How “Open and Honest” Should We Really Be?

A very common bit of advice all of us hear is to be ‘open and honest’ in our marriage relationships, and that if we have any issues or negative feelings we should not delay in expressing them and talking them out.

For many people that bit of advice fits well with their natural inclinations and so they hold it up as an example to their partner of how their relationship should be. For other people the phrase ‘open and honest’ conjures up images of confrontation, complaining, criticizing, and frequent verbal ambushes, and so they feel it more healthy to avoid what they perceive as negative discussions.

So who is right?

For most couples the answer is probably somewhere in between. Recent research seems to indicate that we unilaterally can work out many of the day-to-day issues and irritations in our lives, without having to make a big production out of it. Sometimes when we think about setting some irritation aside for a while we translate that to mean we are stuffing it and it will just fester. That does not have to the be the case.

More often than not we can resolve our own irritation just by looking at the issue from different sides and realizing there are other valid points of view, without having to engage in a deep and emotional discussion to dot every i and cross every t of those points of view. Sometimes we can just put an issue out of our mind for a while and when we come back to it will find the negative energy has dissipated, or an easy solution has become clear.

In fact, many couples find that the supposed healthy “venting” they have been advised to do very often causes the problem to grow and to take on even greater negative energy. Martin Seligman, author of Authentic Happiness says, “Emotions, left to themselves, will dissipate…Expressed and dwelt upon, though, emotions multiply and imprison you in a vicious cycle of dealing fruitlessly with past wrongs.”

As we focus on the issue and irritation we will find it growing and becoming more malignant, and if we take that negative judgment and energy into a conversation, it will just make things worse.

We NEVER want to remove the phrase ‘honest and open’ from our relationship vocabulary. We never want to stuff feelings or avoid healthy relationship communication because we are afraid of conflict. So how much venting of emotions and perceived problems and issues is needed in a healthy relationship? Here are a few guidelines:

1. Personal Accountability. Before bringing a perceived problem or complaint to your partner, take some time to consider your personal accountability and how you are perceiving the issue. You might see some things that you can change about you and your point of view and discover that solutions are within your individual reach.

2. Don’t confront your partner on any issue in the ‘heat of the moment.’ Set it aside for a while and see what it looks like after a night’s sleep or after some reflection. With a little time the issues that deserve to be handled by both partners will rise to the surface and can be approached in a healthy and productive way. Others will simply fade away or be handled unilaterally.

3. If it feels like you are stuffing an issue and allowing it to fester, then that is a sign that it is something that needs to be discussed. Approach your partner in kindness and patience and with a sense of your own accountability and you will be on the road to finding a mutually satisfying solution.

4. If it feels as if you are hiding something from your partner or that honesty is being violated in your relationship, chances are you (or your partner) are avoiding accountability and perceived painful confrontation, and something needs to be discussed.

5. Some relationship issues should always be addressed and dealt with together. On the right hand column of this page under Categories you will see one section entitled “3 Non-Negotiable Baselines.” These postings will give you some ideas of issues that always must be dealt with and resolved as a couple.

There is a great saying that goes, “What you choose to Suppress, your partner will eventually Express.” If there are unresolved issues or emotions in the relationship that are introducing tension, dishonesty, or mistrust into the marriage then absolutely deal with those in a healthy, honest way through appropriate communication.

But on the other hand, if there are issues and irritations that can be resolved through exercising some unilateral patience and kindness, or by setting them aside for a time, or dealing with them from your own space of accountability and change, it will save some wear and tear on your relationship.

Like so much in our relationships, it is just a question of balance.