The truth can be tricky, even when telling it is easy

Austin American-Statesman - - AUSTIN360 DAILY - Carolyn Hax Tell Me About It is writ­ten by Carolyn Hax ofthe Washington Post. Her col­umn ap­pears on Tues­day, Thurs­day and Satur­day. Email her at tellme@wash­post.com.

Dear Carolyn: Re­cently, some­one wrote in about their sig­nif­i­cant other ly­ing to them about things that might make them an­gry and you sug­gested they try to make telling the truth as easy as pos­si­ble. That makes a lot of sense and I have tried to put this into prac­tice, since I have also had this is­sue with the per­son I’m dat­ing.

But what if they do tell you the truth and it does hurt? Then what do you do? For ex­am­ple, my sig­nif­i­cant other told me a story about this girl who was flirt­ing with him. He thought the story was hi­lar­i­ous but, hon­estly, it did hurt my feel­ings that he was out late at night flirt­ing with women.

I said noth­ing be­cause I was happy he told me the truth and I don’t think he ac­tu­ally did any­thing with the woman, but it hurt my feel­ings none­the­less.

So how do I rec­on­cile want­ing to fos­ter an en­vi­ron­ment of truth-telling but also not re­act when he says things that do hurt? — Anony­mous Dear Anony­mous: You’re right to treat this as (at least) a two-part is­sue, be­cause the way you deal with a dif­fi­cult truth is as im­por­tant as the truth it­self.

I also don’t think the an­swer can end at, “Don’t re­act,” be­cause that’s a form of dis­hon­esty — to pre­tend you aren’t hurt when you are.

To use your ex­am­ple of your part­ner’s flir­ta­tion: If your face reg­is­tered pain, there was noth­ing wrong with that.

If you also had said, “I’m glad you feel safe telling me stuff like that, but I’m not sure how to re­spond,” then that re­sponse, too, would have re­mained within the bounds of “make telling the truth as easy as pos­si­ble.” That’s be­cause it stays out of the ter­ri­tory of con­clu­sion-jump­ing, name-call­ing, threats and other ul­ti­ma­tums (sin­cere or hol­low), re­venge, past-dredg­ing, scream­ing/ cry­ing/yelling, shut­ting down or any other puni­tive act.

Even bet­ter, an “I’m not sure what I think” buys you time to con­sider con­text and ask your­self im­por­tant ques­tions.

The an­swers will give you in­sight into your own mind, if you let them, as well as some grasp of what ex­actly is both­er­ing you. They’ll hint at whether you’ve cho­sen a part­ner who doesn’t re­spect you, or you’ve held your part­ner’s be­hav­ior to a higher stan­dard than you’ve held your own, or you’ve just got a case of mis­matched ex­pec­ta­tions for the way cou­ples be­have.

This un­der­stand­ing, then, be­comes the foun­da­tion from which all of your choices arise.

One more caveat: Be­com­ing some­one who can han­dle a dif­fi­cult truth is not to be con­fused with be­ing re­spon­si­ble for some­one else’s lies. Ev­ery lie is the fault of the liar, and any­one who re­treats into lies in­stead of own­ing an un­flat­ter­ing truth is a bad re­la­tion­ship bet. One of the worst, in fact, es­pe­cially if you tend to con­tort your­self to make re­la­tion­ships work. How­ever, I think it’s un­re­al­is­tic to be­lieve that so­cially aware peo­ple who are gen­er­ally hon­est also never lie, es­pe­cially with some­one’s feel­ings at stake. Peo­ple who want your ap­proval — or just don’t want multi-day fights or silent treat­ments — will of­ten shade things in the most ap­peal­ing way pos­si­ble. If that’s not what you want, then it’s on you to demon­strate through open­ness and flex­i­bil­ity that your fa­vorite color is truth.

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