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Partnership Troubles? This May Be Why.

"Truth or care": When to speak your mind and when to bite your tongue.

Key points

  • To feel safe in intimacy, we seek both honesty and affirming sweetness, though they are sometimes opposites.
  • The "truth or care" dilemma reflects two ways to respect people: respecting their toughness or their sensitivities.
  • If you recognize the "truth or care" dilemma as part of any intimate relationship, you'll manage it more efficiently.

Honesty is the best policy: For 3.5 billion years, the rule of the game of life has been “adapt to reality or die.” We don't just have to get along with ourselves and others; we also have to get along with cold, disinterested reality. For that, we must respect the power of truth, realism, and honesty. If we really care about people we have to be honest with them.

Now, honesty isn’t the same as truth—one can honestly believe untrue things. Still, when it comes to our feelings, the best we can do is “speak our subjective truth.” In relationships, we have to earn trust. Be dishonest and trust is broken. If you’re caught in a lie, you’ll cause lasting damage. Honesty must always trump dishonesty.

And vice versa.

Kindness is the best policy: Kindness must always trump honesty. Intimate relationships of any kind—with lovers, family, or business associates—are like porcupine sex. You want to get and stay close, but you have to be careful of, and with each other. You have to avoid pricking each other. You have to be kind, tactful, diplomatic, affirming, sweet, and flattering. You can’t afford to say everything you feel and think. Learn to bite your tongue because if you’re caught saying what you really think, sometimes you’ll cause lasting damage.

“Truth or Care?” It's quite the bind, trying to figure out when to speak our minds in the name of honesty and when to bite our tongues in the name of care. The game gets harder the more intimate and sustained the relationship. To feel safe in intimacy, we need both honesty and tact, and they aren’t always compatible.

Often we forget or ignore that bind during the honeymoon period of a relationship when we’re so honestly enthusiastic about the other person that we assume we’ll never have to choose between truth and care. Without that romantic assumption, it would be difficult to sidle up to a fellow porcupine.

When the honeymoon’s over, sometimes what we honestly feel won’t be perceived as caring. We’re left wondering whether to speak our minds or bite our tongues. Philip Larkin describes the lonely silence that grows in struggling relationships: “Nothing explains why at this unique distance from isolation, it becomes still more difficult to find words at once true and kind or not untrue and not unkind.”

We have a tendency to assume that the more one behavior is called for, the less its opposite is called for. That’s not always the case. There are many “can’t lean situations,” and intimacy is one of them. You have to really pump up both honesty and tact, even though they are sometimes at odds.

Created by author.
Source: Created by author.

Think of it as two opposite ways to show your respect. With honesty, you respect a person’s ability to hear your truths. With tact, you respect a person’s sensitivities. “Truth or care?” will be a recurring question for you. It’s one of the many variations of the serenity prayer that form the perennial dilemmas of human life.

Grant me the serenity to humor those who can’t take the truth, the courage to speak my mind to those who can take it, and the wisdom to notice the differences that make a difference in when to do which.

The dilemma can also be distilled into a paradox: The best way to care for people is to get real and stop trying to please them. Honest politicians struggle with this paradox: Should they be honest or pander? Being honest with people helps them in the long run but it also can destroy rapport. Any influencer or “fisher of men (and women)” has to figure out how to reel people into rapport without jerking them so hard with some harsh truth that the line breaks, and the fish escapes.

You and a friend get together for lunch and you ask how things are going. In telling you their news and woes, they may want two opposite responses without admitting it. Part of them wants you to affirm them. They’re looking for a cheerleader. But part of them also wants an honest second opinion, outside insight, a reality check. They do and don’t want to be flattered. They do and don’t want a critique. Their mixed message is “I just want the truth and it better be affirming.”

It’s easy to satisfy their ambivalence if your honest opinion is that they’re right on track. But what if your honest opinion is that they’re in denial? This comic video illustrates the problem:

Your friend could end up angry at you for choosing wrong either way, frustrated that you’re too honest, too dishonest, or both. Being humored is insulting. They don’t want a yes-person or a mutual admiration society. But being hurt by harsh honesty is insulting too.

We’d like to think that there’s always a tactful way to speak our truths. Honest tact is a fine goal so long as we recognize that it’s not always achievable. To pretend it is achievable licenses us to indulge in kill-the-messenger dismissiveness: “You hurt my feelings so I don’t have to listen to you.”

In successful relationships, both partners might say in effect, “What I love about us is that we can talk about anything (provided we don’t).” After a relationship fails, exes often say something like, “My ex turned out to be a psychopathic narcissist who lied too much and told the truth, hurting my feelings.”

We often seek compatibility in relationships without paying enough attention to our need for compatibility in how we negotiate the incompatibilities. One of the most important of these compatibilities is not blaming our partners for the “truth-or-care” dilemma intrinsic to any intimacy.

People often make relationships harder than they have to be by pretending they’re easier than they can be. If you claim for yourself the romantic high ground because you don’t see the potential tradeoffs between honesty and sweetness, you’re not part of the solution but the problem. Captured in this comic video:

More from Jeremy E. Sherman Ph.D.
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