The Two Essentials

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Can I be honest with you? I don’t have it all figured out. Let me just put that out there, right off the top. What I do know has been shaped by my personal experience sitting in the classroom and then in sessions with hundreds of couples. As a psychotherapist, I’ve discovered that each couple is a unique blend. Like in a laboratory, two couples mix like two unique chemicals, sometimes creating a blend of unity and sometimes of dramatic explosion.

Relationships can be hard, even under the best of circumstances and the last few years has been far from ideal. Nevertheless, relationships can also be wonderful and incredibly fulfilling, when the proper ingredients exist.

Do you want tasty or nasty?

To bake a cake, you need to have a few ingredients to make it turn out tasty. Otherwise it may turn out nasty. The ingredients matter.

What are the main ingredients in relationships. I have spoken with many people over the years and there is a lot of diverse opinion. As I understand it, I think there are two essential ingredients. Truth and kindness. They go hand in hand, but finding the right balance is challenging.

Is honesty always the best policy?

When one swears an oath in a court of law, they give an oath to tell the whole truth. This suggests that there are also two kinds of lies. Lies that are outright distortions of reality, but also lies that hold back some parts of the story. Both kinds of lies have grave potential, if and when they are discovered, of damaging or destroying trust in the relationship. I would also contend that even if the deception is not revealed, the quality of the connection is altered in indiscernible ways. Without truth and trust, any relationship will quickly deteriorate. It is the bedrock of relationships and helps people feel that they are “safe” within the relationship.

The concept of “safety” in attachment theory is important for understanding how relationships work. Humans desire connection with other humans beings in loving, protective, caring, and nurturing situations. Within this environment, a person generally will feel safe to be themselves, to explore, create, and maybe even be a little crazy at times because they believe that they are emotionally and physically safe. They are accepted and not judged.

What happens when a partner doesn’t feel those things? If someone lies or withholds parts of the story, it damages the foundation, and mistrust is inevitable. This may seem like a small thing in the beginning, but lies and deception often lead to more cover up, lies and deception. Inevitably, the deceived partner with not be able to trust the other, even if they said the sky was blue. Trust has been destroyed and they cannot feel safe with them, unless a great amount of repair and restoration takes place.

Brutal honesty has brutal consequences

In session, I have frequently heard the term “brutally honest.” This leads me to question what this means, because it suggests first of all that telling truth “the way it is” is more important than the feelings of the person that the truth is being shared with. This premise needs to be challenged. If you have truth, but you don’t have relationship, what do you really have? You get to be right, but alone, or maybe leaving your partner in pain. Instead, how about aiming for “kindly honest?” I know it doesn’t have the same way of rolling off the tongue, but it is much more constructive, rather than destructive.

Kindly honest

Kindness is acting out with respect, gentleness, care, and thoughtfulness. It creates a safe environment for people to inhabit, because it informs them they are valued and worthy. Without kindness in a relationship, defensiveness and bitterness will likely emerge as negative safety reactions, a type of protest behaviour, which seeks to regain kindness. This creates a powerfully negative feedback loop with no winners.

It’s not so much what you say as how you say it

Discussion requires conveying information. I remember my mother saying: “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” She also said: “if you don’t have anything nice to say, then say nothing at all”. I kinda disagree with her on this one. Sometimes the very necessary truth is unpleasant. Disagreement isn’t always comfortable, but that should not stop us from speaking it. It is possible to dialogue about an issue without resorting to name calling, belittling or aggressive behaviour. However, this type of discussion requires us to slow down, emphasize the relationship, empathize with the other persons perspective, and not view differences as the enemy.

When you speak truth, it must address the issue and not attack the character or identity of the other individual. Truth is strong enough to stand alone, without adding insults to the argument. When you debate an issue, what matters most is the value of your belief, not how loud or how fast you speak. Being aggressive or passive aggressive may cause the other person to retreat into silence, but that does not mean you “won” the argument. It could just mean you have re-enforced to your partner that you care more about shutting them down than respecting their perspective. Now imagine what the long term quality of your relationship will be if this keeps happening.

Perhaps you have tried in the past to be honest with someone and they were defensive. They weren’t ready to hear your perspective or accept your level of integrity. There may not be the perfect solution but I suggest a gentle knock on the door compared to the swat team breaking down the door. You would probably be more inclined to remain calm with a gentle knock rather versus your door getting busted down. John Gottman refers to this as “the gentle startup” in which you ask them if they are ready to hear what you have to say. As an example, you may start with: “There is something important on my mind that I’d like to talk to you about. Would it be ok if we talk about it?”

With this gentle startup approach, you are respecting the other person enough to let them decide whether they want to hear what you have to say. This is kind, which then opens the door to be honest. However if they say they don’t want to hear it, this also says something about your relationship. Do they trust your intentions, are the receptive to your perspective, or are they willing to face their own issues and evolve? You may have to re-evaluate the quality of your relationship if honesty is not permitted.

Ultimately, you have no control over how other people manage the truth, but you do have control over your delivery. Do it with kindness by caring for the person first, and you have a much greater chance of a successful dialogue.