT Daily Journal