There is a proverb that goes something like: Three things cannot be hidden long: the sun, the moon, and the truth. This holds true for marriages and relationships. We know things about our partners that we don’t even know that we know! After years of being together, we come to recognize all of their subtle signals – voice intonation, facial expression, body language, energy, mood, etc. I once worked with a husband and wife (true identities disguised) whose marriage was perpetually in crisis. This is a telltale sign of broken trust between partners. They came to sessions angry or hurt by even small arguments or disagreements. The intensity of their reactions didn’t really match the situations.
They arrived at one session to therapy with the husband red-faced-enraged about his wife’s terrible parallel parking in front of my office. In turn, she spent the better part of the time ranting about his controlling and critical attacks on her. Good couples therapy is always looking for deeper, underlying issues that aren’t being acknowledged or expressed. And each question I asked her (and him) in an effort to understand them better was met with de-railing, subject changing, and gas-lighting.
The unacknowledged secret between them was the affair she was having with their neighbor. By the time it was actually ‘discovered’, both couples had separated. My clients returned to therapy and, in the end, walked the long, hard road of repairing the trust and communication required to stay together (according to the Health Funding Research Institute, 31% of marriages do reconcile after infidelity is discovered).
Honesty and vulnerability are keys to a healthy relationship
Love is fed by the intimacy that comes with vulnerability and honesty. Writer and speaker Brene Brown, whose research has exposed the extreme value of vulnerability writes, “We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness, and affection.” Keeping secrets in a marriage is a sign of mistrust and a clear form of disrespect. It says, ‘I don’t trust you enough to be my full self with you.’ Translated, this means ‘I have one foot in and one foot out of the marriage’.
Being real is critical
Sadly, even the strongest love can die. It is destroyed when it’s starved of the personal realness. That realness may be as big as our hidden cheating or addiction, or as seemingly small as holding on to an unspoken resentment. But until we are real about it, it festers like an untended sore. By avoiding the possible conflict or embarrassment that comes with talking about what’s REALLY going on, we kill the very thing that keeps love alive – vulnerability! The irony is that by keeping ourselves safe hiding behind our secrets, we inflict on ourselves even more catastrophic pain of losing the love that would make the marriage more secure.
How to be ruthlessly honest in a relationship
There are two essential actions to keeping our love thriving and alive – one with ourselves and one with our partners. First, we become ruthlessly honest with ourselves. This action allows us to become aware of what we are hiding and sounds simpler than it is. Over the span of even one day, if we really listen to our mind chatter, most of us spin our stories to justify our habits. We tell ourselves things like, ‘I’m having that extra drink because I need to relax – you would too if you were married to such a nag.’ Or ‘If he listened better, I wouldn’t have fallen in love with someone else.’ or, ‘I hate it that he doesn’t make more money so, screw the budget, I’m buying that new jacket!’ Unless we become honest with ourselves, we don’t stand a chance of being honest with someone else.
Second, we must become willing, courageous, and humble enough to actually tell our husband or wife the truth about what we’re feeling, thinking, or doing that is dishonest. (Some people believe that telling a spouse about an affair will be too traumatic for the betrayed partner. This may be the best call, depending on the circumstances and people involved.) It takes a lot of personal humility to take responsibility for our secrets, lies, and betrayals, big or small. But the payoff is an eventual sense of safety, closeness, and true-life partnership for the duration of our lives together!