When it comes to romantic relationships, what is the most important thing you look for in a person?
Although many will have a different answer, the one thing that tops the list for most people (or at least makes their top 3!) is honesty.
I agree, honesty is very important. It’s one of the most important aspects of a relationship. However, we must ask ourselves, “What do we mean when we say that we want honesty from another person?” Most people mean that they want someone who “won’t lie to them” or “keep secrets,” but the question of honesty goes beyond lying and secrets.
I have worked with many individuals who come into therapy because they are unhappy in their relationship. They share with me what makes them unhappy about their loved one, meaning what that person does or doesn’t bring to the relationship. When I ask the question, “Does your partner know how you feel?” the answer is almost always, “No.”
There are many reasons they haven’t shared how they feel. Some don’t want to hurt their partner, while others worry about the reaction they will receive. Some express, “What’s the point? It won’t make a difference anyway.” However, sharing your true feelings is an important aspect of honesty in a relationship and deserves your attention.
First, before I share this particular example, let me say that I think it’s so unfair that as women we struggle as we do with physical self-image. But this first example has to do with the question women often pose to men, “Do I look fat in this outfit?” Men have shared with me that when a woman (often their wife) poses this question, they find it challenging to feel attracted to her. It’s often the lack of confidence that they find unattractive, but also, this is one of those difficult situations in which it’s very hard to be “honest” about how you feel and how you’re affected by your spouse. How do you say to your spouse, “I struggle to feel attracted to you when you pose that question to me”?
Another example is when a person is apprehensive to share with his or her partner when he or she is unhappy and doesn’t feel a priority in the partner’s life. The person may need more from the relationship but not know how to ask for more. It becomes a very difficult “honest” conversation to have.
A final example of a very challenging “honest” conversation to have with your loved one: You might not like that your partner vents so much about whatever it is that leads him or her to being unhappy in life, such as work-related woes. While we naturally want to turn to our partner for support, and most partners want to be supportive, we sometimes don’t realize how our venting about life affects our partner. In this case, how do you say, “I don’t always feel that I can listen to you” or “I don’t always look forward to you coming home from work because you’re so unhappy. I want to look forward to seeing you”?
The Honest Truth
The truth is that it takes courage to give honesty to those we love, and it may be even harder to receive that honesty. But growth in a relationship occurs when we are open to providing feedback to our partner and receiving it in return.
While it’s valued, honesty may be one of the most challenging parts of your relationship. It’s likely that no one knows you better than your partner, and it can be frightening to receive honest feedback about yourself from someone who knows you so well. Also, being really honest with someone we love can be frightening. But the goal in a relationship is to feel connected and grow in our connection with one another.
The fear is that if we share something about our partner that is unpleasant, honesty can lead to disconnection. But that disconnection may be temporary and necessary to pull the relationship forward.
Most important, if you’re going to be honest with your partner about whatever it is that concerns you about him or her or how he or she affects you—whatever it is—what you say needs to be said with love and compassion. Honesty is not a license to be hurtful or mean. Blame and accusations are not honesty. And please remember that even if you say it with love and compassion, it may not go well. How something is said can (but won’t always) make all the difference in the outcome. Giving and receiving honest feedback is a process that needs time, love, and nurturing.
One last thought: I do not believe that everything needs to be said. However, if by not sharing with your partner you are ultimately harboring resentment and/or withdrawing—or you simply recognize that not using your voice is causing diminished feelings toward your partner—that is when it becomes critical to talk honestly.
As always, remember that this is very hard work, so be kind to yourself, as well, in this very challenging relational work!
By Pam Fullerton, psychotherapist and writer
Patrice Hooke, LMFT uses practical honest feedback and focus on the strengths of my clients to help them reach their goals. I believe that with honesty, compassion and understanding, we can all find healing and have a more fulfilling life. She is especially passionate about couples counseling Costa Mesa.