03 November 2012

Promise Keeping Without Punishment or Nagging

In “Keeping Your Word”, we explored the price that husbands pay for dishonoring their word. A husband’s leadership in the marriage takes a knock each time he fails to deliver something he said he would. But is that fair? What if he is genuinely forgetful? What if he just said what he said to get his wife to stop nagging him? What if he really didn’t mean what he said, or what if he changed his mind? 

“Our word” refers to the things we say, and not necessarily things we deliberately promise. “Our word”, from the concrete, well thought-out plans we share right down to the vague intentions that slip from our lips, create expectation in the heart and mind of the listener. We all want to be listened to, particularly by our spouse, yet we also want the luxury of not being held accountable for what we say. This is where we must choose. A man or woman of his/her word is someone who assumes responsibility for what they say, even when it was said without fully counting the cost of making that statement. An honorable man or woman takes the words that they say (or write) seriously.

If a husband’s authority in the home is affected by how he backs up his own words, it makes sense for him to make the effort to keep his word, even when he wishes he had not said anything to begin with. In “Keeping Your Word”, we suggested that husbands ask their wives to help them grow in this area of integrity and leadership. But how can this be done without the husband relinquishing his authority or encouraging his wife to become bossy?

In essence, the husband, when asking for his wife’s help, must choose to trust her to not abuse the power he is placing within her grasp. The power she has access to is vast: she may claim he said things he never did and hold him to promises he never made; she may grab opportunities to nag him about his promises; she may use his commitments as an excuse to tell him what to do; she may use his failures as reason to criticize or humiliate him. If the husband does not trust his wife in this area (whether or not she is trustworthy), he is not ready to ask for her help. He will need to find other accountability partners to help him grow as a man of his word, until he is ready to trust his wife.

If the husband wants help, what can the wife do to help her husband honor his word in the home and marriage?

A very simple (albeit tedious) exercise is to convert the spoken word to written word for a few weeks. Habits are supposedly formed in approximately 21 days, so couples should not expect instant change. They should realize this exercise is time-consuming and requires some effort. Doing this exercise for a few weeks will not convert a person into someone who never makes a mistake and ALWAYS remembers to do what they said they would. Instead, it raises awareness of how much people expect of us based on things we say (sometimes without thinking). It is this awareness that can help motivate us to be careful about what we do say, and to honor whatever we have said.

1. Start with the husband agreeing to (and committing to) the process of him speaking and his wife writing. The husband also commits to doing all that he says he will. This accountability system does not work if the husband only wants the system in place when it is convenient. The wife agrees to (and commits to) giving her husband the space, for the duration of the exercise, to resolve any issues that arise from him not keeping his word. She acknowledges that she may become frustrated if her husband doesn’t make good on all his promises when she expected him to, but commits to refraining from making it right on her own.

2. Mount a small whiteboard in the kitchen, acquire a big family datebook, make use of a communal computer with a task organizer, or use sticky notes on the fridge. Choose a medium that suits your family. Make sure you choose a central place to host your “reminder space” - it needs to be where the husband and wife will walk past and notice reminders a few times a day.

3. When the husband says something that creates expectation (e.g. I will call the plumber tomorrow), the wife should write down what she hears him say. To avoid later conflict (on who said what), its a good idea for the wife to check with her husband that she heard him correctly and that her transcription of his words is indeed correct.

4. The wife should post this “appointment” in the agreed upon place so her husband can be reminded of what he said he would do. Once posted, there is no further need for the wife to remind (or nag) her husband of his commitment - it is now his responsibility to follow up on every one of his commitments posted in the reminder space, and to do so by the time he said he would have it done. If he anticipates not being able to complete a particular task, he should speak to his wife about the problem before the deadline. He needs to treat each of these seemingly insignificant commitments as serious “business” contracts with his wife.

5. While this exercise is in play, the wife has the duty to write her expectations based on what she hears. Her husband’s duty is to fulfill that expectation that he created. If the wife doesn’t bother to write down a particular “promise”, she is not entitled to expect a positive outcome. If she doesn’t check that she has heard her husband correctly he may later dispute what she wrote, and such disagreements are difficult (if not impossible) to resolve.

6. As expectations are met, the husband removes the relevant reminders from the reminder space. At the end of each day, any unmet expectations for that day need to be addressed. Set aside some time (perhaps at bed time) to discuss unresolved issues. It will take courage for the husband to admit to his wife that he did not accomplish what he set out to do - some men may feel this “failure” makes them less of a man in their wives eyes. Hiding the failure is probably a lot more damaging to trust than admitting it happened. And being man enough to address this issue is part of the growth of integrity. Admitting that you have not kept your word isn’t the end - it is the first part of the process of making it right. A husband can use the opportunity to discuss what went wrong and couple his own wisdom with that of his wife to find a way to make up for his mistake. 

This is a tough exercise, and not suitable for everyone. It demands a lot from both husband and wife. It does not take away from the husband’s authority. It does not force the wife to be bossy or to take charge. She does not get to punish or berate her husband if he makes a mistake. He remains in charge, and she serves as his accountability partner, helping him fill out his integrity core. In relationships where the husband struggles to understand his wife’s frustration and expectation of him, where he is convinced he has made no promises while his wife is sure he has, where the wife disrespects her husband and disregards what he says and he cannot understand why, this exercise can help the frustrated husband see how much expectation his words create. A man of his word commands respect - his integrity invites respect. Keeping our word (as a husband or a wife) isn’t always easy or convenient, but our integrity, and the pursuit of integrity, enriches our marriage. Isn’t our marriage worth that kind of effort?


  1. This is an interesting proposal for problem solving. We used to have this issue all the time but it has dramatically decreased over the last couple of years. My husband is now adamant about keeping his word and when he doesn't, it is because he has forgotten, not because it was intentional.

    1. Honoring one's word adds an element of predictability to marriage (and not in a boring, "bad" way) - it seems to simplify some of the issues around expectation and disappointment. Thanks, Susie, for adding your thoughts - you are blessed to be married to a man of his word.

  2. This is an interesting way of approaching the question of accountability for HoHs. In our relationship, it isn't necessary, as Ian seems to hold himself to a standard that is more than I could ask of him. I think some of your practical tips would be a good way for us to address my issues, the legitimizing of tasks by writing them down or putting them up on a whiteboard is an excellent and workable idea.
    Enjoyed this one very much,

    1. Thank you, Lillie. It's wonderful to hear that Ian holds himself to a higher standard than you hold him - usually couples battle because it's the other way around. I'm a big fan of a whiteboard (some people prefer clear glass against their wall color) - it's such an easy way to jot down reminders that make life simpler for everyone in the family.

  3. This system requires a significant amount of humility on the part of the husband, which is no bad thing. It means acknowledging to himself and his wife that either he hasn't been doing what he's promised he would, or that she sincerely believes she hasn't. Likewise, the system requires her to be alert and mature (the no nagging rule). As you say, it's tough. It's interesting, and I think I'll suggest it if I'm ever accused of breaking my word, or if I realize that I have.

    One modification that I would find helpful would be for the husband to take equal responsibility for the list, so that if he makes a promise (implicit or explicit) that his wife doesn't notice, it's brought to the attention of both of them. This could help the husband learn not to casually make promises that aren't necessary and may be difficult to keep.

    1. You are right, Kevan - humility is essential for the husband, but that is a characteristic of an effective leader anyway. Noticing the little things comes naturally for many women, but no-nagging is the big challenge. It's hard to see something that needs attention and to not keep making that point over and over again. So yes, this is an exercise better suited to a mature couple who want to deal specifically with the issue of accountability regarding keeping one's word.

      Your suggestion is wonderful, Kevan. Yes, by all means have the husband add to the "reminder list" things his wife may not notice or remember. That certainly helps both partners to own the list, and will encourage the husband to guard his tongue from making idle promises.