Relationships without Promises

More and more lately, I’ve been thinking about relationships without promises. Marriages involve promises, and frequently, they’re broken. I meant my vows to last a lifetime, and they didn’t. And what about those people who get married over and over… what are they thinking? Are they eternal optimists, not really thinking about what they’re promising, or not believing the words they do say?

I’m not sure I can make more promises like that and feel any degree of certainty around them. Yet, I want a meaningful, deep, loving relationship. So the question… can long-term relationships exist without promises, and if so, what would that look like?

There’s a certain maturity to not making promises… it means you’re constantly choosing to be in the relationship you’re in. Rather than trying to hold someone to you by making them swear a vow (or even letting them do it voluntarily) you know that they are always with you because they choose to be. Insecurity and fear hinders this, it seems there is always an internal push to obtain a promise, as if that holds any kind of security or safety. People break those promises all the time, and then are afraid to tell their partners, which leads to affairs, which leads to heartbreak. How much better if we could always know that we both are where we want to be, and if we start to feel that we’re not, we can talk about it and allow change into the relationship – or out of it.

There can also be an immaturity in not making promises, if it is abused by rationalizing that this means you can do anything you want to do. People are usually more sensitive when their partner breaks a promise or a rule they’ve agreed on, but it is equally true that even when there are no promises, a person can be just as hurt. Because we are emotional beings, it’s just not possible to say – it wasn’t against the rules, therefore, it’s OK for me to do it and you shouldn’t care that I did it. If it hurts your partner, it hurts. And usually if you honestly ask yourself the question, would this hurt my partner? you know the answer. And if you don’t, that would be a really good thing to talk over ahead of time, when it’s not a current issue :)

And then there’s the problem that those vows seem to make people complacent – because there’s a promise to stay together for life, there’s less of a push to work on relationship issues. This is really where I think the lack of promises could be a good thing – there is a need to constantly maintain the relationship – to check in that things are working, to talk over things that aren’t working, and to work together through any change that is needed. And to constantly leave open the possibility that maybe the best thing is not to assume that you should stay together your whole life. Couldn’t there be such a thing as serial monogamy – a series of deep and loving commitments that enrich your life while you have them? Why is it that we assume we should have the same partner our entire lives? Fear of change? Or something deeper?

What do you think? This is a deep and engaging issue for me right now and I’d love to hear any and all thoughts on the subject :)


6 thoughts on “Relationships without Promises

  1. Gary Von Erichsen says:


    I married my second wife, Susan, only because her mother was regularly nagging us and anyone who would listen about her daughter living in sin with “that hippie from Seattle!” So Sue and I decided to get married just to reduce the background noise at holidays and other family gatherings. We had the standard wedding vows from her family’s church pastor, but our own private deal was that we’d stay together as long as we both wanted to. If we decided to try to have a child, we agreed to renegotiate our commitment before stopping birth control. Thus we lived together as man and wife while she worked me through my last quarter at the UW. We then moved to the Willamette valley in Oregon where I got my first professional job. We enjoyed each others company, had a good social life with lively friends and worked our way into home ownership. Leaving out the details, there came a day when Sue decided she no longer wanted to live the rural Oregon life (she was a farm girl turned city woman when we met) and decided to end our arrangement and move back to Spokane and become a professional downtown working city woman. I was taken by surprise, but honored our deal. We split everything evenly; I helped her load a U-Haul truck, kissed her goodbye and thus ended our five-plus years together.

    Several years later I met my current wife of 23 years. We both had been through failed marriages, so we seriously discussed what it would mean if we married. It was two years after we met that we decided to get married. During those two years, her mother died and her father got cancer. We stood together through the tough times. My life was not as dramatic as hers, but she stood by me when I needed a friend. Thus we have become a very good team. As the years passed, we have weathered many other dramatic, life-altering situations, usually standing close and united, supporting each other through life’s inevitable dramas. It is the knowledge that we are there for each other, no matter what life brings our way that keeps our love strong and our marriage together. We have no jealousy issues because we are secure in the strength of our marriage/friendship/partnership. We now are challenged by raising a teenager, but our long history of mutual support through tough times is serving us well.

    Sure, we could choose to end our marriage, but to what end? Our love has grown through all the tough times and the good times. We still do most of the things we have enjoyed through the years. We gave up downhill skiing because of the cost and my knees. We still dance, hike, camp, swim, kayak, etc as we always have. We have saved for retirement and know how to live on the cheap when/if the circumstances demand that again. We have not made it through all this alone. We have good friends in stable marriages and have had two wonderful counselors that taught us what we needed to learn to negotiate through conflict. Neither of us would trade what we have for the uncertainty of being middle-aged single, raising a teenager alone (ugh) or jumping back into the dating scene with a majority of jaded divorced people with a bad marital experience behind them. Our teenager worries about divorce when we have conflict, but we assure him that it’s only temporary and that we’ll work through it and come out stronger and more secure in our ability to weather whatever life throws at us or we choose to throw at ourselves.

    Thus our marriage vows meant little in keeping us together. It was our determination to make our partnership work and avoid the pain and hassle of divorce that has seen us through the years and makes us secure in our life together “till death do we part.” Promises are just words. A life together is made strong by weathering the storms together and enjoying the sun while it shines. I hope this helps you sort through your thoughts regarding promises, vows and marriage/partnership.

    Gary and Helen Von Erichsen

  2. Mike says:

    Sometimes I feel that I am being asked to make promises by someone (usually either my wife or my six year-old daughter) who will not accept an honest answer: “I may not be able to keep that promise, and so I will not make it.” You have no idea what it is like to have a promise extracted under torture until you have a six year old daughter. I think they just grow up and extract them from their husbands. Maybe my little girl is just practicing for the BIG ONE.

    I find that I resist making promises because too often I can’t keep them (“force majeure”), or that keeping them makes me miserable and unhappy. Either way I am made miserable- the obligation is heavier than I expected, or I am made a liar by circumstances beyond my control.

    I am very careful about making promises, a promise can go on being an obiligation for a very long time, even a liftetime. See “Jude the Obscure”, or “Middlemarch” for examples of marriage vows that should never have been spoken. The principal characters in these two novels suffer greatly because of having made such unfortunate vows. I think the power of these two novels is due in part to the fact that we like and admire Jude and Dorothea (in Middlemarch), and feel a sympathetic desire for them to find happiness. While reading Jude, I became angry at his inability to be happy. I finally realized that I was really angry at myself! Jude changed my life, by causing me see something about myself that I had not been willing to face, and by painting the picture so vividly.

    My only wedding vow to my wife was never to lie to her. This has been a very difficult promise to keep. Surprisingly, it is the little things that are the most difficult to be honest about. Next month, we will celebrate our twentieth anniversary. They have been good years, and happy ones. I can’t say what will work for other marriages. Acceptance and forgiveness have been key ingredients in ours, and I feel more than a little bit lucky.

  3. Judith B says:

    I like what Gary wrote. :-) Am currently taking a couples therapy class, and one of the things that comes up regularly are the unspoken expectations everyone has, irregardles of what promises were or were not made. Communication is key — even arguments are okay, as long as you keep the meanness and contempt out of it. Emotional bank accounts are important . . . where the good stuff done for and said to each other is at least five times more present than any bad stuff.

    I like what Gary said about it not being the promises that keep you together. This is my husband’s third marriage, and my second. But I think I can say we both got it right this time. Maybe your idea of serial monogamy has something going for it, Teresa. I am NOT the woman I was 30 years ago, and my relationship then could not change with me. Yet, I am not the woman I was 13 years ago when my husband and I got married . . . and we WERE able to make the changes together. I think flexibility is so important, and for each partner to be willing to be influenced by the other. For us marriage was important, but it is a commitment to the relationship, rather than the specific details of the relationship.

  4. These are such great comments. Thank you so much for writing them all out in such thoughtful detail. I’m hoping for even more of them :)

    Of course the promise aspect isn’t the only thing I’ve been thinking about, but it’s one thing. It bothered me a lot during and just after the divorce, as keeping my promises has always been important to me. I guess they don’t have to be the standard ones, next time.

    Now I’m thinking more about what does make a relationship work – and many of the things you’re describing above come up. #1 I feel is honesty and communication (OK, that’s really two things). Then there’s the flexibility and willingness to allow change into the equation. Perhaps the topic of the next blog :)

  5. Freesparrow says:

    I think promises are sometimes impossible to keep, particularly as people change and grow. What I wanted as a young woman is very different from what I want now.

    I met my current partner when I was 49 and we have been together now for nine years, with a break of one year somewhere along the line. We are interested in similar things and have developed a trust, not changed by difficult life events.

    I think that common ground is important but also enough difference to excite interest. Honesty, courtesy and communication are paramount, and so is freedom. These qualities are dynamic things, whereas there seems something fixed about vows.

  6. anu says:

    very honest post. i do think there is bit ofdestiny involved in having a relationship for keeps.

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