This January, we’re going to be sharing a series of posts on the topic of honesty in marriage and relationships. We talk a lot about the importance of honesty in our books, and our hope is that you’ll be able to round out your thinking on the topic through the posts this month.
But before we share from our personal experience about the importance of radical honesty, I wanted to write a little disclaimer post first — so you can’t say we didn’t recognize that there are caveats to being fully honest and because these disclaimers could be even more important for you to consider than the need to be honest.
Consider Your Timing
Tell the truth. Be open. Have a transparent relationship.
Yes, that’s all great advice. Honesty and vulnerability create deep connection and sustain strong relationships. But the topic of honesty isn’t one-dimensional. More like 73-dimensional (or somewhere around there).
What is just as important as telling the truth is thinking about how and when we share whatever it is we have to share with our significant other.
And how and when aren’t one-dimensional either. You have to consider the how and when in relation to who you are as an individual and who you are together as a couple.
Early in our relationship, I assumed Corrie thought like me. (And she assumed I thought like her!) I assumed she could somehow sense when I was deeply processing something and that, when I had finished my internal dialogue, I would share everything with her. I assumed she’d be ready when that time came.
Needless to say, it didn’t take long for me to notice that Corrie rarely saw the “big reveal” coming. Over and over again, she was like, “What? Where did that come from?” And I was like, “What? You didn’t know I was processing all of this? How could you have not seen all my invisible thoughts?”
On my side of the equation, I had to learn that I needed to share pieces of my thoughts with Corrie as I processed (even if I shared initially through writing, since I have a hard time verbally processing when I’m internally processing). Sharing with her little by little allowed her to do what comes naturally to her: process verbally.
On her side, she had to learn to identify times in which I was processing and allow me some room to do what I needed to do, knowing that I’d share all my thoughts with her eventually.
Depending on the situation/topic, we’ve learned that the preference for processing needs to lean to one person or the other. And sometimes, we’ve found that we’re both equally invested/affected by a topic or situation, but because we process so differently we simply have to do our best to honor what’s natural for the other person.
The timing factor can often simply be the patience factor. From the perspective of the sharer or the receiver, we have to learn patience — how to walk with each other in grace and understanding as we discover together the right hows and whens for our own relationship.
A Note on Forgiveness and Patience
Patience isn’t only required in the telling but also in the healing too. For certain topics, choosing honesty means choosing to prove your love over again. It means you’re ready to change and let the other person heal.
Yes, forgiveness can be given right away or, if that’s not possible in the intensity of a moment, as soon as possible. But just because you’ve been able to forgive or accept forgiveness doesn’t mean the healing is always complete.
At the same time, we have found that focusing on a hurt for too long and overthinking it from too many angles can actually be harmful for a relationship. If you are the one confessing something to your significant other, you have to allow him or her to ask some questions and process through it a few times with you. But if you are the one on the receiving end, you have to be able to move on at some point. Process through things together, forgive, and move forward as much as possible. If you don’t, you can stay stuck in a pattern of bitterness in everyday words and actions even though you’ve said words of forgiveness.
*It’s important to add (since this is a disclaimer post) that here we are discussing the typical hurts and wounds in a marriage. If you’re dealing with an addiction, adultery, physical or emotional abuse, etc. — it’s time to go to counseling or get some help.
Times to Wait or Withhold
Another caveat to consider when it comes to honesty in your marriage or relationship is whether or not a danger exists in sharing your thoughts.
Here, I’m not talking about the feeling that no possible good outcome could come from being honest and vulnerable. That’s a natural feeling that we all experience. Oftentimes, we experience that feeling most when we withhold something that really should have been shared awhile ago.
We can easily convince ourselves that our partner could never love us or see us the same again “if they only knew.” When Corrie and I have had these feelings, we’ve had to remind ourselves of all we’ve walked through together — of the forgiveness we’ve experienced from each other in big and small ways, over and over again. The uneasy or even fearful feeling is real, but hopefully this truth is just as real: The history of your relationship proves that you will come out the other side of this truth-telling even stronger and closer.
When the history of your relationship does not speak that truth, it might be time to wait or withhold from speaking all your thoughts. If you have a real sense of fear that your spouse, fiance, boyfriend, or girlfriend will respond with hostility or counter with manipulation (because that is what they’ve done over and over), speaking the truth might not be helpful.
Here, it’s important to consider who you tell. What might be most helpful is to share what’s going on with a trusted friend or counselor. Having input from a third party — with whom you can be vulnerable with AND who can offer you sound advice — allows you to know if you might be overplaying your fears or if you might need to protect yourself.
If you do come to the conclusion that you need to protect yourself, it’s time to take more serious action. If you’re married, you may need to insist on getting a mentor, trusted family member, or pastor involved in the conversation. In many cases, we recommend professional therapy for both healing from the past and moving forward in the right way.
Though we fully believe in the covenant of marriage, we also know that there are certain situations in which it is more wise for a couple to separate, even if it’s for some time, so that they can work through deep issues without the repeated patterns of physical, emotional, or verbal abuse within the home. In observing this situation happening a few times, we’ve noticed that women can especially feel helpless in these kinds of relationships, especially when kids are involved. If that’s you, we encourage you to talk to someone outside of your relationship who really cares for you and listen to their advice. Even in the most dire situation, options exist.
If you’re not yet married, it’s time to rethink the relationship, no matter how “serious” you are. If you can’t share openly now, you’ll likely be even more shut down and/or manipulated within marriage.
*A disclaimer to this disclaimer: These types of situations — in which there is very little that can be done for the relationship because one person is unwilling to change and is actually a threat to the other — are perhaps more common than most of us know. But even in these situations, hope exists. If this is not your situation, openness — even the kind that causes tears and heartache and requires time for healing — is our first line of counsel.
Sharing Every Thought?
After returning to the States after time away in Mexico and Thailand, I went through some serious culture shock. It took me quite a while to get used to the busy way of life here. Looking back, I now see that some of the busyness (in comparison to more relationship-oriented cultures) is caused by our culture’s unfiltered tendencies.
In Mexico and Thailand, I found that people were slower to speak, and that characteristic actually represented wisdom and helped create room for thought, processing, and the building of relationships.
Over time, I came to recognize that the wisdom I admired in these cultures wasn’t so much about people’s tendency to be quiet but about their ability to have a filter for different situations and environments. When I met Corrie, it wasn’t hard to see that she was way more extroverted than me and spoke hundreds (maybe thousands) more words daily than I did. But I also knew she spoke (and didn’t speak) with wisdom. Yes, she is much more prone to speak what’s on her mind, which actually makes our relationship more lively and fun, but she’s also developed a wisdom filter for her words.
Sometimes, we meet a couple and one of the two just doesn’t stop talking. It seems as if they think their every thought must be shared with the world or they’ll start dying. Maybe not that dramatic, but close to that. In these cases, we always wish we could give the person a little advice, but that’s where our own filter comes in and we keep our thoughts to ourselves.
The truth is that whatever our personalities, we all have MANY thoughts each day. Being honest with the one we love does not mean that we have to share all those thoughts. Learning to be selective in what we say is a sign of maturity, both individually and in our relationship with others.
Sometimes, we might have profound thoughts that we feel are personal and meant for us to meditate on. Sometimes, the sacredness of those thoughts is for us alone. If they’re meant to be shared, they will be, in the right time and right way, but we don’t have to put a burden on ourselves to share every profound thought we have with our spouse or significant other.
Knowing what and why to share anything is dictated, in part, by the nature of the other person. Some people want to know more; some people want to know less. Some people can be scarred deeply if too much is shared; some people would rather know as much as possible and need all the info to be able to feel fully connected in a relationship.
The honesty equation gets multi-dimensional here again, and that’s okay. Don’t treat your relationship like a manual when it’s a painting in process.
Those last few paragraphs might make you feel a little uneasy, but they help us round out this disclaimer with the most important point of all…
If you can’t trust each other, then you can’t trust that the other person will share what he or she should share with you and you can’t feel safe in sharing what you really want to share.
Trust is the crux. And trust is only built through time and honesty. The more you’re honest with the important stuff, the less worried you’ll be; the less you’ll be asking “What are they thinking right now?” or “What were they doing yesterday?” or “Why do they get that look when when we go here?”
Trust creates freedom — within you and for the one you love. You free yourself from having to know everything, and you free the other person to have some of their own thoughts and, every now and then, keep something to themselves if they so choose.
Trust also creates trust. If you can trust him with that small thing, then you can trust him with that big thing too. If she’s proven her ability to respond with grace and forgiveness once, she can prove her ability to do it again.
Building trust takes time. So as we talk about honesty, understand that honesty requires a process and not just an event. It requires relationship and not just a statement.
Let’s encourage each other and learn together how to steward honesty well.