Honesty Between Us
“Honesty is the best policy” is a phrase repeated for generations. Yet in our love relationships, most partners are not very honest. And within a relationship, honesty may not even be the best policy. An episode of a television show comes to mind in which the two main characters, a man and woman who were intimate at times, were suddenly graced with the ability to read each others’ minds. Beyond comical and entertaining, the newfound honesty caused visible hurt, as each character became aware of the way the other viewed and judged them.
Dishonesty has several tiers of severity, from kind to cruel. Have you ever told your male partner how good he is at something, even when you were not so impressed by his accomplishment? Have you ever told your female partner how beautiful her new hairstyle is, when in reality the style was not immediately to your liking? Have you ever reassured your partner how deep your love is, when in the moment you are just not feeling it? Many dishonesties are offered with the intention of being kind, of offering reassurance and keeping the relationship harmonious.
Withholding feelings is a different kind of dishonesty than direct telling of lies, but builds into the relationship partner inauthenticity. Other untruths are fear-based, about self-protection, about discomfort with self-revelation or the wish to avoid conflict. Partners will go to great lengths to avoid conflict. Still other untruths are more insidious and selfish, about hiding something that will hurt the other partner and could rob them of choice or self-esteem…like the hiding of drug use, an elicit affair, the unilateral discontinuation of birth control pills or gambling with joint money.
That which we call “honesty” is really unflattering thoughts, feelings, opinions which if expressed will likely cause hurt. Painful, uncomfortable and awkward issues fill this category. Our partner never has to fear being told about his or her virtues and strengths. When talking honestly about a problem or problematic partner trait, appreciation is unlikely. Typical reactions include defensiveness, emotional shutting-down, argumentative denial or even counter-attack. Other partners build strong defenses to insure that certain kinds of honest sharing never occur. There are a myriad of defensive methods partners use to put up large emotional stop signs signaling that the other’s honesty is unwelcome. Many partners silently dance around each others’ vulnerabilities by choosing against honest sharing. Negative responses cause an honesty-seeking partner to wisely remain quiet.
Not uncommon is the relationship where honest sharing occurs only within the intensity of a heated argument. Honesty is used as a weapon where it’s sharp edge is employed to intentionally wound. In these relationships honesty is strongly associated with pain. How good is honesty when you are bludgeoned by it? When combined with poor impulse control of an excitable partner, honesty creates an emotionally unsafe relationship environment. Partners fear sharing their real self due to the concern that what is shared will be used as a weapon against them at a later time.
In concept, honesty is great. If romantic partners are completely open the relationship has greater potential to be very loving, deep and real. A gentle but honest conversation may be cleansing to a relationship, clearing the accumulation of years of emotional cruft in just a few minutes. Honesty can be powerful. But in the politics of intimate relationships, openness is often feared and avoided, due to the risk of vulnerability. Unless partners possess great sensitivity to each others’ safety and well-being, such vulnerability is a risk to be harmed, controlled and abused.
How much of our real, honest feelings and perceptions are withheld before we become inauthentic? Too many partners hide their real selves within their relationship. Avoiding conflict by regularly choosing safety over authenticity results in loss of self-respect and a passionate connection. Deep loving includes never putting the other in the position to have to make that self-deprecating choice. The possibility of relationship dissatisfaction and an accumulation of resentment increases dramatically when honest sharing is emotionally unsafe. Partners who cannot be true to his or her uniqueness are powerless to love themselves or to create a loving, alive and vital relationship.
Love relationships are a machine for growth. Honest sharing may be regarded as the teeth on the gears of that machine. Romantic partners first need to be secure in love and acceptance to look past the harshness of honesty and see usefulness. Each incident of honesty is a request for change which simultaneously sends the message that in some way the partner is not good enough. A relationship’s growth potential is dammed when honest sharing is rejected, which it will be if it is too painful.
Striving to have high honesty in a love relationship requires that honest sharing is consistently greeted with patience, positivity and good impulse control. If not, honesty will just feel too unsafe. When structured with disciplined diplomacy honesty allows the sharing of deep important feelings that forges a special intimacy. A lot of strength is required. How much honesty can your relationship bear?
At its root, honesty is about being real; allowing the authentic you to be shared and to be loved. Honest sharing will be disregarded and rendered ineffective if it is delivered hurtfully. The care and compassion of practicing to avoid causing harm is a higher order than honesty, which is not always the best policy. Sharing honestly in small doses while also practicing care and kindness may allow for authenticity. It is important that your truth is shared. More importantly is that it is shared lovingly. Andrew Aaron, LICSW is a relationship and sex therapist who practices in the New Bedford Seaport.