In Search of Marital Honesty: A Surprising Perspective

How often has your partner made a legitimate request and you replied, “Well, frankly I don't want to do that?” It's probably rare, even when it is the honest thing for you to say. Marital honesty involves the willingness to take emotional risks. Here's what I mean.

Terry complains that she cannot depend on Jim to follow through with his agreements. It happens in the everyday problems of living like taking out the garbage, putting the kids to bed on time or picking up key ingredients for the evening dinner.

Jim complains that no matter what he does, Terry is never satisfied. The job he does is never fast enough, good enough or timely enough. He can't win.

He says Terry asks him to wrap a birthday present and have it done before they go to their friend's birthday party. He agrees. An hour before they leave and just as Jim is about to gather the giftwrap and present, there is Terry getting the tape and paper together with the present in front of her.

She tells Jim with a somewhat disappointed voice that she was afraid he wouldn't get it done on time. She adds that she was concerned he would do a sloppy job of wrapping it, so she took over. She justifies this by saying she has been disappointed a little too often in the past.

Jim replies about the futility of doing things when she takes over so often. Although they both realize the bind they put the other in, they seem helpless to alter the pattern.

Terry thinks the solution is to get better and more airtight agreements. It seems so logical, yet doesn't work.

Jim is stuck, too. He can never think of an acceptable reason to say “no” to any of Terry's requests, so he agrees whether or not he is willing to follow through.

Even if Jim follows through 80% of the time, Terry always wonders which 20% will be aborted. So she often jumps in and takes over.

They are both afraid of being honest with each other. And that is the real problem.

Terry is afraid of telling Jim how much she wants to depend on him. She is afraid of telling Jim that she is not accustomed to depending on anyone and is used to being in control.

She is terrified of relying on someone and having them disappoint her. So she tries to make logistical agreements about what he needs to do by when.

She hopes the agreements will solve her emotional fears without expressing them.

Jim has his own fears. He is afraid to say “no” to her for fear of her disappointed reaction so he agrees and hopes he will get it done on time.

Hope is not a good plan.

If each were to be more honest, they would tell each other about their fears and how they handle them. Being honest with each other is the first all important step to break the pattern. But this kind of effective honesty is uncommon. It feels too vulnerable and risky. The “safe” way sets the stage for corroding the relationship.

What kind of candidness are you holding back from your partner? Are you ready to be candid and vulnerable? Taking these risks and being successful is what makes relationships sing. When each person responds respectfully to the vulnerability, you create a connection of magnificence. When it doesn't happen you create a relationship peppered with misery.

“Tell Me No Lies” is a book that I wrote with my wife, Dr. Ellyn Bader. It tells the story of two couples who approach their problems with varying emotional risk and experience drastically different outcomes. For more information or to order a copy, visit Tell Me No Lies .

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Peter Pearson, Ph.D.

Dr. Peter Pearson, Ph.D., Relationship & Teamwork Expert for Entrepreneur Couples Pete has been training and coaching couples to become a strong team since 1984 when he co-founded The Couples Institute with his psychologist wife, Dr. Ellyn Bader. Their popular book, “Tell Me No Lies,” is about being honest with compassion and growing stronger as a couple. Pete has been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including “The Today Show,” "Good Morning America,” and "CBS Early Morning News,” and quoted in major publications including “The New York Times,” “Oprah Magazine,” “Redbook,” “Cosmopolitan,” and “Business Insider.”

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