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Learn This Surprising Ingredient to Relationship Success

Relationship success requires us to follow this counter-intuitive rule.

We all long to have a relationship so relaxed and intimate that we can share anything and everything without first thinking about it. Who wants to hide out in a relationship in which we can’t allow ourselves to be known?

Speaking in our own voice, not in someone else’s, is an undeniably good idea. I’ve yet to meet the person who aspires to be phony or invisible in her important relationships. The dictate “Be yourself!" is a cultural ideal touted everywhere, and luckily, no one else is as qualified for the job.

But therein lies the paradox:

Speaking out and being “real” are not necessarily virtues. Sometimes voicing our thoughts and feelings shuts down the lines of communication, diminishes or shames another person, or makes it less likely that two people can hear each other or even stay in the same room.

Nor is talking always a solution. We know from personal experience that our best intentions to process a difficult issue can move a situation from bad to worse. We can also talk a particular subject to death, or focus on the negative in a way that draws us deeper into it, when we’d be better off distracting ourselves and going bowling.

A marital therapist once teased me, “Are you writing another book to help people speak up? I’m trying to help my clients be quiet.” Then she said more seriously, “Why do people think they have to tell each other everything they feel? Why must they share their uncensored reactions?” She was referring to the corrosive criticism that wears couples down as they selectively attend to what bothers them in a partner rather than speaking to what they appreciate and admire. And she was referring to the raw, unbridled emotional exchanges that, when unchecked, erode intimacy and connection in family relationships.

Indeed, in many situations wisdom lies in being strategic rather than spontaneous. This is especially true when we’re dealing with a difficult person, a hot issue, or a tense situation.

People who have the greatest success in love and work, are people who can be spontaneous, and can clearly say what they think and feel about things that matter. But they also know when to restrain their so-called true selves. They consider what they hope to accomplish, and to that end, they have the capacity to edit, think, and plan.

We'd all do well to make thoughtful decisions about how and when to say what to whom. And even before that, to know what we really want to say and what we hope to accomplish by saying it.