4 Reasons People Don’t Follow Through


Ok. Here’s a typical scenario. We meet with a couple and have a great conversation. One of the last things that we do is talk about what they should work on between sessions.

We usually give them something to do. It’s usually fairly specific.

When they return, we ask them how their homework assignment went. Sometimes the assignments go great and sometimes they don’t. That’s OK. Honestly, we want the couple to keep trying things until they find what works.

At other times, we ask how the assignment went and one person will say they didn’t do it. Perhaps the assignment was to plan a date and the planner didn’t follow through.

I know that if I ask, “So, why didn’t plan that date like you agreed?” It will cause a defensive reaction. Instead of moving in a positive direction, the person may get more entrenched in a poor behavior.

What’s the best way to react? I think it’s helpful to be aware of why people don’t follow through.

Reason #1: Not Understanding the Importance of the Task

Often, one or both of the individuals doesn’t understand the importance of the assignment.

If they don’t see the value, why do it?

Usually, the couple doesn’t agree on the value. It may be really important to one person, but not to the other.

I’ll ask, “Do either of you think this is helpful?”

I’ll follow up with questions about what the task communicates to them. For example, if it’s important to plan a date to one person, I’ll ask them what they find of value. Usually, it communicates caring, respect, safety, or attention.

It’s important for the reluctant spouse to know why it’s so valuable to their partner.

Honestly, if neither of them sees the value, perhaps it’s better to choose another assignment.

Reason #2: They Don’t Know How

People often don’t do something because they don’t know how. It could be that they didn’t understand the task or they don’t know how to achieve an objective.

I like to get very specific and concrete when it comes to assigning tasks. Often I’ll hear, “I want to feel loved and valued.”

I know that assigning someone a task to love and value their partner over the next week is going to fail. That’s almost a guaranteed ‘don’t know how.’

As a young mother, Abby felt overwhelmed with housework. She expressed that it would mean a lot to her if her husband, Troy, would come home from work and pick up the kid’s toys. This seemed like a very practical task that would communicate love and value to her.

Troy agreed. He knew how to pick up the toys.

Abby agreed that she would notice when he picked them up and thank him for it.

They both knew how to do this.

Reason #3: Fear of Failure

People get stuck in the belief that nothing will ever change. If you are stuck in that belief, then you don’t look for the small changes that are happening.

When Abby and Troy came back after the ‘picking up toys assignment’, we asked them how it went. Abby said, “Not very well. He doesn’t value me.”

I looked at Troy and he said, “I picked up the toys the first day, but I didn’t on any other days.”

I confirmed with Abby that she felt valued on the day he did pick up the toys and she complimented him when he did it.

I could see that they both felt stuck and like they failed.

I said, “I think this is a great step. You didn’t do it at all before and, now, you did one day. That’s great! Do you think you could do two or three days this next week?”

After several weeks of slow improvement, Troy began to feel that he could improve. Abby started to realize that he was working at it. She became less critical and more complimentary. This encouraged Troy to do more.

Baby steps! Recognize what worked!

Reason #4: They Don’t Have the Skills

We work with couples on skills when we meet with them. Skills like validation, listening, recognizing emotions, making repairs or conflict management often are not natural.

Carl and Amanda wanted to be able to work through some conflict areas. They wanted to be great at validating each other after they heard our teaching.

They tried to validate one another. However, when they tried, one of them would end up triggered and the fight would escalate into hurt feelings and disconnection.

They were discouraged. Instead of talking it out, they would let their resentment and frustration grow.

We spent several sessions coaching them how to put the skills into practice. They worked through an issue in front of us and it helped them to get further in their dialog. As they worked more at putting those skills into practice when they were on their own, it allowed them to find ways to understand each other and to be more closely connected.

Tips for Marriage Mentors:

  • Don’t forget about ambivalenceAmbivalence is when one person isn’t sure they are committed to working on the marriage. I’ve written other posts about this.
  • Recognize the reason – It helps me to recognize and ask questions about the reasons for not following through. Is it not understanding the importance? Fear of failure? Discouragement? Skills? That helps me to know where to focus.
  • Don’t Assume – I’ve made the mistake of thinking that they don’t follow through because they aren’t committed. Often, it’s because of a deeper issue, like fear of failure.