Honesty

As a kid, I became pretty good at lying.

"No, it wasn't me that did that, it was my sister." (As an adult, I've apologized profusely for putting her in bad situations.)

"I have a stomachache. I don't think I can do swim lessons today." (There was no stomachache.)

I felt like I had to in order to stave off abusive discipline from a babysitter who reared me throughout elementary school. I didn't want a belt hitting my backside, or my head being held while my babysitter stuck a bar of soap in my mouth, let alone experience the criticism that came with her rapid movement toward anger. (I was also quite terrified of drowning as a child, which is a whole other blog post.)

I became really good at determining the minimum amount of information my babysitter needed to hear in order for me to be safe. I also became quite good at pleading and politicking. I denied responsibility for wrongs that I committed, and I would work with the other children to develop fool proof, consistent stories to explain to the babysitter.

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Yesterday, we published a post about an introduction to open relationships. We suggested that open relationships need to have fidelity involved--a sticking to of agreements, both explicit and implicit. As we'll talk about in a future blog post in this series, perhaps agreements include exploring sex with other people when your primary partner is out of town.

We also suggested that all relationships have a level of openness to them. We all have friends, coworkers, and family members that we share stories and emotional experiences with, and turn to for emotional validation. We reminded readers that one person cannot meet every single relational need for their partners; in fact, we experience a greater richness in love and connectedness when we share with other people. It reminds me of the old children's church song:

Love is something if you give it away, you end up having more.

We're using an article from Abby Girard and Alison Brownlee, professors at Alliant International University, that was published in a 2015 Sexual and Relationship Therapy edition. Girard and Brownlee take the works of Dottie Easton, Janet Hardy, Tristan Taormino, and other experts on non-monogamy to identify seven themes of positive, fulfilling open relationships. recently published paper on open to guide us through this series. And today, we reflect on the value:

Honesty.

In 2014, Cohn & Wolfe, an international consulting firm, polled 12,000 people in 12 different large cities in the U.S., Europe, and Asia on the most appealing features of businesses. Consumers repeatedly valued authenticity--namely, the ability to communicate honestly about their services and products--as the most important value. Authenticity can be communicated in the narrative, storytelling forms of advertising, clarity of installation instructions, quality of online reviews, and accessibility of customer service.

The two American political machines have tapped into our country's desire for honesty, and more importantly, our mistrust of those who swindle and lie, over the last 18 months. The Republican party and coinciding media created an extensive storyboard of Hillary Clinton as someone who is dishonest and unreliable, while the Democratic Party and related media routinely reports on the inconsistencies and falsified information of Donald Trump, a candidate revered for his "honest" candor against the political correctness.

Honesty is a significant value for most folks, as I observe every time a partner in one of my couples responds critically when their partner contradicts the way he/she perceived or remembered as experience.

We want our own experiences to be validated by others.

We also want to trust that others will follow through with what they say they'll do (which gets back to the fidelity post earlier this week). While it's true that we create our own security, the consistencies and follow through of those around us impact the ways that we experience attachment and safety.

However, how many of you have experiences similar to the ones that I described at the beginning of the post? Perhaps it simply was too risky to tell the truth, and learned that "I'll be less upset with you if you just told me the truth to begin with" isn't necessarily a truthful statement. Perhaps you had to hide the behaviors of another family member, such as those who grew up with parents who abused substances.

Yudhijit Bhattacharjee wrote an article called "Why We Lie" in this month's National Geographic. He describes famous lies from sporting and political scandals, and does summaries on people who were hired to be deceitful, such as spies, poker players, and agents. He also reminds us that much of the information that we receive comes from other people, which means that there's an inherent need to trust other people. This may also describe why we experience intense feelings such as betrayal and anger when someone is dishonest. He writes the following:

The interesting question is not why so many lie, but rather why they don’t lie a lot more...The reason (according to psychologist Dan Ariely) is that we want to see ourselves as honest, because we have, to some degree, internalized honesty as a value taught to use by society.
— Y. Bhattacharjee, National Geographic, 6/2017, pg. 43, 46.
Image in Y. Bhattacharjee, "Why We Lie", National Geographic, 6/2017, pg 39

Image in Y. Bhattacharjee, "Why We Lie", National Geographic, 6/2017, pg 39

He provides the chart to the left, which summarizes research of Timothy Levine and others, who asked over 400 people in five countries to describe a moment that deceived or lied to someone (or were deceived/lied to). Regardless of cultural context, people gave three fairly clear reasons that honesty didn't work: To promote yourself, to protect yourself, and to positively/negatively impact others.

How to Be More Honest

Relationships have honesty whenever partners are able to accurately describe their own feelings in a non-judgmental way and speak openly about their needs. Honesty also places responsibility on the receiver of communication; that person needs to be able to manage their own emotional experience and internal dialogue, not interrupt nor rush in to fix a problem, and respond with compassion and empathy.

 

Take a look at the chart above and explore if any of these are reasons that you have distorted information in the past. This chart then provides us with some ways that we can be more honest with our partners, and with ourselves in intimate relationships:

  1. Own your feelings. Take time to learn additional language for the diverse amount of feelings you have. Pay attention to where these feelings exist in your body--your chest, your head. Verbally distinguish the nuances between "frustrated" and "angry" with your partner. Communicate them using "I" statements, rather than pinning or blaming your emotions on your partner. Likewise, do not own your partner's feelings.
  2. Own your mistakes. Each partner plays 50% of each negative interaction; focus on your own (and only your own) 50%. Let your partner know ways that you want to grow from this experience. Apologize without any expectation of reciprocation. Our need for fairness can encourage us to push our partner into reflecting on their own mistakes; remember, you are not responsible for your partner's process.
  3. Know that your partner may get upset when you advocate for yourself. Don't react to your partner's response to your taking ownership of your needs and feelings; rather, give him/her space to reflect on the feelings that come up for them.
  4. Identify stories and experiences that make it challenging to be honest. Share these with your partner, not as a way of setting the precedent for excuses, but as a way of teaching your partner about yourself and practicing vulnerability.
  5. Address things in the moment. Dedicate no more than three minutes to identifying a problem, identifying your own experience, and working toward a solution. If you're unable to immediately commit three minutes to resolving an issue, schedule three minutes later that day to address the conversation. Set clear expectations for conflictual situations, such as the removal of blame, criticism, and defensiveness.
  6. Identify scenarios when the relationship needs to be put first. Also identify scenarios when a person's individual needs and desires need to be put first. Schedule date nights both for the couple and each individual, allowing each partner to explore his/her own hobbies and friendships inside and outside of the relationship.
  7. Use less sarcasm. Our brains are far worse at interpreting snark than we think, particularly when we are vulnerable in the heat of the moment.
  8. Identify five positive things about yourself and your partner. Some people fear that one mistake will negatively change the way that they are perceived in the relationship moving forward. Communicate things that you admire about yourself and your partner in as many interactions as possible. (John Gottman suggests for every negative interaction, it takes five positive ones to create a sense of balance.)

For more information about how our couples therapists can help you transform your relationship into one of honesty, openness, and vulnerability, give us a call at 617-750-0183. Or click the Book Online link at the top of the page.

Jeremiah Gibson is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who specializes in working with couples and communication.