What to do when you break a commitment (in 3 difficult steps)

Break your promise, not your relationship.

Once upon a time, I broke a promise. I had my good reasons, and I was choosing to break it. That is, I knew I was breaking my promise… even though the person to whom I had made this promise was pretty angry with me (and I would have rather that they weren’t).

One of my Mentors asked me, “Tom? What do you do when you break a commitment?”

I had no idea.

So she taught me this 3-step process:

There’s lots of bad advice from what might look like good sources on how to break a commitment. Apologizing, explaining why, and making it up are popular misconceptions. Try this 3-step process instead.

When breaking my commitment, I was so focused on my fear that I would lose a valuable relationship, that I got selfish. My instinct to apologize, explain, and offer restitution was not actually about attending to or empathizing with my partner’s needs. It was all about trying to convince my partner that they should attend to mine.

That’s no way to maintain a strong relationship. In the moment when I am breaking my commitment for my own reasons, even if I believe that it will be better for my partner in the long run, I cannot expect my partner to appreciate my reasons. I must first focus our attention on them.

Here’s how you can do what I was taught when you want to break your promise, but not your relationship:

  1. Acknowledge that you are breaking the commitment.
  2. Describe your understanding of the impact your action has on the person to whom you made the commitment.
  3. Explain what you will commit to.

It’s the last part that people find the most difficult, because what most people want when they break a commitment is forgiveness. And they want it right away.

When someone asks, “What can I do to make it up to you?” what they really mean is, “Tell me what I can do so that I can feel better right now.”

That’s crap.

When you are breaking a commitment, you will feel negative emotions like guilt, shame, or regret. You will want those negative emotions to go away so that you can feel better immediately. In that moment, you’re vulnerable to making new commitments that bring you temporary relief… but you still won’t keep.

For the last step, “Explain what you will commit to,” the answer might be “nothing.” It must be an honest appraisal of your intentions and what you’re willing to sacrifice or put at risk to fulfill those intentions.

In my case, I used the protocol exactly as my Mentor taught me. I did not apologize, although I did say that I regretted my commitment and that if I could do it over again, I would never have made that commitment in the first place. I did listen to how angry and betrayed she felt, and I did my best to describe the impact that I thought it had on her, including the damage that I did to her trust in me.

And I explained what I would commit to, which was something she could tell I wanted and (she admitted later) would work for her, too.

I did my work, fulfilled my new commitment, and the relationship is stronger than it’s ever been.