But I Was Just Being Honest
How to talk responsibly to someone you love.
Posted Nov 20, 2020
How many times have you had your feelings hurt by people speaking to you in the name of “telling the truth?” They may say things such as “you’re so controlling” or “you care more about your work than you do me,” or “you’re so self-centered.” These and other hurtful and insensitive comments have all been made in the name of “telling the truth.”
In this country, we put such a strong, sometimes overriding value on free speech that we sometimes uphold the individual’s right to say whatever she or he wants, even when it is clearly harmful, or even intended to be harmful to the larger community. For example, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld the rights of the American Nazi party to hold a march in Skokie, Illinois, despite the fact that the march was targeted at a largely Jewish community and designed to inflict the most harm possible.
While we can debate the pros and cons of this approach as national policy, there is no doubt that the same approach does not work well at all in any kind of relationship. Words are very powerful. The biblical version of creation is that God created the world with words, “And God said, 'Let there be light' and there was light (Chabad).” Words in relationships are also very powerful, with equal potential for helping or harming those we care most about. Couples clearly understand the power of words in their relationships, because when they decide to seek help from a therapist, they usually describe their problem as a “communication problem.”
In relationships, rather than the one-sided valuing of free speech that we uphold as a nation, it is far more helpful to aspire to the feminist value of “relationally responsible speech.” Speech that is relationally responsible is speech that takes responsibility for the impact of one’s words on the person you are talking to. When someone protests that they are “just telling the truth,” they are defending their intent as benign or even helpful, and are indignant at being held accountable for the impact of their words, even if that impact could reasonably have been anticipated. They are being insensitive, in the true meaning of the word, which is to “show no feelings or concerns for another’s feelings.” Relationally responsible speech means the speaker considers what the impact of his or her words is likely to be, and then takes responsibility for the impact of those words, even if the impact is different from what she or he intended.
Returning to our earlier examples, the people speaking defend their speech by claiming a higher priority on “the truth” than the feelings of the people they are talking to. The problem with this argument is that they are not, in fact, telling the truth. It’s not that they are inaccurate, or mistaken, or even dishonest. They are not telling the truth because it’s not possible to speak about someone else’s truth, only your own. What they are doing is simply speaking aloud some of the critical judgments they hold about the person they are speaking to. The only real truth we can tell is the truth about our own experience.
For example, in the first example, one person accused another of being “so controlling.” It may or may not be true that the accused person is controlling — that’s not for the accuser to say. The only truth that the accuser can talk about with complete authority is the truth of his or her own experience, such as “when you talk to me the way you are now, I feel bad, like there’s no room for me in this conversation."
In the second example in which one person accuses another of “caring more about your work than me,” again, the accuser can’t possibly know the internal state of the accused. What the accuser can know with certainty is how this behavior makes him or her feel, as in “when you come home this late, I start to feel very lonely, and it’s hard for me to hold onto knowing that you care about me.”
People sometimes add the phrase “I feel that” to the beginning of a sentence to disguise their critical intent and make it sound like they are talking about the truth of their own experience. However, “I feel like you care more about work than you do about me” is just the wolf of a judgment disguised in the sheep’s clothing of a feeling word.
An interesting example of how complex these matters can be when one person in a relationship has an affair. If the affair has truly ended, and the offending partner emerges from the affair clearer than ever about his commitment to his marriage, should he tell his wife about the affair just because that is the truth? Should he consider whether it would be better for their marriage to tell the truth or keep it to himself? If he decides that would be better for the marriage not to tell his wife, can the two of them truly have an intimate relationship with one of them holding such a secret?
The counter-argument is often made that to restrict the way one talks in this way is not natural, not spontaneous, and that intimacy requires people to talk openly and spontaneously with each other. It is true that to consider the impact of one’s words before speaking is less spontaneous and less natural. So is not quitting your job when you have a bad day, or not hitting your children when you are angry at them, or not eating all the ice cream when you open the pint.
The last thing I want to discuss is “telling the truth” about your relationship to someone else you are close to. When you’ve had an argument with your partner/spouse, and things are not yet resolved, people often want to talk it over and get help from a friend. That can be a really good idea if you use these same relational principles in talking with your friend. It may seem that the way you talk about your spouse/partner to a friend won’t matter as long as she or he doesn’t know about it. I assure you that is not true. If you speak about your spouse/partner insensitively when talking to a friend, it has an impact similar to talking that way to your spouse/partner directly. I can’t explain how that could be true, but I’ve seen it and experienced it enough times to know that it absolutely is true.
If you seek out a friend to talk to who cares about your spouse/partner and supports your relationship, and you speak in a way that is relationally responsible, in a way that you would not mind if your partner/spouse knew what you were saying, that is very likely to be helpful to you and your spouse/partner in getting through this stuck place.
This post was also published in The Good Men Project.