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Radical Honesty In Relationships Anyone?

There is a concept running in certain philosophical circles that promotes honesty without filters in communication. Basically, the aim is to cut out all lying or dishonesty in conversation. There have been numerous studies on the effects of lying and what negative impacts it has on relationships. Also, the book titled: The Honest Truth About Dishonesty by Dan Ariely points out how we lie to others and to ourselves more than we would like to admit or are even consciously aware. However, when is it okay to lie if ever? Is it okay to lie in order to save face for another person, or is being totally, even brutally honest the way to be?

This is where Radical Honesty promotes that even “white lies” (well intended untruths), or the same lies that we at times tell others to protect them from hurt feelings are to be nixed. The premise is that if a person can be relied upon in being totally honest, then people will eventually know that the person in practicing Radical Honesty will tell the truth no matter what. This leads to potentially creating greater intimacy between individuals because of the salient factor of building/fostering trust in relationships.

As a couple’s therapist, I can say that I promote what I would call a soft version of Radical Honesty. When couples get into communication patterns and habits of relating it is easy to see how lying, even about what may to an individual seem “simple” or “unimportant” can lead to a habit that can possibly get out of control. One of my mentors would say that honest people are usually called one thing: “divorced”.

I chuckle at that notion because it does take couth to speak the truth with your partner, especially when it involves feelings. The important thing is to take the stance of minimizing any attacking, blaming or shaming of your partner for holding different views, vales and/or opinions. This is where effective communication comes in handy and the use of “I” statements is employed by the person expressing their views/ thoughts and feelings denoting ownership.

I get it though, because I too have gotten caught up in the cycles of blame and anger and in wanting to “prove” my view at times, but in the end trying to force feed my perspective on another person has never worked out for me and it took a long time for me to further appreciate different perspectives and tolerance.

Think about that though, when was the last time you changed a stance just because someone told you that you were wrong and they were right? How does that work? Anyone who has been in a relationship (regardless of type) can say that they probably have experienced something similar along the way.

There are some people in relationships who want to know the whole truth and state so, but as a therapist I appreciate systems theory, which posits that there are two levels of communication. The first is called “content level” of communication or what we say and the second level being called the “process level” or a deeper meaning and interaction of what is being communicated. In content communication, we take words at face value, where the process level is the underlying communication. When I first learned about this theory in graduate school I was blown away. I finally understood why there were ready examples of couple’s patterns of communication and breakdowns of understanding it just made sense.

An example or hypothetical would be that of an argument erupting from the dirty socks left on the floor and as we explore further the fight was not about the dirty socks, it’s just the straw that broke the camel’s back. Further probing reveals that the fight was about one partner forgetting to take out the trash for three consecutive weeks, thus leading to harbored resentment reported by the angered and frustrated partner. Thus, we can see why exchanges in a relationship can be compared to an emotional bank account of sorts. If you withdraw more that you deposit you will eventually end up in the red and that folks is no bueno. Another ready example that some may relate to is the following scenario:

Female: “Tell me the truth, babe I won’t get mad. Do you think that this dress makes me look fat?”

Male: “No babe, I think you look great.”

Female: “Why can’t you just be honest? It fits a lot tighter than it used to.”

Male: “Well I guess it does look a little different than before now that you said that.”

Female: “I knew it, why didn’t you just say that you think I’m fat?!”

Okay, so this is a grossly simplified conversation, and even a bit cliché of couple communication breakdown, but I’ve seen many similar scenarios and conversational patterns play out in my work with couples in therapy. In an interesting way, what this pattern of communication reinforces is what we call a pursuer/distancer communication relationship where one partner pursues or wants to engage in conversation and the other ends up distancing themselves due to feeling like they will be shit on with any answer they give. Also, this can be called a double bind, but enough of the psychobabble terms for now let’s get back to Radical Honesty.

In romantic relationships, if our partner says something we disagree with or we feel attacked, it is natural to have a knee jerk defensive reaction and yet defensiveness does not lead to intimacy. In fact, John Gottman, the foremost leading expert on couples and relationships states it as one of the elements in what he calls: the four horsemen, which lead to relationship destruction. He’s also responsible for the emotional bank account analogy I mentioned. I must note that from my experience I have found that Intimacy is born out of what may seem like paradoxical communications at times. When we are vulnerable enough to speak our truth at the appropriate time and with the appropriate people the elements for enhancing intimacy are all present.

There is truth that the conversations that are the most difficult to have are the ones that can lead to the most insightful and action filled change that your relationships may be needing. Many people fear that being honest with their partners will drive them away or create more trouble in the relationship, but to those who believe this I ask: Is trust an element in your relationship that you would like to foster or turn away from? I know that this may appear to be a no-brainer, and I understand, and empathize on the difficulty of being honest with oneself and with others at times; but if you are not, then what is the price you’re really paying for not doing so?

I am not here to prescribe any way of living and I can see what Radical Honesty promotes and where those in its practice are coming from. I feel that at times a person must deliver their truth in a palatable way with regards to where the other person may be, and to respect that. People in opposition to this will state that it is not their job to be the cause of happiness of others, and I in turn respond to that by saying that we cannot forget the power of our words and actions on others and their impacts on our relationships.

Also, we must be aware of and appreciate that relationships and communication can be complicated. It is important to foster open and honest communication, which is the bedrock of a healthy relationship. However, when it involves speaking one’s mind in a blunt way I am not too sure that it is the best way to approach it.

To wrap up, I have to reiterate that we have to face the fact that at times we cannot talk around problems and I am not promoting that either, but there are ways of delivering one’s truth that can come from a position of being attuned to the person(s) who are important to us in life. What are your thoughts on this? You can be radically honest.

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