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Why Being Brutally Honest Is So Needlessly Brutal

Something that feels true when you're angry may not be when you calm down.

Key points

  • Partners don’t need to say everything they think, especially when emotions get negative.
  • Ugly emotions distort memories and paint the other person negatively, leading to inaccurate accusations.
  • Figuring out what is true often requires letting emotions settle down and reflecting on context, motives, and impact.
Source: Pexels/Burton

Being honest in relationships does not mean spouting off the first thing that comes into your head, especially when you are tense. Responses in escalating situations are often distorted.

When a fight starts and someone claims they are “brutally honest,” they are probably being more brutal than honest. An angry statement like, “I am just telling you the truth; you are a selfish idiot,” is not usually true. It may feel honest to be harsh, but it is probably spite.

This is why we don’t say everything that pops into our heads. Can you imagine a relationship where both partners said everything they thought? Angry thoughts about your partner, their behavior—or their mom—are often biased and inappropriate. Even if they are being selfish or hurtful, this can usually be expressed in a way that is honest and constructive.

Let’s say something gets difficult in your relationship: maybe there are hurt feelings, burnout, or unfair actions. They need to be addressed, but what will help make things better?

Before speaking, take a hard look at your motives and emotions. Are you blaming someone else for your actions? Are you letting anger and defensiveness distort your view?

After stirring things up, couples often need time for the sediment to settle and the water to become clear. Strong feelings are likely clouding the truth, making things seem worse than they are. Testy companions need to hold their tongues and think carefully when tempted to let loose with what feels like a true accusation. People need to edit their words, not to hide the truth, but to take the time to find it.

I discussed this with Ron, a chef at a local restaurant. He was amid a nasty divorce, and his wife had been uncooperative about co-parenting. One day, she was being difficult when he came to pick up their kids. He snapped and yelled at her in front of everyone: “Well, you’ve gotten old. You don’t take care of yourself, so good luck finding someone who will want to snuggle up to your deteriorating body.” He lamely attempted to defend himself later: “She has let herself go, after all.”

But what was accurate here? He was cruel and juvenile and eventually admitted it: “I shouldn’t have done it. The kids were upset, and I felt like a jerk.” The truth of his intent was that he was trying to hurt her by lashing out. The truth about her physical body wasn’t relevant.

The next time you find yourself heating up with righteous indignation and ready to tell someone off, hit the pause button. What feels accurate when colored by one emotion will change when the emotions relax. The old saying goes, “Don’t mix bad words with a bad mood. You will have many opportunities to change your feelings, but you cannot take back the words you speak.” Honesty takes effort, but you and your relationship will benefit when it is part of the interaction.

Facebook image: Vladeep/Shutterstock


Adapted from Love Me True: Overcoming The Surprising Ways We Deceive in Relationships. Cedar Fort.

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