How to Stay True to Yourself in Your Relationship
New research on the best way to achieve "balanced authenticity."
Posted Aug 23, 2016
Do you feel that you can truly be yourself with your partner, or are you always hiding something? Do you fear that if your partner knew what was going on in all corners of your mind that your relationship would end?
One of the most frequently quoted lines from Shakespeare’s Hamlet is uttered by the somewhat laughable (though tragic) character Polonius: “This above all: to thine own self be true.” New research from Yi Nan Wang at Beijing Normal University shows that this advice is wise, but that being true to yourself shouldn’t come at the cost of stepping over your partner’s needs. Showing your true self can, in some cases, mean expressing views that your partner would find offensive or upsetting. In balanced authenticity, you reach that optimal level of taking the feelings of your partner into account while still allowing your true self to shine through.
The presidential election is one conceivable area of contention between you and your intimate partner. Maybe you can’t stand the candidate your partner favors and struggle to suppress the urge to express exactly what bothers you about this person. Every time you see a story that portrays your partner’s candidate in an unfavorable light, you want to use it to show your partner just why he or she would be a terrible president. However, if you speak your mind, you run the risk of sounding harsh and judgmental to your partner.
People in a close relationship often agree with each other on important social or political issues, but they can also come at the same topic from completely different perspectives—even while still loving each other very much. How can you feel true to your own values but also, while still expressing them, keep your relationship strong? Wang’s research provides clues on how you can achieve balanced authenticity without threatening a relationship.
According to Wang, people risk their relationship when their desire for agency (a focus only on the self) isn't in harmony with their desire for communion (focusing on others to the exclusion of the self). You can’t follow your own pursuit of truth, the theory goes, unless you also recognize that other people have needs and ideas as well. By the same token, you don’t want to be so directed by others that you lose touch with your own values and principles. Even with your closest partner—or perhaps especially so—you want to find an ideal, middle ground.
Wang initially developed a 17-item scale to assess “Authenticity in Relationships” (known as the AIRS) which she tested on several samples of Chinese adults. Her primary focus was examining the relationship between AIRS scores and measures of well-being, based on the premise that the balanced authenticity she was testing would be related to higher levels of personal satisfaction. The 17 items were statistically boiled down to 3 scales, each with 3 items.
See how you would answer these 9 items below, and then I’ll explain what the scores mean.
Rate each item from 1 to 5, or from disagree to agree strongly:
- I always hide my true thoughts for fear of others' disapproval.
- I usually try to cater to others.
- I do not dare to tell others the truth due to caring for their feelings.
- I am fully aware of when to insist on myself and when to compromise.
- I always find ways to reconcile my need and other's requirements.
- I would neither give up the real me nor make others hard to accept.
- I usually tell the truth without concern about how others will think of me.
- I just speak my mind without taking care of others' feelings.
- I always offend people by speaking frankly.
Each set of 3 items corresponds to one of the 3 types of authenticity:
- Items 1-3 represent other-distorted authenticity, in which you give up your feelings for those of others.
- Items 4-6 represent balanced authenticity, or the ability to express yourself while taking the views and needs of others into account.
- Items 7-9 represent egocentric authenticity, or the tendency to place a value on expressing yourself even though you might hurt or offend others.
If you’re like the average adult in the Chinese samples, you’ll get the highest scores (approximately 4 per item) on balanced authenticity; mid-range scores (approximately 3 per item) on other-distorted authenticity; and the lowest scores (approximately 2 per item) on egocentric authenticity.
In correlating the 3 types of authenticity with other measures related to self-esteem, personality, and social desirability (the desire to make a favorable impression in completing questionnaires), Wang found that balanced authenticity was the only scale to relate consistently in a positive direction with well-being. Moreover, people with balanced authenticity showed the additional advantage of having a positive self-image and, at the same time, being “unlikely to try to please others just to elicit a positive reaction” (p. 321).
The AIRS was built upon the Eastern philosophical concept of dialecticism in which you calmly and objectively consider opposing options and contradictions. In balanced authenticity, you “maintain a balance between internal and external pressure and find a solution that will be broadly accepted” (p. 317). The idea is not unlike that proposed by Erikson’s psychosocial theory, in which you can only attain a mutually satisfying relationship with another person once you have established your own sense of identity.
Using the AIRS in your own relationship provides you and your partner the opportunity to have a profitable and mutually informative conversation. After you’re done answering the questions for yourself, answer the AIRS items for each other. In the process, you’ll gain a sense of just how authentic each of you feels you can be, and gain an understanding of areas to work on.
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Wang, Y. N. (2016). Balanced authenticity predicts optimal well-being: Theoretical conceptualization and empirical development of the authenticity in relationships scale. Personality and Individual Differences, 94, 316-323. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2016.02.001
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016