Promises, Promises

By Mark Edinberg, PhD., Contributing Editor
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While not necessarily legally binding, promises we make to our family members bind us in many ways. Guilt, poor decisions, potentially harmful decisions, and harm to family members can all come out of promises made in the heat of a crisis, at a moment when one is fearing a greater harm to another family member, or even simply made in ignorance of what the promise might entail in the long run. Not making a promise can be difficult and require forethought about the situation. Reworking a promise once made is also an option to handling these dilemmas. Sometimes, we sometimes need a way to rework a promise when the person who extracted the promise from us is no longer able to understand us or has died.

Some common promises made to older relatives are:

  • Promising to "Never put me in a nursing home."
  • Promising never to sell the family business
  • Promising never to sell the family home
  • Promising to "take care of a handicapped or incapacitated relative
  • Promising to continue a family feud (e.g. "Never talk to cousin Ned because of what he did in 1943, and promise me you will never forgive him or his children.")
  • Promising to not take a specific course of action about a stock or investment (e.g. "Never invest my money in banks").

The list of potentially damaging promises goes on and on. At the risk of peering into people’s minds, the main reasons for someone asking you to make such a promise is as follows:

  • They are angry with someone else and do not want the other forgiven.
  • They are afraid of what will happen to someone (or some thing) and somehow feel that their wish(es) are better than any you may have in the future (without realizing that things can change in unexpected ways)
  • They are afraid of being a) abandoned emotionally, b) unloved, c) taken advantage of
  • They are afraid of being abused or poorly cared for as their own family was in previous days
  • They don’t trust your ability to make the best decisions for them (even if they don’t admit this, the "promise" has this lack of trust embedded in it, otherwise the promise wouldn’t be asked for)
  • They unconsciously figure that what worked for them (e.g. owning a family business) is the best for you whether you think so or not.

Each of the reasons given above has merit, even the ones that imply that your relatives know better than you do what is best. Although some cases can feel pretty insulting, the older relative is at some level trying to do the best for you and the family. However, their fears and lack of awareness about how circumstances can change make many of these promises unnecessarily painful. Some people have a need to control everyone else and use guilt to manage relationships which in turn can lead to them displacing their problems on you in the form of a harmful promise.

Promises Have Consequences

Look at some of the unintended but painful consequences that may arise from the promises mentioned above:

  • Promising to "Never put me in a nursing home.". . . So an older adult with incontinence with Alzheimer’s disease who is also bed ridden is kept in a private home for two years, which means the woman of the house has to quit her job to take care of her mother in law. Eventually, the woman retires, but because of her loss of job, has significantly less money to support her own retirement and becomes a burden on her own family.
  • Promising never to sell the family business. . . So sons and daughters who do not want to go into the family business feel obligated to keep it going, even though it may no longer be profitable and they cannot get any enjoyment or value from the energy and effort the parents put into developing the business. In addition, inheritance and succession for family businesses are very complicated due in part to tax laws. Most family businesses do not survive through three generations. Promises made may actually quicken the demise of the business because the promise does not take into account the people and legal realities that future generations face.
  • Promising never to sell the family home. . . So the family house is never sold, is hard to rent, and loses value.
  • Promising to "take care" of a handicapped or incapacitated relative. . . So one family member takes on a significant financial burden for 30 years, rather than working earlier with the parents to provide funds that can be used for the family member’s care.
  • Promising to continue a family feud (e.g. "Never talk to cousin Ned because of what he did in 1943, and promise me you will never forgive him or his children."). . . So family rifts increase in intensity, members are alienated from each other, don’t speak, are hostile when they are together, and eventually no one knows why.
  • Promising to not take a specific course of action about a stock or investment (e.g. "Never invest my money in banks"). . . So families may feel guilty about investing, even somewhat conservatively. In some instances, people keep inappropriate investments and actually lose money because "it was their favorite stock".

So, how can we handle a promise that is now a burden around our necks?

Some Ways of Handling Promises

The first piece of food for thought is "Don’t make the promise they ask for, make a promise you can sensibly keep." This is much easier to suggest than to do, however. It may take you some preparation to be able to reassure your older relative that their underlying concern(s) will be met, but that circumstances will have to dictate what you will and will not do.

A second approach, if you failed to do the first one, is to revisit the promise and in essence change your unqualified "Yes" to a more specific statement of what you can promise. You will run the risk of the other getting angry, disinheriting you, or calling you names, but the price you would pay in guilt or in negative consequences for years if you didn’t revise your previous "yes" may well be worth this risk.

A third approach is to talk for a while with the relative about what is behind their need for the promise, then put on the table some values you both agree on, such as:

  • We want to do what is best for the entire family
  • We want to be sure to get the most out of these resources
  • We want to be able to make decisions if things change dramatically

The fourth aspect of talking about promises requested is to be sure you address the underlying concerns directly. You can promise not to violate these as long as the integrity of the family is upheld without determining a specific course of action.

Look at how these strategies can be applied to the promises mentioned in the beginning of this article:

  • Promising to "Never put me in a nursing home." An alternative approach is to say, "I can promise you certain things. The first is that I will make sure you have the best care we can afford. The second is that you will never go to any living situation that is not right for you. The third is that we will try to do what is best for the entire family if you are sick or need assistance. I will not allow you to be treated without respect and dignity. We will not, under any circumstance I can think of, abandon you emotionally."
  • Promising never to sell the family business. An alternative approach to a blanket "Yes" is: "I understand your desire to keep the business going. I may or may not be able to do so. I will not lie to you about this. If we can keep the business going as a positive legacy for you, we will, provided it is in the best interest of the family. We would only want a legacy from you that is a positive one."
  • Promising never to sell the family home. An alternative to a later regretted "Yes" is: "I understand the importance of the family home to you. We all have some strong feelings about the home and about you. We may or may not be able to keep the home in the family, we can try to do so as long as it is in the family’s best interest. Either way, we can take the memories of the home and its personal value with use, no matter where we live."
  • Promising to "take care" of a handicapped or incapacitated relative. Be sure to be specific by what you mean by "take care." You can, for example, promise to look out for their welfare, to be sure they get benefits they are entitled to. You can also get a promise back from your older relative to work with you to arrange for financial care. If the "incapacitated" individual has a history of drug and/or alcohol or mental disorders, the situation can become more complicated, especially if the older relative does not fully acknowledge the impairments of the impaired family member. You can get around this in part by indicating that the two of you (your older relative and you) have a difference of opinion about the situation of the other relative, but that you understand their position and will at least give "due diligence’ to the other, even if you choose not to not to provide financial support or housing.
  • Promising to continue a family feud (e.g. "Never talk to cousin Ned because of what he did in 1943, and promise me you will never forgive him or his children."). Alternatives to saying "Yes" vary considerably, depending in part on your impression of the nature of the feud and the people involved. For example, you may not like the "others" and be very willing not to have contact with them. Still, you would be best served by agreeing as to your dislike of these people, but not go so far as to dictate how you will act in the future. You may want to acknowledge the wish of the older relative, ask for a full explanation of why they want the feud continued, and still hold out to be able to make up your own mind.

I know of one situation where a woman wanted a named executor of her estate to ensure that a minor child would not have contact with her older brother. She told this to the executor while preparing her will. At the same time, she would not disclose the nature of the brother’s transgressions. The executor told her in advance he would not make this promise, but, if she wished to include a letter about the specifics and concerns in their will, the executor would take these concerns seriously. The woman did write such a letter, but is still alive, so the minor child has become an adult and the situation is no longer on the (future) executor’s plate. Both sides seemed to be happy with the process and outcome.

  • Promising to not take a specific course of action about a stock or investment (e.g. "Never invest my money in banks"). Here, the key seems to be to get the other person to reframe the promise in more general concerns: e.g. "Don’t take extraordinary risks", or "Take a conservative path", or "Don’t completely trust the stock market."

Promises to the Departed

So these ideas about how to handle promises are well and good, you might think, but what about a promise made to someone who is now deceased? How can we rescind the promise and the guilt when the other is no longer around to forgive us?

If you are sure that the promise is an illegitimate one (i.e., one that had negative unintended consequences or has created great difficulties for the family), one method I use is to have an IMAGINARY conversation with the other, remembering where they or their "spirit" or "karma" may now reside (depending on your belief about afterlife, of course). Do you think that they, if they fully understood the current situation, would want you to continue the promise? If the answer is yes (if it is "no" you are off the hook), examine what their motives were for the promise and talk with them IN IMAGINATION about how to respect their motives while changing the form of the promised behavior or decision. Usually this can work very nicely, even if you do not believe in the spirit world and consider this merely a symbolic or psychological exercise. And, if you are really smart and lucky, you may even get them IN IMAGINATION to forgive you and bless your revision of the promise that should work to the benefit of the whole family, including you.

I hope these ideas let you begin to rework unwanted promises have made or prevent you from making promises you will wish you never did. Good luck in applying them.

Disclaimer: This article is not intended to be considered as counseling, psychotherapy, or specific advice to be followed. It is not meant to take the place of consulting with appropriate professionals for medical, legal, or psychological information or strategies. Rather, readers should take the points of the article and make their own personal judgments as to how and when to apply them if at all.


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