It may seem like honesty is such an obvious ingredient in all relationships that it should go without saying how important it is. Yet over the years, we never fail to be surprised at the frequency with which we find couples being dishonest with each other. They find ways to justify their dishonesty, often without any conscious awareness of the consequences. Many are so accustomed to rationalizing this behavior that they don’t recognize that they are being dishonest with themselves and/or others. They, like many of us, use euphemisms and terms such as fib, white lie, misspeak, exaggeration, or untruth to obscure the fact that they are intentionally attempting to create a false impression.
Some of the more popular ways of justifying dishonesty include telling ourselves that we don’t want to hurt others’ feelings, or that it’s no big deal, or everybody does it, or it’s not going to do any harm, or it would be worse if we did tell the truth. The reality is that lying, or whatever we wish to call it, does cause harm, although that harm isn’t always immediately evident. But sooner or later, its consequences will show up in the form of a diminishment of affection, and increased feelings of anxiety, and guilt.
Dishonesty can come in many forms and it isn’t limited to statements that are untrue. Anytime we are operating from a conscious intention to mislead, we are engaging in dishonest communication. And sometimes the lie is not what we are saying; it’s what we are not saying.
For example, in a relationship in which one partner chooses not to disclose information that was relevant to the relationship in order to withhold something that could be upsetting, they are engaging in a deceptive practice. “I didn’t exactly lie, I just didn’t tell all the details” is what we often hear from those who are attempting to defend such actions.
One of the most frequent types of honesty that characterizes great relationships is emotional honesty. While factual honesty has to do with stating things such as “I have blue eyes” or “There are thirty-one days in July” or “My cat’s name is Snowflake,” emotional honesty has to do with the expression of feelings that arise out of an interpersonal interaction such as “I’m disappointed that you forgot my birthday” or “I’m grateful to you for helping me out in the garden” or “When you called me a lazy slob, I felt hurt and angry.” While we don’t have to share every single emotion that we feel to our partner, there are times when the failure to honestly express our feelings can be problematic, particularly when neglecting to do so creates a false impression.
During the early years of our relationship I (Linda) was guilty of withholding many feelings that I had towards Charlie out of fear that revealing them might cause an upset, something that I very much wanted to prevent. The primary feeling I withheld from him was anger. I was afraid expressing myself would activate his anger and that I would be no match for him. I had spent my youth withholding my feelings since expressing many of them would have provoked severe consequences, particularly from my father. When Charlie and I first got together, my level of truth telling was not very high. I had taken the role of the peacemaker in my family and was experienced at covering up my distress and anger in an attempt to avoid the explosions that were commonplace in my childhood home.
Early in our relationship, Charlie put me on notice that such posturing did not work for him. He told me that when I claimed I was fine, he knew that often I wasn’t. Charlie sensed that beneath my smiling face, something was brewing. Feeling like the kid caught with her hand in the cookie jar, I sheepishly admitted, “Well, maybe not everything is fine.” And that began one of the most powerful conversations we had ever had. We both ended up getting vulnerable and emotionally honest with each other. Charlie made it clear to me how crucial it was to him that we have what he referred to as a “no-bullshit relationship.” He told me that although his parents had their problems, just as mine did, one of the things he learned while growing up was that a relationship that wasn’t emotionally honest wasn’t worth having, and that even truths that are hard to hear need to be spoken if they are relevant to the relationship. His bottom line: he told me was that if we didn’t have that agreement, it would be a deal-breaker for him.
I was already crazy about Charlie and wanted our relationship to last a lifetime. I was in terror of the idea of bringing up the tough issues, especially my anger and my unmet needs, but I was more afraid of losing our relationship and having to live without him. I heard the steely truth in Charlie’s voice and I knew he meant what he said. It was a turning point in my life and in our relationship and the beginning of a new, and steep, learning curve for me in which I practiced, certainly not perfectly, doing and saying things that I had spent my whole life repressing and even denying to myself. It was very hard, particularly early on, but over time, I became what I referred to as a warrior of the heart. That is, someone who pits herself not against an external enemy but against the forces within her that oppose her commitment to the authenticity and empowerment that true love calls for.
Since then, I have had thousands of opportunities to practice and to develop new ways of being. Charlie has had his own learning curve to deal with as well. His work had to do with toning down his intensity, which could sometimes be unnecessarily harsh. We have each had to learn how to be honest, respectful and considerate with each other, and to learn how to speak without blame and judgment. This transformative process has been an essential ingredient not only in the success of our partnership but also in my sense of self. I feel that through it all, I have grown into a person of greater integrity. I am deeply grateful to Charlie for holding a high standard about the crucial importance of honesty. And I am also grateful that he hung in there with me while we practiced together to become proficient in our communications. Of everything we have learned and accomplished over our five-plus decades of marriage, the teaching about honesty stands at the very top of the list!
Click here to hear Billy Joel’s thoughts about honesty.