We commonly accept that one of the keys to a successful relationship is honesty and communication; that without them, a relationship will crumble from mistrust and betrayal. We are bombarded with this message consistently through blog posts, articles, and books, just to name a few. While I agree with this sentiment, I’m not sure we fully understand what it means to be honest; as it’s not as straightforward as it would appear. We often lose sight of the importance of honesty when it threatens the relationship image; preferring the illusion of pretension to a reality based on truth.
The Relationship Image
We hold in our mind an image of what we believe constitutes a perfect relationship; defined by movies, books, and songs that weave fantastical stories of love, passion, and happily ever after. We merge these romantic notions with a certain degree of realism; that relationships take work; that they are accompanied by challenges that require openness and honesty. Together they combine to form a cultural caricature of a typical and acceptable relationship standard; this structure provides the parameters by which we classify and judge the quality of our relationships. As long as our relationship holds to the image and lives inside the structure, we conclude that things are well.
Protecting the Relationship Image at the Expense of Honesty
However, when the image is challenged, we often spend inordinate amounts of energy and time convincing ourselves that everything is fine; ignoring potential pitfalls; pretending that our relationship still lives inside the dwelling of what’s considered typically successful. We protect the relationship image at all costs; maintaining appearances to ourselves and everyone else that everything falls within the structure of acceptability. When we experience thoughts and feelings that exist beyond the walls of the structure, the image is threatened and honesty becomes more difficult; as we often diverge from openness in preference for the façade.
Honesty with Conditions
While we accept the primacy of honesty and openness intellectually, the grounds where those beliefs meet reality is often fraught with landmines. When honesty becomes more difficult, we often place conditions and qualifiers on it; asking for just enough openness, but not so much to threaten the relationship image. We want the truth, but only as long as it doesn’t cause too much trouble. We want our partners to be open with us, but only if the resulting discord is limited; within the bounds of cultural norms. We want just the right amount of honesty; enough that allows us the delusion of a thriving relationship, but not so much as to endanger the relationship caricature.
Preferring Quiet Dishonesty
The moment truth jeopardizes the relationship image; many of us quietly prefer silent dishonesty and the pretension to maintain appearances. However, if we only want honesty when it’s easy or with conditions; perhaps we don’t want honesty at all. At the very least, we don’t want complete honesty; not if we reject the openness that threatens the image of how our relationship appears to ourselves and others. We often prefer our own comforting illusions over the tension born of truth. We awaken each day to begin the program of maintaining an appearance of the perfect relationship; protecting ourselves from the reality of a presumed imperfect relationship.
Honesty Threatens the Relationship Image
However, if we desire true honesty, we must be prepared for the potential consequences. A partner’s honesty can shatter the mental picture we hold of them; their transparency may reveal that they aren’t completely who we thought. Perhaps they have changed or revealed veiled parts of themselves; their honesty endangering the cultural relationship standards. However, the threat we feel to our relationships is often not to the relationship at all, but to our expectations and the relationship image; the caricature of what’s deemed acceptable, normal, and typical. The tensions born of honesty merely threaten this façade; to crumble the structure.
Transcend the Relationship Image
Part of the problem is that we often conflate difficulties with a struggling partnership. However, arguments don’t necessarily equate to struggles; just as the visibly smooth relationship doesn’t portend to everything being well. Yet, we struggle, more than anything else, to fit the round peg of truth into the square hole of expectations, rather than embracing the genuine nature of our individual relationships and allowing them to live and breath in their own unique locations; with their own rules and structures. There, at least, they can thrive or die basking in the truth, instead of slowly rotting within the walls of unwritten rules that accompany societal and personal expectations.
Therefore, decisions of honesty are often a choice between pretending to live within the barriers of these expectations that define presumed successful relationships; or outside those walls, where exposed conflicts but also truth, freedom, and intimacy live. The decision seems relatively easy when framed in this manner. However, beyond the walls exist the cruel arbiters of judgment; who whisper and gossip, who deem a relationship atypical or abnormal for existing outside the structure.
While we often attribute these voices to others, very often the words mirror our own thoughts and feelings. While we may worry what others think, perhaps we are also projecting our own concerns. In leaving the structure behind, we let go of the relationship image and the expectations that have been imprinted in our collective consciousness since childhood. We are forfeiting the fairy tale and the envy of appearing that way to others.
To Die or Not to Die? That is the Relationship Question
Outside the dwelling of cultural standards, the relationship is exposed; seen as different. Ironically, those relationships that stay within the walls of acceptable norms, while whispering and judging, are often rotting invisibly from the inside; eventually crumbling from the tension born of pretending and the burdens to maintain the facade. Therefore, our choice is often between allowing a relationship to possibly die visibly outside the structure, or inevitably die privately within it.
Dishonesty to Protect the Relationship Image
For example, we have all been surprised when hearing about the end of someone else’s relationship. Often, the bewilderment is accompanied by the belief that everything seemed fine. These are the relationships that live inside the box but ultimately die from the veiled rot of pretension. In other words, when honesty threatened the relationship image, they chose dishonesty to protect the illusion of that image. Unfortunately, long term pretending is a recipe for misery and the inevitable decay that ensues.
Honesty Outside the Relationship Image
However, living outside the structure doesn’t guarantee relationship success either. It may die there as well, with the only difference being that others won’t be surprised; as it confirms their expectations and judgments of what’s atypical. However, it may also survive when it wouldn’t have otherwise, strengthened from the scars of honesty rather than weakened from the decay of pretension; while also thriving in the wake of the new possibilities born of the intimacy that accompanies honesty and vulnerability.
Examples of straying from the typical relationship image are too numerous to completely list, as any form of honesty that threatens the image to some degree is a step toward living outside the core structure. However, a few concrete and obvious examples that overtly challenge our current institutions would be the following; same-sex relationships, commitments outside the institution of marriage, or polyamory.
However, there are many more subtle, yet extremely difficult, choices that threaten the image as well. Some examples might include honest revelations about a partner’s desire for an affair, thoughts of separation or divorce, or sexual preferences. However, it’s important to remember that it could be anything; any form of honesty that threatens the relationship image to some degree is a step away from the core structure and is accompanied by an internal tension equal to the magnitude of the step. If we feel discomfort related to sharing a thought or feeling with our partner, a portion of the dissonance most likely descends from a challenge to the expectations inherent to the relationship image.
Create Your Own Relationship Image
Unfortunately, we often choose not to be honest; keeping these thoughts, feelings, and desires to ourselves in an attempt to prevent discord and protect the relationship image. We miss the beautiful opportunities that arise from letting go of our expectations. Through the struggles and acceptance of truth exists the potential for vast connective wealth; a relationship that feels strong instead of pretends to be strong. In dropping the masks, we may no longer see Prince Charming or Cinderella. However, in their place, we have the beautiful opportunity to see who our partners truly are; their exposed humanity; wonderful imperfections and all. In this space, we may find the incredible lightness of acceptance; free from the shackles and burdens of rotting pretense; where we can construct an image that aligns with honesty to reflect unique features of our relationships.