Dear Carolyn: Recently, someone wrote in about their significant other lying to them about things that might make them angry and you suggested that they try to make telling the truth as easy as possible. That makes a lot of sense and I have tried to put this into practice, since I have also had this issue with the person I’m dating.
But what if they do tell you the truth and it does hurt? Then what do you do? For example, my significant other told me a story about this girl who was flirting with him. He thought the story was hilarious but, honestly, it did hurt my feelings that he was out late at night flirting with women.
I said nothing because I was happy he told me the truth and I don’t think he actually did anything with the woman, but it hurt my feelings nonetheless.
So how do I reconcile wanting to foster an environment of truth-telling but also not react when he says things that do hurt?
You’re right to treat this as (at least) a two-part issue, because the way you deal with a difficult truth is as important as the truth itself.
I also don’t think the answer can end at, “Don’t react,” because that’s a form of dishonesty — to pretend you aren’t hurt when you are. What you’re looking for is an honest response that doesn’t devolve into taking actions you wouldn’t take if you were calm; healthy action comes after you’ve thought your way through the facts, assumptions, agendas and possible consequences.
To use your example of your partner’s flirtation: If your face registered pain, there was nothing wrong with that.
If you also had said, “I’m glad you feel safe telling me stuff like that, but I’m not sure how to respond,” then that response, too, would have remained within the bounds of “make telling the truth as easy as possible.” That’s because it stays out of the territory of conclusion-jumping, name-calling, threats and other ultimatums (sincere or hollow), revenge, past-dredging, screaming/crying/yelling, shutting down or any other punitive act.
Even better, an “I’m not sure what I think” buys you time to consider context and ask yourself important questions. Again using your example:
Does your partner have a history of baiting you with tales or hints of other women — or is his history more one of jolly extroversion with no subtext?
Do you ever flirt harmlessly with people yourself, and, if so, would you feel comfortable if he witnessed it, or heard about it later?
Do you think extra-relationship flirting can ever be harmless? If so, would you rather know it’s happening, or remain blissfully ignorant?
Do you have other reasons to trust, or not trust, your partner on this issue? On others?
The answers to questions like these will give you insight into your own mind, if you let them, as well as some grasp of what exactly is bothering you. They’ll hint at whether you’ve chosen a partner who doesn’t respect you, or you’ve held your partner’s behavior to a higher standard than you’ve held your own, or you’ve just got a case of mismatched expectations for the way couples behave.
This understanding, then, becomes the foundation from which all of your choices arise. Among those choices are brushing off the flirtation and the retelling of it; talking about it calmly after you’ve had time to think; being more honest with yourself about what you expect of yourself and others and what you have a right to expect; and breaking up.
Just don’t make the mistake of seeing that last choice as the kind of punitive reaction I’ve advised against. When you’ve decided a particular truth is a relationship-ender, then breaking up — after careful consideration — is a perfectly legitimate response.
That’s because you can honestly say it isn’t the truth-telling itself that ended the relationship, it’s the difference between you that the truth exposed. Covering it with a lie would only have postponed the inevitable.
One more caveat: Becoming someone who can handle a difficult truth is not to be confused with being responsible for someone else’s lies. Every lie is the fault of the liar, and anyone who retreats into lies instead of owning an unflattering truth is a bad relationship bet. One of the worst, in fact, especially if you tend to contort yourself to make relationships work.
However, I think it’s unrealistic to believe that socially aware people who are generally honest also never lie, especially with someone’s feelings at stake. People who want your approval — or just don’t want multi-day fights or silent treatments — will often shade things in the most appealing way possible. If that’s not what you want, then it’s on you to demonstrate through openness and flexibility that your favorite color is truth.