You'd think that if a guy really loved you, he'd never break a promise he made to do something for you, right? He'd come over on Saturday to help you hang that print you just got framed like he said he would, instead of having a Bloody Mary-rich brunch with his brother. You wouldn't have to ask him more than once to simply send you a quick text every night to say "Sleep tight" during his long-planned two-week road trip with his best buddy. You wouldn't have to tell him 15 times over the course of a month that he really shouldn't wear those New Balance running shoes when he's doing anything but running. Right?
Wrong. Apparently, as New York Times columnist David Brooks pointed out in a recent piece, people who love us are more likely to break their promises to us than those who don't, according to new research by psychologists Lara Kammrath and Johanna Peetz. "That's because they are driven by affection to make lavish promises in the first place," Brooks writes. "They really mean it at the time, but lavish promises are the least likely to be kept."
Hmmm. Interesting as the finding was, Brooks' explanation seemed a little flimsy. I wondered if there was more to it than that. I'd think that the people who love us are more likely not to keep certain vows because they don't think have to prove themselves to us, so they let things slide or get a little sloppy. Put another way: They feel more comfortable with us and assume we won't get too upset if they forget some little offer or statement.
I investigated a little more and found out neither Brooks nor I was quite right. After reviewing a few recent reports by Kammrath and Peetz, Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D., wrote in a Psychology Today piece: "In their studies, the researchers found that while feelings of love are quite good at predicting … in-the-moment acts of kindness and generosity, they do a lousy job of predicting the more challenging, longer-term loving behaviors," she wrote. "When it comes to pulling off the latter, they found that it's how conscientious you are, rather than how much in love you are, that predicts success."
In other words, if you're kind of up-tight, obsessive, or simply fastidious about most things, you're going to follow through on promises made to the person you love. If, on the other hand, you're more of a slacker, or a little forgetful, you're less likely to do what you said you would. It has very little to do with love, and a lot to do with personality.
Or, as Halvorson explains it: "Some gestures of love are spontaneous … it occurs to you to do something nice for your partner, and you act on that thought immediately, or in the very near future. Saying 'I love you,' offering a back rub … [or] surprising your girlfriend with a gourmet dinner — these are examples of loving actions that don't require much in the way of forethought, planning, or memory. Other gestures have a much higher degree of what Kammrath and Peetz call 'self-regulatory challenge.' They are harder to perform, often because they have to be maintained over longer periods of time (e.g., remembering to do household chores without being asked, being nice to one's in-laws) or because there is a delay between the thought and the action (remembering to buy … a gift for her birthday next week, keeping a promise to call home during your conference in Las Vegas)."
She concludes that if you're trying to get a sense of how your boyfriend really feels about you, the "smaller, spontaneous acts of love that occur without much forethought are a much better indicator of the depth of his love" than whether or not he remembers your birthday or to take out the trash.