Many people are in love with the idea that there is a communication tool that will solve their marriage or relationship troubles with a minimum of discomfort or risk. The fantasy rarely comes true, for reasons I discuss elsewhere, but there is one tool that does change everything. Ready for it?
I call it… Telling the truth.
Telling the truth is one of the simplest, most difficult, and most terrifying “communication tools” available to us in relationship. It’s far more intimidating than trying to learn your partner’s love languages, remembering to use “I-statements”, or practicing active listening.
Interestingly, popular communication tools and techniques that promise to create more intimacy in relationships often succeed at doing precisely the opposite, while telling the truth remains one of the surest paths to authentic intimacy. So why do we avoid it?
Telling the truth is hard
When we tell the truth we put ourselves on the line. When we tell the truth we open ourselves to our partner’s questioning, judgement, criticism, rejection, even disgust.
Sometimes we try to bargain away the risk of truth-telling – “I’ll tell you but you have to promise not to get mad or to judge me.” An angry or judgemental partner is apparently more than many people can tolerate.
Obviously not all truth-telling is wise or constructive, though the most profound truth-telling does inevitably carry a risk of destruction. Our innocence may be at risk of being destroyed. Or our upper hand, our righteousness. We might risk destroying something in our partner: their image of us, their sense of safety; we may fear destroying their happiness, or their love and acceptance of us.
What does it take to tell the truth?
The truth might be painful, but real truth-telling is not cruel, it is courageous. It is not manipulative, it is genuine. Cruelty and manipulation is a misuse or distortion of telling the truth. Real truth-telling presents something unarguable, something deeply subjective, something from our experience for the other to consider. Real truth-telling draws a line between our experience and our partner’s experience. It is an act of respect, integrity, and differentiation.
Telling the truth might mean confessing an action or behaviour, but the most significant truth-telling more often involves revealing difficult or complicated feelings –
“I don’t like being touched like that.”
“I’m not sure I love you anymore.”
“I don’t feel attracted to you.”
“I don’t think I want children.”
“I’m having doubts.”
“I’m attracted to someone else.”
“I want something different.”
“I’m having a hard time with something you’ve done.”
“I’ve been deceiving myself, and you.”
“I hide myself from you.”
“I punish you.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“I don’t respect you.”
“I want more.”
“I want less.”
Notice that there is no technique. Nothing fancy. The truth is straight-forward and needs no special dressing up.
Each of these examples opens the door to what we imagine will be difficult conversations. Telling the truth opens doors, but it may also close them. Most relationships are normally built, at least partially, upon untruths, and these untruths provide an uneasy equilibrium. Truth-telling is destabilizing at first; it narrows the path and demands growth. No wonder we avoid it; we’d rather find a technique that allows us to keep our relationship more or less status quo, but also somehow “better.”
If we’re really honest, we want communication tools that will make our partner understand us, even as we hide the most difficult and salient truths from them. And if we’re even more honest, we might admit that when we say we want understanding, we actually mean we want agreement; we crave some tool that will make our partner validate us and hopefully see things our way, even when we don’t have the courage to tell them the truth in plain language.
I’ll leave you with this quote from psychologist and author James Hillman. I like how he connects truth-telling to shame and fantasy for another perspective –
When Freud’s patients lay down and began to reminisce, they found their fantasies embarrassing. Freud also found them embarrassing. Alone with each other and these fantasies, teller and listener did not look at each other. Their eyes did not meet. Why are our fantasies embarrassing to tell, and why are we embarrassed hearing the intimate tales of another’s imagination?
The shame about our fantasies gives testimony to their importance. This shame is now called professionally ‘resistance’. but what function does this resistance perform? I do indeed resist telling my daydreams, my scorching hatreds, my longings and fears and their uncontrollable imagery. My fantasies are like wounds, they reveal my pathology. Resistance protects me. Fantasies are incompatible with my usual ego , and because they are uncontrollable and ‘fantastic’ – that is away from my the relation to ego reality – we feel them alien. We are not embarrassed in the same way about our will and intelligence; indeed we proudly exhibit their accomplishments. But what breeds in the imagination we tend to keep apart and to ourselves. Imagination is an inner world – an inner aspect of consciousness. These affections and fantasies are the imaginal or unconscious aspect of everything we think and do. This part of the soul that we keep to ourselves is central to analysis, to confession, to prayer, central between lovers and friends, central in the work of art, central to what we mean by ‘telling the truth’.
Read my book The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples to get help with telling the truth in your relationship.
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Trying to grow, fix, change, understand or save your marriage? I provide couples therapy, marriage counselling, coaching and mentoring to individuals and couples on the issues that make or break relationships – Sessions by telephone/skype worldwide. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to request a client info package. www.JusticeSchanfarber.com
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