The Truth hurts. Do you remember that axiom? It came up in conversation last week at the girls breakfast. Lois is six months into a relationship that was going swimmingly until last week. "He clammed up, stopped talking; nothing to do with me he assured me but I can't help feeling fearful that something is wrong". We all asked her if she had expressed her fears to the man in question and had she asked him to share what was going on. "Jeez, no", she said "he'll think I'm insecure; something he hates". And so begins the slippery slope of sliding down and out of a relationship that both pledged would be based on total honesty and openness in communication. At the very first bump encountered in the process of getting to know one another, Lois is afraid to express her fears and ask the tough questions, the answers to which will either reassure or hurt her. Ed is simply not talking.
I think many of us grew up believing that it was best to avoid the truth in a relationship for fear of driving a wedge or hurting the other party. It certainly isn't uncommon to hear the chatter of friends along the lines of, "Oh, I'd never tell...best if he/she doesn't know". I look back at past relationships and realize how often I softened the truth as a way of avoiding hurting the man in question or shaking up the status quo. In my first marriage, his serious depression sat like an elephant in the living room but neither of us spoke about it - we tip-toed around; me bright and overly compensating; he increasingly withdrawn, until the gulf was so great between us that there was no way of bridging it.
"Some things are best left unsaid", was a favorite saying of my mother. Those unsaid things included a pretty shrewd idea that my father was unfaithful. To my knowledge they never discussed this and remained in a loveless marriage of convenience. "Don't tell her that you aren't sure about making a commitment..." was the advice given to my now husband before his first marriage. Nineteen, and heading for Vietnam, he entered into a marriage that was based on half-truths. She was pregnant; he felt obligated to marry her; she was in love with someone else. My husband broke down and wept a few months ago after spending the afternoon with his ex-wife at a grandchild's graduation. Perhaps it was too much champagne but whatever the conduit, for the first time, they both spoke openly about the absence of truth and presence of fear of causing hurt that lead them into 17 years of misery. "Just imagine" he said to me, "how different life would have been if we'd had the tools to be honest back then."
The tools to be honest- that toolbox has to include courage, self-confidence, belief in the relationship, security. The closer we become to someone, the more we have invested of ourselves, the more we have to lose and it's at this juncture where commitment to truth often wavers. I remember telling my children when they were very young that they would never be punished for telling the truth, and although someone's feeling might get hurt and I might get angry, the damage done would be nothing like the damage caused by lies and half-truths. One of them used to approach me with, "promise you'll get over it if I tell you the truth". And I always said, "I promise". Some of the truths were difficult to take but I credit willingness to tell the truth with the ongoing relationship I have with my now adult children today.
Honesty is the glue in any relationship; honesty fosters intimacy and true friendship, the building blocks of something that will last. Fear of honesty in a relationship points to cracks in the foundation and signals the beginning of the end. Lois is feeling insecure right now and she can't express this to Ed. I don't hold out much hope for the future. "What if I lose him now because I'm being irrational?" she asks. As friends, the circle around the breakfast table point out to her that this insecurity is part of her, makes her who she is and this man has repeatedly told her that he is falling in love with her as a whole person, not just "bits". We have one dissenter. Angela, married for 35 years, comments that it's best to leave out the negatives until you're sure you've really snagged a man. And then what? We ask. At what point do you reveal the real you. She shrugs. "Works best this way sometimes is all I'm saying." She's echoing my mother 40 years on.
We live in an era where everyone from politician, "trust me", the doctor's receptionist, "he'll be with you in a minute , 'hon", to a best friend, "I'm on my way...five minutes" lives with the "little lie", the half-truth, as part of daily routine. A quick survey of on-line dating sites reveals over 70% of participants list "honesty and openness" as traits they possess and desire in a mate, and yet other data supports in excess of 50% of participants in such sites fudge the truth about age, income, and appearance. What a conflicted world we live in. Truth and honesty as ideals rate highly but in practice they slip to the bottom of a priorities list.
Lois called me yesterday to talk through her fears. Her end note was to ask, "but what if I'm the only one who really is honest...where does that leave me?". My instinct is to retort that she's backing the wrong horse if that is the case; I slow down on the truth and instead suggest that she have some faith in earlier instincts about this man and let trust not fear rule the unfolding story.