"Most of us feel that others will not tolerate emotional honesty. We would rather defend our dishonesty on the grounds that it might hurt others; and having rationalized our phoniness into nobility, we settle for superficial relationships." from Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am? by John Powell.
But are such relationships indeed superficial? It’s no surprise that we equate love with ultimate transparency. “Sharing has become the ethos of perfection — I should be able to tell you everything... If you don’t [open up], then you have a secret” a relationship expert Esther Perel says. Thinking in this way can be quite problematic as it might make us feel that things are black and white; if we do not opt for complete honesty, we chose to be completely secretive. Perel argues that this is not the case as it can be quite wise to think certain things but not disclose all of them: "Honesty isn’t just about you telling the truth; it’s about how that other person has to live with it". So how do we know what exactly are the "right" reasons for lying to our loved ones?
Researchers at Oxford University set out to examine exactly this. They report that two types of lies have opposite effects on relationships. Lying to cover up something you did wrong or just to get your way is a type of deception and as such is destructive and ultimately weakens the relationship. In contrast, “pro-social lying” or what is known as “white lies” can be good for the relationship as we come up with lies in order to protect partner’s feelings or help them.
In fact, honesty is often the go-to foundation for arguments that might be unnecessary. “I’m just being honest” – how many times have we heard this following a cruel comment? “Telling the truth can be a hostile maneuver,” Perel says. “‘I’m not attracted to you,’ ‘I think you’re a fat slob.’ But, if you don’t want to be with someone, you can [be honest] in a way where they won’t hear the resonance of that in their head for years to come. That's respect.” Therefore, white lies can be seen as an act of kindness which helps spare the other person’s feelings.
Many people would agree that white lies, which may spare their partner some bad feelings, are just fine, and in some cases that’s indeed true. However, there is something problematic about having honesty in our relationships just some of the time. The temptation to tweak the truth can become irresistible. “If you tend to omit or colour the truth, so things look a better, it could actually damage your relationship at a core level. Trying to “protect” your partner or just trying to avoid looking bad can create more trouble than it’s worth. “ – says columnist Dr Goldsmith. If your partner does not look particularly good today, perhaps it is wise not to be brutally be honest with them. But is it ok not to tell them if there is something about them that really bothers you? When choosing a house, we’ll openly discuss all options, but when it comes to relationships, we might hold back from stating our preferences. We fear that we might be rejected if we show who we truly are, hence, we choose to hide some profound facts about ourselves. As a result, we might end up feeling alone and misunderstood.
When we know we can totally trust our partners, we feel at ease. It does not only make us feel good about our partner; it also builds our internal security so that we feel better about life in general. Having someone we can trust and rely on at all times aids us in taking those risks that help us grow and develop.
One of the most common qualities that people look for in a partner is honesty. Mark Twain once said, “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything,” Ginny McReynolds shared her story for the Together Magazine: “The truth really has set us both free. It has given us the liberty to simply be who we are. There is no more wondering if this is the thing that will make her leave me or whether one of her stories about her marriage will make me think she’s crazy. There’s no speculating, no wishing and hoping for someone else, and no wondering what the other person really thinks. We trust each other to tell the truth and we realize that this knowledge has moved us about 2 million steps ahead of where we would be if we’d only told a portion of the truth here and there along the way.”
Indeed, honesty gives us a great deal of comfort. But what if this is not what you are looking for in a relationship? Some people don’t value comfort in romantic relationships. Instead, they associate romance with keeping the other person guessing and rely on the surprise factor. It is true that once we understand who we are dealing with, it is possible to build something way more substantial than when we only have just a part of the story. However, this might make us lose interest in our partner and see them as less intriguing. So what should we do?
In her Psychology Today post, Vivian Diller discusses five commonly kept secrets and whether it might be to tell or not to tell our partner about them.
1. The affair– Whilst affairs are probably one of the most serious breaches of trust, it is now agreed that sometimes they might prove to be helpful in solving relationship problems. With this is mind, the most important thing when choosing whether to reveal an affair or not is the impact it might have on the relationship.
2. Financial Debt – Unlike the affair, hiding financial debt is probably never a good idea as learning about these matters at a later stage of relationship inevitably leads to mistrust.
3. Lack of Sexual Desire – This can often occur due to a variety of reasons. Therefore, it would be the best to take these into account when deciding whether we should be honest about it. If you are for example feeling physically unwell due to a cold, perhaps it would be wise not to tell your partner about your loss of libido as it might cause them to feel bad for way longer than the cold would last. If, however, the lack of sexual desire is persistent, not talking about it would not make the issue disappear so we are better off discussing it with our partners.
4. Past bad behaviours – This is fairly similar to the affairs – there is no clear answer. While past behaviours that are no longer present and we have learned from them can be kept a secret, those that still continue to have an impact on us should be brought up.
5. Substance abuse/addiction – “One patient I treated who attended Overeaters Anonymous (OA) for years had his wife believing he was an avid churchgoer, which is where he told her he was when he was at his OA meetings. Ironically his wife, who couldn't relate to her husband's so-called religious interests, was struggling with her own addiction to alcohol.” – says Vivian. As you may imagine, ongoing substance addiction will always interfere with the relationship and unless it is address, it will most likely negatively impact the relationship.
To conclude, honesty is often the best policy, but not always. Honesty is not just about telling the truth, either. Instead, a great deal of it consist of telling your partner the truth in a way that he or she will get the best out of it. If there is something we know might upset our partner, we should do it with a certain degree of kindness as brutal honesty can sometimes do more damage than good. If expressed without kindness, our message might be buried in hurt feelings. And as we know, communication is much clearer if hearts are not wounded in the process.