Most of us agree that trust is an essential foundation on which to build a relationship. Despite the great things we say about being honest—that it’s "the best policy" or that "the truth shall set us free"—research tells us that we aren’t so great at it.
According to studies by Dr. Bella DePaulo, people lie in one in five of their interactions. These lies aren’t only to strangers or peripheral figures—couples regularly deceive each other. DePaulo’s research showed that dating couples lie to each other about a third of the time, while married couples do so in about 1 in 10 interactions. While people seem to tell fewer of the “little” or “everyday” lies to loved ones, 64% of our serious lies (“deep betrayals of trust”) do involve people’s closest relationship partners. Renowned relationship researcher John Gottman examined focus groups of couples from all over the country and discovered that trust and betrayal were the most important issues to arise between partners.
How can we create more trust when we continue to lie to the people closest to us in countless ways? Honesty is a key component of a healthy relationship, not only because it helps us avoid harmful breaches of trust, but because it allows us to live in reality instead of fantasy and to share this reality with another. Of course, every human being has his or her own unique perception of the world, but by sharing these perceptions with each other, we get to know each other for who we really are.
What can we do to not only be more honest but to promote an atmosphere of honesty around us? How can we generate a steady flow of truth-telling between ourselves and the people we love most?
Here are 5 essential elements:
1. Know yourself and your intentions.
To be honest with someone else, we must know ourselves. We have to understand what we really think and feel about the world around us. Very often in life, we are either influenced by or conforming to a series of “shoulds” imposed on us by society, particularly the culture within our family of origin. We may get married because everyone our age is “settling down.” Or we may refuse to get close to someone because our parents never got along.
It’s important to differentiate ourselves from harmful influences on our personality that don’t reflect who we really are and what we really want. If a voice in our head is telling us not to take a chance or be vulnerable, it’s important to question where those thoughts come from, then align our actions to that which we really desire.
When we are true to ourselves in this way, we are better able to be honest with the people around us. We are less likely to just tell people what they want to hear or try to cover up things about ourselves of which we feel ashamed. Instead, we can be honest about who we are and what we want in a relationship.
2. Make your actions match your words.
Often, relationships lose their spark when couples replace substance with form. Things like saying “I love you” or doing certain things together become a matter of routine instead of lively choices that emerge from how we really feel. When we form what my father, Dr. Robert Firestone, termed a “fantasy bond"—an illusion of connection that replaces real, loving ways of relating—we often begin to feel distant from our partner or lose interest. We may start making excuses for pulling away or we may still talk of being in love while not engaging in behaviors that are loving toward our partner.
To avoid this dishonest way of relating, it’s important to always act with integrity and to make our actions match our words. If we say we are in love, we should engage in behaviors toward our partner that someone else would observe as loving. We should spend real, quality time with our partner, in which we slow down and make contact. We should show our feelings, not just in words but through our body language. Saying “I love you,” while grimacing or sighing at every move our partner makes, is not an expression of love that matches what we supposedly feel.
3. Be sincere about your reactions.
Not everything we feel in a relationship will be warm and fuzzy. Yet being honest and direct with someone we love doesn’t mean we have to be hurtful or cruel. Sharing life with someone, we are bound to notice some of their negative tendencies and defenses that get in the way of our feelings of closeness and attraction. When we aren’t open with our partner about what we feel and observe, we may grow cynical or start building a case against them that actually distorts and exaggerates their flaws.
Instead of being overly critical or attacking angrily, we should aim to be vulnerable with our partner in exposing what we think and feel. We can say things like, “I miss you when you work all the time," or, "I feel less attracted to you when you act tough or try to control what we do together.” These honest, direct statements may feel uncomfortable at times, but they come from a place of vulnerability and openness that can actually lead to more closeness and intimacy.
4. Be open to feedback.
Just as we should be direct with our partner, we should be open to hearing honesty directed toward us. We should always be willing to listen to our partners and to see things from their point of view. What are they trying to tell us about how they are experiencing us and feeling toward us? Rather than argue every small detail, we should look for the kernel of truth in what our partner tells us. It’s important not to be defensive, reactive, or punishing for feedback. If we get victimized or fall apart when we hear criticism, then we emotionally manipulate our partner, and encourage them to sugarcoat or even deceive us in the future. Having a partner who feels comfortable to open up to us is the best-case scenario for having an honest relationship, in which we can both mature and develop ourselves.
5. Accept your partner as a separate person.
No matter how connected we may feel to someone else, we will always be two separate people with two sovereign minds. If our partner doesn’t see things the same way we do, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re lying. It just means that we are two people who observe the world from different perspectives. The more we accept this reality, the more comfortable we can feel in accepting that we won’t agree on everything. By being honest with each other, we can know and accept each other for who we actually are, not who we want each other to be. In this scenario, neither one of us has to pretend to be someone else or try to fit an image or expectation. We can support each other for the things that make us who we are as individuals, that light us up and give our lives meaning.
This steady flow of give and take, this willingness to be truthful, even when it’s uncomfortable, helps establish trust in each other and the relationship. An open exchange, no matter how hard it may feel, really does set us free; we can accept that we are two individuals who choose to be together despite our differences. Most important, when we make this choice, we can rest assured that it’s because we really love each other and not just because we are drawn to the fantasy of being together.
Living truthfully, things may not always have a fairy tale ending, but as human beings, we are resilient. We can handle our partner feeling attracted to someone else, and we can handle telling him or her when we feel insecure, afraid, or even furious. We can handle pretty much anything, as long as we are willing to live in reality and face the truths that exist. Honesty in relationships makes us feel secure, because we know where we stand. When we are honest with ourselves and our partner, we can experience the joy and excitement of living in a real relationship, in which we are being chosen for who we are.
Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone at PsychAlive.org