Is honesty the best policy in your relationship?

White lies can be a kindness in a relationship, and it’s best not to burden your partner with your problems, but trust is a must, says psychotherapist Jean-Claude Chalmet.

WHEN your partner leaves the room, do you pick up their phone and read their text messages? If they’ve left their emails open on their laptop, do you read them? One in four women and one in five men admit to looking at their partner’s messages and Facebook accounts. The study of 13,132 people, by security firm, Avast, found that few suspected infidelity — most were curious. Twelve percent thought their partners might be lying to them.

Being honest with our other half isn’t easy: so we spy rather than confront. It’s so common it doesn’t seem wrong. But deception in a relationship destroys intimacy. No-one is suggesting that honesty is always best. The white lie, to spare feelings, is an act of kindness. You are not morally obliged to divulge past ‘crimes’. If we shared every thought, few marriages would last a week.

But the temptation to tweak the truth can become irresistible. When choosing a car, we’ll discuss every option, but, with a relationship, we’re often too afraid to state our preferences. We change to please our partner — claim we don’t want children, would love to live abroad — but this creates internal conflict. We fear that showing who we are will lead to loneliness, abandonment and rejection. But that erosion of honesty is a pact with the devil: it will cause us, eventually, to suffer all those emotions. How many people feel alone, abandoned and rejected in a relationship?

There’s nothing harder than two grown-ups living together. But dishonesty causes disunity and disharmony, and, of course, your behaviour is a blueprint for your children. My advice is to decide what kind of relationship you want.

Is it wrong to check your partner’s phone?

If you are in love, anyone encroaching on your territory will prompt insecurity. Rather than becoming hyper-vigilant, say: “I notice so-and-so always comments on your posts.” The implicit understanding is that this makes you uncomfortable: your partner should then reassure you. This is honest, effective communication.

If you are sneakily reading his messages, the issue is as much about your dishonesty with yourself as it is with him.

Why check his phone? Why not just ask? Because you suspect he won’t tell you the truth. This means you don’t trust him. Ferreting through a bag is symptomatic of a lack of trust. The dishonesty mirrors the relationship; it’s not just a single streak.

If your partner is secretive about calls, rather than waking at 2am to scroll through his phone, why not say: ‘Can I ask why you won’t answer a call in front of me? It makes me feel insecure.’

Being honest entails facing your vulnerabilities and core fears — acknowledging that you might have made a mistake in trusting someone. The short-term pain of accepting the truth is preferable to the long-term pain of believing an illusion.

How honest should I be about my sexual history?

What happened before you met is private. If you share, only be as honest as your partner can take. If you feel you’ll strengthen your intimacy by not hiding facts, and that your bond can withstand a few X-rated jolts, by all means. This is a personal decision, closely linked to common-sense. But avoid comparisons, or boasts of a previous lover’s prowess. The crux is: will this anecdote benefit your relationship and increase trust? If not, leave it out.

How much should I edit my relationship history and chequered past?

When you bleat every last, excruciating detail — the dream is to be loved unconditionally — consider your motives. Is it that you can only accept yourself if this person accepts you? If you have accepted who you are, you don’t need external validation.

Sometimes, being economical with the truth is not lying. After a painful break-up, you might have embarked on an uncharacteristic bender, sleeping with lots of people. Does your beloved need to know this? I think not.

Be sensitive and considerate. It’s also important that we each have a secret garden. Instead of standing nose to nose, stand back to back, holding hands, and retain your individual views of the world. That makes a relationship strong. With nothing left to discover, a relationship stagnates.

How much do I need to share about my financial affairs?

If you both contribute to a pot of joint expenses, full financial disclosure, beyond that, doesn’t necessarily suggest a strong relationship.

If you’re content to share the details of every asset, marvellous; but you shouldn’t feel obliged. However, if you are spending significant sums on the sly — that’s different. You’re persisting in a habit, damaging to the relationship, behind your partner’s back. If you have an emotional problem, siphoned into shopping addiction, why can’t you talk to your partner? Chances are, it’s because they’ll voice what you already know: it’s not acceptable.

It’s tempting to reduce the guilt of lying by normalising it: “Oh, everybody does it.” If you are unable to be honest, that’s a problem in a relationship. Then, the question is: ‘how good is your communication, how loving is your relationship’?

If you wanted support, and were confident of getting it, you’d talk about any financial issues.

I pretend to work late to avoid domestic drudgery

Your partner skips the children’s bedtime, claiming a three-hour meeting. It becomes apparent, from his cheery hello kiss, that 90 minutes of this was spent in the pub.

Not quite a red card, but the next time this excuse is offered, you might snap, ‘And don’t go to the pub afterwards’. You would have been less harsh had he come home, and said, ‘We went to the pub’ and you’d said, ‘I had to deal with the kids, but thank you for telling me’.

Once someone starts tinkering with honesty, it’s difficult to pretend they haven’t. That’s where tolerance is an issue. What you can bear will depend on your own moral code. It might seem an innocent little lie, but you might think, ‘why couldn’t he just be honest’? Perhaps he’s afraid to confess that bed-time bores him, for fear of showing that he doesn’t like domestic work?

But where do you draw the line? If your partner is a good provider, is that more important to you than, essentially, respect?

If there’s a degree of acceptable dishonesty, we must redefine what honest means. It implies moral backbone, straightforward conduct; being loyal, fair and sincere. Are we watering down moral codes, to forgive ourselves for not daring to show weakness? Of course, no-one is perfect. Perhaps, a compromise: ‘I realise you don’t like bedtime, but on Saturday, will you take the children swimming?’

“Of course you don’t look fat in that!”

If you’ve nothing nice to say, seal your lips. There’s no place in a relationship for brutal honesty: how about gentle, kind, considerate honesty? If your partner returns from the salon resembling an alley cat, do you say, ‘You look like a mangy ginger tom,’ or, ‘It’s very different. It will take me some time to get used to it. I did think you looked lovely before’. In both cases, the wife — or husband — will get the message, but why deliberately hurt? Be kind. We respond to kindness, because it’s a feeling. Telling someone they look hideous is not a feeling, it’s a thought, and should remain so.

“It’s fine, darling — I don’t mind your toenail clippings at all!”

If your partner has an infuriating habit, you don’t have to silently suffer, but place any criticism between layers of praise. When our reaction is emotionally violent, it’s usually because we feel vulnerable. (‘He never picks up his pants. He expects me to. He doesn’t respect me’.) Screaming achieves nothing.

Speak honestly, even jokily, about how you feel, and your partner might respond: ‘It was inconsiderate. I’m sorry.’

Meanwhile, look to your own flaws: does he always hang up the damp towel you dump on the bed? We need to relearn how to repair what’s broken rather than throw it away. People stay together because they’ve learnt how to compromise.

In recent decades, we’ve become obsessed with self-help, being assertive, meeting our needs. In so doing, we’ve created a generation of monsters and tripled the divorce rate.

There’s an incapacity to look beyond the self. We’re unwilling to accept the foibles and flaws of others, and are loth to admit our own. This emotional immaturity makes tolerance, love, and acceptance a challenge. If it’s a choice between right and being kind, be kind and you will always be right.

Should I share every problem I have with my partner?

No. Do you want a partner or a parent? We need to learn to kindly parent ourselves: so our partner isn’t forced to baby us. At 35, you don’t run to someone if you cut your finger; you apply the plaster yourself. If a friend upsets you, you might mention and discuss it with your partner, but not hysterically. Of course, you’d expect their support in a serious matter, but it’s choosing what’s appropriate to share.

It’s not healthy to demand from your partner what you’re not capable of yourself: to always make it better. It’s a burden. There has to be some tension — the unknown, a frisson, mystique. An element of privacy, and self-containment, helps to maintain boundaries.

When people become extensions of each other, it’s boring, and when we get bored, we seek excitement elsewhere.

I can’t stand the in-laws. How open should I be?

A friend confides that, early in her relationship, she criticised her boyfriend’s mother, and he started to cry.

Twenty years into marriage, she applies caution. In-laws can be tricky; most of our extreme reactions result from our own issues — perhaps, in his mother, we see what we didn’t have with our own, and it irritates.

The key is to be aware of your own triggers. There is probably a more palatable way to state your opinion. Honesty has its place, providing you can compromise, and don’t expect your partner to abandon his family or friends without good reason.

Also, what kind of person are you in a relationship with? If they have a friend or relative who mistreats them, but they remain deluded, how honest should you be? This is about being true to your own principles — but it’s a delicate line.

And, if, one day, your partner is hurt, don’t say ‘I told you so’ — support them.

Should I ‘confess’ to painful, but shaping, events from years ago, or not?

An eating disorder, alcohol dependency, failing a key exam: few of us breeze through life unscathed, and yet we fear being judged. If an eating disorder is current, it should be talked about, as it’s an addiction and will negatively affect the relationship.

This doesn’t mean you should feel obliged to talk about every trauma. These events might be part of your experience, but they don’t necessarily define you. We have to accept that we are flawed. Only confess what you are comfortable with, and what you believe the other person will be comfortable with.

I’m friends with my ex-girlfriend/boyfriend. Do I really have to disclose every time we meet or communicate?

You’d confess if you were meeting an ex for a drink, but no need to mention the odd email or chat, right?

Here is the truth: you have a dishonest relationship with your partner. And yourself.

Ask yourself this: ‘why stay in touch if it failed’?

He’s a good friend? So why aren’t you together?

There are seven billion people on the planet: why do you have to be friends with him — or her? It’s linked to not having the capacity to let go. It also assuages guilt if the relationship ended badly.

To be friends with a person who probably hurt you is not grown-up. It’s immature. You can’t fully commit to your partner if you can’t let go. That’s how most affairs start.

You should not be in contact. Anything else is self-deception.

I have a crush, but it’s innocent. Best to be open about it, right?

It’s impossible to go through life without feeling attracted to someone else, but if you value your relationship, don’t acknowledge or discuss it. It stays in your head. Parading your lust for a third party is disrespectful and cruel; consciously or not, it makes your partner feel inadequate.

Though, if they don’t give a damn, there’s another problem. It’s a passive-aggressive way of testing your bond. Better to ask: ‘can we talk about the state of our relationship?’

If you’re having what could be classed as an “emotional affair”, sharing intimacy with another, then even if it’s not physical it needs to be tackled.

It’s less about a confession, and more about why you don’t have psychological intimacy with your partner and what you intend to do about it. At this point, you’re deciding whether to mend your relationship or ruin it.

Jean-Claude Chalmet specialises in family therapy. He was talking to Anna Maxted.


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