I’m sure you’ve heard the key to a successful relationship is “open, honest communication.” While these terms mean something different to nearly everyone, most can agree that a situation in which openness and honesty are met with negative consequences is hardly conducive to trying again and again to achieve it. Unfortunately, this often happens when it’s an explicit condition in a relationship between folks attempting to navigate non-traditional territory and finding themselves on unstable ground.
You’ve probably also heard the phrase: “it is better to seek forgiveness than ask permission,” and while I don’t advocate seeking permission to act autonomously, this line of reasoning informs the compulsion to hide one’s actions if one believes they will be persecuted for them. It is, after all, less daunting to face potential fallout after the fact than risk rejection or judgment at the outset.
If I cannot trust the words that come out of your mouth, I don’t want to hear any – it is that simple. Lying is a dealbreaker. I would rather someone end their relationship with me than lie to me about anything.
However, insisting on honesty when you are unwilling to process the information with grace is both unreasonable and unfair.
I have been guilty of not being a safe place to be honest. I’d get scared and attempt to put the responsibility for managing that on my partner because I’d see them as having caused the issue. Sometimes that led to a partner withholding information from me or intentionally misleading me in order to keep themselves safe. That in turn led to a loss of trust and a perpetual cycle of fear on both our parts. As much as I was harmed by dishonesty, I had to admit I caused harm as well. Coming back from that took time as we discovered things about ourselves that needed to change, and other things that needed to be fostered and reinforced.
Honesty requires vulnerability and if the recipient cannot honor that vulnerability, they perhaps do not deserve what their loved one is attempting to communicate.
So how do you become a safer place for someone to be honest?
Take ownership of your fears. If someone is afraid to tell you they’ve met someone they’re interested in because you descend into a pit of sadness each time, you’ll need to figure out what about that makes you so sad, and then address it. This could mean asking for reassurance or just admitting you’re scared and allowing yourself to be loved through it.
Lead by example. If you want someone to be forthcoming with information, you too need to be forthcoming with information. I’m not saying you should update your partners everytime you find someone attractive, but if you’d tell a close friend about a new interest, why not your partner? If there is something I’m compelled to hide from someone I’m close to, I know I’d better do the exact opposite of that.
Communicate that even though you struggle at times, you’re not interested in your partner suffering as a result. Say the words, mean them, and follow through.
Leave the past in the past. Most of us will not have long-term relationships that don’t weather the occasional storm, but dredging up a past you’ve agreed to move on from is not conducive to progress when you’re asking someone to be vulnerable. If you are tempted to weaponize the past, talk yourself out of it, even if the only trophy you win is not regretting it later.
And if you continue to feel as though you’re riding a roller coaster in an attempt to process new information, consider you perhaps don’t need to know those things. Sometimes the pieces of knowledge that impact us most negatively are simply none of our business and we could function just fine, or better, without them. It is entirely possible to make yourself miserable under the mistaken impression you need more of something than you actually do. I used to have an agreement with a partner that we would give each other a heads up if we were going to be physically intimate with someone new. That didn’t last long as we both realized we didn’t truly want to receive that information, and we could reasonably expect the other one to do that with whomever they chose to. But when you’ve been raised with a dominant narrative, you’re going to stumble a bit when you try to write one for yourself that flies in the face of it.
A couple years ago one of my partners wrote a piece about acting out of trust vs. fear. I suppose you could consider this a companion piece to that, as his was about being brave enough to be honest and mine is about being brave enough to accept honesty. Both are scary places to stand at times, but when you find the courage to do so, fear is replaced with something far calmer and easier to manage.