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Can a truly open and honest relationship actually work?

Updated: Feb 28, 2022

Let me tell you a story. When our book When Good People Have Affairs came out, two huge controversies blew up. One had to do with the premise of the title. What!?!?!, people said. Good people can’t have affairs! If you have an affair, you are automatically a bad person.

The other controversy had to do with some advice we gave.

Let’s say you cheated on your partner in the past, regretted it, broke off the affair, and it was all over. Now, though, months or years later, you feel guilty about what you did and badly about carrying around this secret. Should you tell your spouse?

What do you think? Should you? Is it right to do so? Would it make things better in the relationship, or worse? If it was right to tell but made things worse, would its being right make telling okay?

Let’s turn the question around. Suppose it was your partner who’d cheated. Would you want your partner to tell you about an affair that was over, where the relationship was dead? With no chance you’d find out about it on your own? Would the honesty of that confession make things better between you or worse? What do you think?

What did we say in our book? Stay tuned.

It is one of the great dreams: to be in a relationship where both of you can be and ARE totally open, totally honest with each other, and feeling the freedom and safety that comes with that. No fear of lies. No secrets lurking in the dark to ambush you.

Do you have that? Have you ever had that? Do you want that? Do you think it’s even possible? What do you think?

But most of us, including me, are confused about this issue. Meaning that from one situation to another, we’re not always sure what to do. But you know, in spite of my frequent confusion, there are some things I’ve learned through my work that I am pretty clear about:

--> For relationships to be able to continually heal themselves, people need to be open and honest about unmet needs and unhealed hurts.

--> This openness and honesty is utterly useless and just produces conflict and pain unless the couple has skills and tools for dealing with these issues.

--> There is a fundamental conflict between the value of honesty on the one hand and the value of kindness and support on the other. Do you look fat in those pants? Well, suppose a panel of experts would say yes. What should you say?

--> People who are always open and honest are experienced as obnoxious and mean. That’s just a fact.

--> Most of the time being “open and honest” means giving negative criticism. And that’s tragic. It gives openness and honesty a bad name! The rarest thing in the world is someone who is both open and honest but who mostly finds positive things to say. When’s the last time you ran into such a person?

--> Relationships thrive when the ratio of positive to negative comments is about 5 to 1. Given how most people construe being open and honest, how’s that actually gonna work?

--> Openness and honesty imply judgment. But...who am I to judge you?

--> A maxim in communication theory is that the meaning of a communication is the response it elicits. If most open and honest comments elicit expressions of discomfort or anger or hurt, how has being open and honest been a positive thing?

--> What is the point of your relationship? That’s always worth talking about: why you’re together. Suppose you thought of your relationship like a vacation destination. What would you want the main experiences to be? Let’s say you said, Feeling loved, feeling safe, having fun. What policies would bring that about? How high on the list would being open and honest be? I’m just asking.

So...what does all this add up to? A big fat headache, that’s what. Hey, life isn’t easy. All we can do is thread our way through it.

If I ask you if I look fat in these pants, my top needs are to feel cherished and taken care of, except for those times when I really need to know the bald truth. Deal with it! Maybe the emphasis is on “these pants” and not my big fat ass. So you could say, “I really think your black wool pants are more slimming.”

Good. I feel taken care of, and, by the way, I get the point.

Or you could just say, “No, you look great,” meaning, I’m a hopeless case, but there’s nothing we can do about it now, and you love me and just want me to feel cherished and confident. I get that point too.

Now there’s also a great way to prevent the damage from most supposed openness and honesty. Just think about what you were going to say and ask yourself how you could convert the comment into a request. Instead of, “You know, you’re so mean most of the time, and I’m sick of it,” you could think of what to you would be not-meanness, and just go straight to asking for it. Like, “Honey, I’d love it if you’d say something nice to me.” See! No chance of getting stuck in the negativity of that supposed “openness and honesty”!

Maybe we need to think of two people in a relationship as something that’s always slowly sinking in a stormy sea. Which it kind of is. Each word we give each other either helps us stay afloat or drags us down, both the relationship and the other person. That’s what we need to be thinking about first, and then try to slip in as much openness and honesty as the ship of the relationship can bear.

By the way, in When Good People Have Affairs we said that it’s better not to reveal an affair from the past. Why? Long experience had shown us that telling is almost always far, far more hurtful than helpful. If you tell, you’re not going to get the parade honoring your honesty you were hoping for, nor any relief from guilt. No, instead whatever problems there are in your relationship now will be made much, much worse by the other person’s rage, mistrust, and sense of betrayal. And those things take a long, long time to heal.

Love to hear what you think about this!

The pix here are all movie stills. I don't know the names of most of the movies, except the first in the text. That's from The Bigamist, directed by the great Ida Lupino. It's on YouTube.


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