Has anyone ever told you that it may be healthy to break your promises? No, I’m not talking about going back on your word or taking your wedding vows lightly. I’m referring to a different category of vows—the kind of promises that people rarely acknowledge.
Our most powerful promises are usually ones that we never speak aloud. We may not even be conscious that we’ve made them. Most of our lives are dictated by such subconscious vows. They represent the “guiding voices” that sabotage our relationships and determine how we react to stress.
Take Sara as an example, who was raised by an abusive, overbearing mother and a loving, but passive, father. Survival in her home meant walking on eggshells. She daily risked the wrath of her mom, who could lash out with cruel insults and beatings at the drop of a hat. As a 12-year-old girl, Sara made vows that profoundly impacted her future choices. For example,
I will never appear weak. I’ll never let my mom see me cry again.
I’ll never marry a weak man who can’t stand up for me.
If my dad didn’t protect me and God didn’t protect me, then I can’t trust anyone—especially men.
Sara’s “vows” make logical sense given her upbringing. Her home wasn’t safe, and her parents weren’t trustworthy. Yet, she continued to live by these unspoken vows well into adulthood, her relationships marked by distance and guardedness.
All of us have made powerful and unspoken vows. Usually, like Sara, they are born out of childhood trauma and disappointment. But even after their usefulness is long gone, we may continue to live by them. For example,
I must always be the best at what I do.
I will never be sexually vulnerable with a man—even with my own husband.
I am damaged goods and will never be worthy of a man’s love.
Emotional, relational, and spiritual health often requires us to learn to break such promises to ourselves. But how? These vows represent more than a commitment; they are typically rooted in our core beliefs about life.
Name that Vow
If the most powerful vows are those that are never spoken, why not speak them? If you said them out loud would you agree with the promises you’ve made to yourself? You may be surprised to learn that the very things you’ve vowed actually contradict what you say you believe.
I recently met with a woman who “believed” strongly in the importance of marriage. She is teaching her kids to save themselves for marriage and tells them about God’s beautiful design for intimacy. Yet she has no sexual desire for her husband and can’t figure out why. When our actions don’t line up with what we say we believe, often it’s because we’re guided by unspoken vows. This is a woman who made promises early in life—vows that go deeper than the ones she said on her wedding day:
Sex is just dirty and makes me feel like a slut. I won’t ever let myself enjoy it. I am only safe when I am in control of relationships. I will never let my husband get the upper hand.
Looking at the contradiction between what we say we believe and what we have vowed can be a real wake up call. It helps explain why determining to be a great wife or friend doesn’t always dictate our actions.
Assessing Your Vows
No doubt, there are some promises we should try to keep. It’s a wonderful thing to fulfill the promises we have made to God and others. So how do we know whether our vows are worth keeping?
Unhealthy vows are typically rooted in the desire for personal safety. They also have more to do with the past than with current circumstances. Rather than keeping you safe, your unspoken vows more often allow your past to sabotage your future. Ask the Lord to show you whether the vows you are living by are honoring to him and to others, and whether they are based on past fears or your current convictions.
Paul wrote to the Corinthian church that when we are born in Christ, we become new emotional and spiritual creations. The old things will pass away and all things can become new (2 Corinthians 5:17). As you grow in your relationship with Christ, this is his desire for you: that you let go of the vows that once dictated your life so that you are free to live for boldly for God’s glory.