Honesty Can Be Tricky

Honesty vs. Brutal Honesty

 There is a lot of talk these days about honesty. I sometimes hear teachers say, “above all, speak your truth” or “secrets are the enemy of intimacy.”

While it’s true that keeping secrets from your partner will create distance and harm the relationship, it’s not necessarily clear what counts as a secret, and what is simply kinder to leave out of a conversation.

Furthermore, “speaking you truth” can be liberating and purely without agenda, but it can also be a disguise for vomiting all your ‘stuff’ onto your partner without taking responsibility for yourself.

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Here’s an example:

You come home from work and your partner, who is engaged in a project, doesn’t say hello to you. You feel hurt and assume your partner doesn’t care.

 In an effort to speak what’s on your mind and not keep secrets from your partner, you say,

 You clearly don’t care about this relationship because you are ignoring me

 This is, after all, what you are thinking.

 But this is not honesty. This is brutal honesty.

 Brutal honesty is accusatory, and loaded with emotion, assumptions and blame.

 Honesty is vulnerable and responsible. Here’s an example of honest truth-speaking in the same scenario:

Wow, I just observed that when you didn’t say hello to me when I walked in I felt hurt, sad and confused. Then I thought, ‘you do not care about me.’ I understand that these thoughts escalated from my feeling hurt and I take responsibility for that. I wanted to share my experience with you.

The second example of honesty is mature and truly in service of the relationship.

Brutal honesty can also come out as a disguised attempt at intimacy in another way. I’ve seen couples tell one another that they are attracted to someone else at a party, or that a particular colleague is more attractive to them than their partner. The couple has, with good intentions, agreed to a policy of “complete honesty without secrets,” believing that such a policy will “bring them closer together.”

I’m sorry, but this kind of behavior does not build trust and strengthen the relationship. It is unkind, manipulative and breeds suspicion and insecurity in the relationship.

Here, let me break it down for you even more:

Honesty…                                                                      Brutal Honesty…
  • Is used to foster intimacy + connection             • Is used to quell anxiety
  • Holds paradox +  multiple truths                        • Is always very black and white  
  • Requires adult maturity                                          • Indicates lower developmental stages        
  • Is specific                                                                   • Contains sweeping generalizations
  • Is clear and free of projections                              •  Contains projections
  • Is asking if feedback is welcome                            • Is giving unsolicited advice
  • Is explicit                                                                     • Is covert and subtly manipulative
  • When I observed your action, I felt sad.”          • “You made me sad.”
  • “I’m feeling angry right now.”                               • “You are an asshole.”
  • Is in service of the relationship                             • Is always selfish                                                           
  • Is always healing even when challenging           • Is always hurtful, even if the hurt is not                                                                                                                                    immediately known                                                                                                            
 Got it?

With care (and good practices), we can thrive in our relationships and live in love. Love is not a mysterious fairy tale we hope and wait for… it’s born from cultivating practical wisdom and healing — and applying them with diligence.

Yours in Health,
Showing 4 comments
  • Christine


    Terrific article! So glad I’m on your emailing list!!

    I’d love to peruse a bunch more examples of how honesty can be used in service of the relationship versus how it serves to harm the relationship. The breakdown you provided is really nice, but the specific example is so much more understandable. Can you recommend a book or website that will provide lots of specifics and help me to go deeper into this topic?

    Thanks!! Christine

    • Lesley Glenner

      Hi Christine!
      I am so happy you enjoyed the article. When I wrote this article I was thinking about the situations I see as a therapist. I so often see individuals and couples speaking their ‘truth’ only to realize later that their truth actually came form a place of fear, control, manipulation or lack of care for another person. I cannot steer you toward any book or website, I was writing from my own anecdotes but I am happy to share more with you and explore your relationship with honesty if you like.

  • April Lyons

    Hi Lesley,

    Well put!

  • Dennis Harris

    I like how clear and concise this article is. I find the subject of “honesty” so interesting and bringing the ideas of “communicating honestly” and the conundrum of secrets, makes it even more curious. Speaking from my experience, it’s both daunting and worthwhile trying to dissect and understand my own communication patterns and intentions. Sometimes I like to toss aside the “right” way to communicate when it’s safe to do so, and others, I really need it. I do appreciate how supportive this perspective is to help people keep from abusing each other. Thanks!

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