By Eileen S. Lenson, MSW, ACSW, BCC
Posted on March 21, 2021
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Q: I’m feeling personally challenged. After years and years of thinking I live a fairly honest existence, I am now questioning myself. I’ve been in marital counselling with my wife for several months as we attempt to navigate obstacles that inhibit our ability to be closer. It has been brought to my attention that sometimes I avoid conflict by not being truthful. I don’t view myself as dishonest. But sometimes I don’t tell her everything I’m really thinking so as to avoid hurting her feelings. Should I continue to keep the peace and just tell her what I think she wants to hear? Or should I stop bottling my true feelings and risk creating conflict? – Thomas
A: Truth telling is held as one of our highest virtues, and is typically experienced as a necessity in a good marriage. Couples usually feel more secure in a relationship that is based on honesty. If a spouse is not honest, the relationship can falter. The spouse who is deceived can feel disrespected and frustrated. They may begin to question whether their needs are being ignored, and the trust in the relationship rapidly erodes.
Most people say they want the truth. Yet what we should do in life is not always black and white, and I have to admit that you present a challenge with your desire to maintain a peaceful atmosphere. Perhaps what you are looking for is a way to be honest without causing your wife potentially unnecessary worry and pain. This type of diplomacy is commendable yet problematic at the same time.
Herein lies the grey area of honesty known as ‘pro-social’ lies – white lies told for the purpose of avoiding hurting someone else. Intentional dishonesty is kind if spoken for the purpose of protecting another person. I’m referring to small matters, such as using tact to not push the truth, or choosing to not notice behaviours of hers that would embarrass her. An example might be if she made you a special birthday dinner but you found it to be overcooked. Telling her the dinner was good (a white lie) is about being nice and is one of those things that is used only infrequently and with thoughtful judgment. But if your motive is to protect yourself, manipulate or hide information then you’ve crossed the line and are lying for a self-serving purpose. Such actions are deceitful and can threaten the trust essential to the relationship.
Honesty is not just about telling the truth, but doing so in a way that the message can be well received. Sometimes we don’t understand how to combine honesty with compassion and the reality is that the truth can definitely be experienced as unpleasant or even unkind. But it needn’t be this way if we examine our approach of how we give genuine advice or express opinions. If you select your words thoughtfully then you should be able to be honest while also being kind to your wife.
Recognising her feelings while delivering the truthful statement conveys empathy towards her. When you’ve validated her feelings you’ll likely experience a balanced, win-win response.
You are relating to her in a genuine, sincerely caring manner, and in a way that helps her hear and understand your comments. This will reduce tension that could result in a reaction that causes an emotional downward spiral of hurt feelings. Instead, she’ll hopefully find your truthful words kind and heartfelt, and will not create frustrations for her or you.
Adapting this approach of honesty with your wife will take courage on your part because you are stepping outside of your comfort zone in how you have been responding. Yet when practiced over and over I’m confident you’ll find yourself becoming progressively less worried about how she will react, and in turn, you’ll be less likely to bottle up your feelings in fear of her reactions.
Some of the problems that have resulted in the need to see a marital counsellor may be directly related to the withholding of your true feelings. It is difficult to resolve problems if your true feelings and needs aren’t expressed. This doesn’t mean that you should expect yourself to share every feeling and thought you have with your wife. In any intimate relationship there are things you do not want to share. But it is important to know if your withholding or untruthfulness is a reactionary or proactive endeavour. You can get clarity in this by asking yourself what you would want your wife to do in the same situation. Would you want her to talk with you honestly or withhold? Do you think that her being honest with you would be harder on the relationship or strengthen it? How would you feel if she told you half-truths, or side-stepped difficult issues? Would you appreciate your wife speaking the truth to you if it provided helpful insights into her behaviour or yours?
So, Thomas, should you still find yourself on the fence as to whether to be forthcoming with the truth, tell a white lie, or evade the issue all together, I’d like for you to consider some scientific research on this topic. Interestingly, the “Science of Honesty” study presented at the American Psychological Association’s 120th Annual Convention found a link between honesty and wellbeing.
When people stopped telling lies, even pro-social white lies, for 10 weeks, their health significantly improved. Close personal relationships improved, and social interactions went more smoothly. Symptoms of depression and physical ailments like headaches decreased.
Difficult discussions will always arise in a marriage. Paying attention to how you choose to deal with bad news and critical feedback can impact on the long-term level of trust and intimacy. Examining your use of honesty will take you on a powerful journey of self-awareness. Perhaps this provides another incentive for you to pursue the path of increased honesty.
Take care and enjoy the comfort of greater candour in your marriage,
Wishing you well,
Eileen S. Lenson, MSW, ACSW, BCC is author of Overcoming Adversity: Conquering Life’s Challenges, by Australian Academic Press. Eileen is a life and business coach and public speaker residing in the United States. She has spent her professional career working in medical and psychiatric hospitals and in her private practice, counselling people experiencing emotionally traumatic events.
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