In this era of social media oversharing, should the same apply to our relationships? Is honesty always the best policy, asks Pat Fitzpatrick
Valentine’s Day – that one evening of the year where you gaze into your partner’s eyes in an over-priced restaurant and say: “Did you remember to bring the joint account card?”
Or maybe you’re sick of sharing. Thanks to St Valentine, February is awash with relationship advice articles, most of which can distilled into four words — the importance of communication. The people who know about these things will tell you that it’s better out than in — this is even more acute in the ‘Age of Sharing’, where it’s important to let everyone know where you stand on everything, so people who own shares in Facebook and Google can buy themselves another new house made of gold.
But, whether it’s to your partner or someone else, is there really a benefit to always saying what you think and feel? Is it better out than in, even if it hurts other people, and there is a chance you might be wrong?
Karl Ove Knausgaard probably reckons it is. The Norwegian author is an international superstar following the publication of his series of six autobiographical novels, Min Kamp (My Struggle). The books are controversial, and not just because they share a title with Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler.
Writing in the first person, he gives us — in microscopic detail — a warts-and-all look at bad sex, betrayals, boring New Year’s Eve parties, and a fraught relationship with his alcoholic father who drank himself to death. This last aspect caused the most controversy — his father’s brother claimed he misrepresented the facts and threatened to go to court to prevent publication. It didn’t work, and the book was an explosive bestseller on release, selling half a million copies in Norway alone.
Min Kamp isn’t for everyone. You might be 10 pages into a description of him making prawns for dinner (like I say, in microscopic detail), when he kicks off a 20 page digression on the difference between James Joyce and William Faulkner. I skip some of those bits and find the rest addictive. I’ve never taken crack cocaine, but if I did and it wasn’t this good, I’d want my money back.
The most addictive bit for me is the uncompromising honesty when he describes his relationship with his wife, Linda. Although wrapped in affection and admiration, he is clearly exasperated by her moods and unpredictability which is a brave thing to admit given she has bipolar disorder. I chose the word brave here deliberately — we all think things we’re not supposed to think, it takes a certain courage to say them out loud.
But that doesn’t make it right. As good as his books are, we can’t all be like Knausgaard, honesty isn’t always the best policy. (You could argue it isn’t even the best policy for him. Part of his family remains furious with him and — spoiler alert — he subsequently separated from his wife.) One reason I don’t think honesty is the best policy is that I don’t trust my own moods.
This happens a lot in the mornings when, say, I find there is no soft butter in the butter dish, and now I have to take butter out of the fridge and melt it in the microwave so I can spread it on the bread for the kids’ sandwiches and it isn’t the first time I have had to do it this week and I need to say something here, to show how angry I am. Then I have a sip of coffee and suddenly it doesn’t seem that important any more. In fact, now that I think about it, I might have used the last bit of butter in the butter dish last night for that slice of toast before going to bed. And then I’m glad that I don’t trust my moods.
This isn’t to say that I say nothing. If the butter dish is empty four mornings in a row and I wasn’t the last one to use it, I’ll have a word with my wife. At this point, she will bring up something that has been on her mind, often to do with washing clothes, and we will negotiate our way to a peace settlement. But as a rule, I like to check that I’m not crazy before raising a complaint.
I realise this puts me out of touch with the Zeitgeist. Everywhere I look on Twitter or Facebook, someone is letting me know how they feel (furious) about their lost bag on a flight to Rome, tagging Aer Lingus or Ryanair so the carrier knows how just how angry they feel. (Not to mention letting us know that they are in Rome for the weekend. Look at you with loads of money.) Seriously, shut up. It isn’t all about you. The 20 people who liked your post and said ‘good for you’ are nothing compared to the 800 people who saw it and thought, get a life.
I’m not suggesting people keep quiet about everything. I know that bottling up can be a serious threat to mental health, particularly for men, who are traditionally experts at keeping it all in. There has been a lot of good work done to address this including the latest ‘Be a Man of More Words’ campaign led by the Movember foundation. This questions the notion that being a man of few words is a good thing, particularly if you are feeling down.
There is ample evidence that it’s good to talk. A brain-imaging study by psychologists in the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) illustrated the benefits of a few words. They showed participants a photo of an angry face, and measured activity in a part of the brain called the amygdala, which controls our biological responses to danger. They then showed the photo again, only this time they asked the subjects to describe what they saw; merely saying ‘angry face’, putting it into words, was enough to reduce activity in the amygdala. So, there is some upside to saying what’s on your mind.
This includes keeping secrets by the way. Michael Slepian from Columbia Business School, has carried out studies which show that holding a secret takes a mental toll. His research concludes that this toll is less about the stress of keeping a secret,and more about the amount of time we spend mulling it over in our minds.
So yeah, I get this. There is nothing to be gained from continuously running a secret through your brain or rehearsing a speech you are going to make to your partner about melted butter. At some point, in certain cases, it’s better out than in.
But not always. Professor Eilis Hennessy from the School of Psychology in UCD warns of the rise of something known as co-rumination, among adolescents. “This is where a problem that one young person has and shares with a friend, becomes exaggerated by constant discussion and can become a much larger than it needed to be. Indeed some research has linked co-rumination to depression in young people,” according to Professor Hennessy.
It’s not necessarily good to talk. There is still a lot to be said for a few sips of coffee and counting to 10. (Unless you are one of these people who should be locked up after drinking coffee because it gives you a quick shot of fury.) Casually throwing out your latest angry musings might seem like a bit of spring-cleaning for your mind. But when millions of people are doing it all the time, and sharing it forever on social media, the human space becomes that bit more toxic.
There is no point in telling people to stop being angry on Twitter or Facebook; you’d have better luck telling Nigel Farage he should take up camogie. There’s also not much point telling people like me to stay off Twitter or Facebook; the fear of missing out would haunt us to the grave.
But maybe we could shift the culture a little, just to reduce our toxic-thought emissions. Yes, it’s crucial that those struggling with mental health issues, no matter how small, should open up to someone and talk about them. But that doesn’t mean that everyone should feel entitled to vent all their spleen, all the time.
If you do feel the need to share a gripe or complain, try writing it in a diary for a while, or maybe even go to confession.
Better still, maybe we should set aside a week in each month where we follow the old adage we heard as kids — if you have nothing nice to say, say nothing.