Must the Truth Hurt: Honesty and RelationshipsTruth exposes our every emotional nerve. But honesty is often wielded less like a surgical instrument and more like a machete. In careless or indifferent hands, truthfulness can damage or even sever relationships. But the alternative—saying nothing—can be equally destructive.

Honesty is essential to the health of a romantic relationship. We should feel safe to speak our mind to our partner. However, relationships also require nurture … harsh verbal treatment rarely cures problems. Below we explore how to inject truth into a relationship while preventing festering wounds.

Why Honesty Matters: The Infection Connection

In an intimate relationship, nothing we say or do is truly quarantined. Our partner is closely connected to us and therefore is vulnerable to the effects of our words and actions. For this reason, we have a responsibility to engage in honest dialogue about any serious issues.

Relationship Gangrene

Certain issues are serious enough to threaten the survival of a relationship. These areas of potential relationship “gangrene” must be addressed before they begin to erode the relationship. Marriage/relationship education (MRE) classes can help most couples get back to a healthy place. Important disclaimer: Your care for your partner should never come at the expense of your own safety. Abusive relationships have devastating consequences.

Avoiding Verbal Malpractice

When you confront your partner and the conversation doesn’t go the way you’d like, it’s tempting blame the other person. “He/she is so sensitive!” Some people are indeed more delicate than others. However, most people will accept honest feedback from people they love and trust—so long as that truth is properly dispensed. From childhood, we are told to speak the truth. But we are never taught the particulars of the technique. Below are a few tips to facilitate honest communication.

First, Do No Harm

Loving partners speak honestly with one another. But remember the principle on which modern medicine is founded: Primum non nocere, meaning, First, do no harm. The foremost responsibility of a doctor is to avoid inflicting needless suffering. Some treatments cause more harm than good. Likewise, your partner may not always benefit from a heaping dosage of your honesty. You do not need to confront your partner’s every slipup. We all make mistakes and compassion is essential to making a long-term relationship work. However, do not indulge your partner’s chronic bad habits.

Benign Versus Malignant Lies

Relationships thrive in an open, honest environment. In some situations, though, full disclosure is both unnecessary and unkind. One way to determine if there is any “merit” in a withholding the full truth from your partner is to ask yourself who benefits from the scenario. Are you simply trying to avoid an uncomfortable conversation? Are you trying to preserve a flattering impression of yourself? Or, are you truly trying to protect your partner from unproductive pain? On that note, the question of whether to disclose an affair requires unique consideration….

Infidelity: A Special Case

Revealing an affair has potential to end your relationship. Moreover, this disclosure won’t immediately enhance your relationship or make your partner feel good. For these reasons (and for self-preservation!) people often cover up an affair. But this deception can still eat away at the relationship, even if the true problem is not fully understood by your partner. Many feel that covering up an affair for a prolonged period is as damaging as the affair itself, due to the layers of deceit involved.

Practicing Your Bedside Manner

When a frank conversation is needed to resolve an issue, how you deliver your words is critical. A cold, condescending attitude alienates your partner. Honesty can have curative powers, but it should never be delivered in a clinical fashion.

Keeping Your Words ‘Clean’

Just as foreign objects can contaminate an operating room, unfair fighting can compromise an entire conversation. Avoid name-calling and blanket generalizations. Confront only one situation at a time. Speak from your own point of view rather than presuming you perfectly understand your partner’s.

Swallowing Your Own Medicine

Unlike a doctor, you do not merely prescribe honesty; you must also be willing to receive it from your partner.

Getting a Gut Check

Be careful not to make the biggest lie of all: that you never lie. Everyone fails to tell the full truth at some point. Should you actually manage a life of absolute honesty, you are likely to drive everyone you love away. Lies have some social utility, so those who are adept at them are often quite popular. These individuals successfully morph their words and personalities into what others want; however, such people are hardly trustworthy.

A Prescription for Happiness

Many believe a relationship cannot survive without brutal honesty. However, relationships often require a delicate balance of honesty and compassionate restraint from that honesty. Some truths may initially hurt your partner’s feelings but need to be spoken for the good of the person or the relationship. Other times, the wisest and most loving response is simply to hold your tongue.