How to have a difficult conversation, Part 1


Here’s a lie I told as a child:

When I was in kindergarten, I stood up at “Show and Tell” one day and announced that my family had gotten a dog. Over the next several months I regaled the class each week with a new story [read: lies] about my dog, Sadie, including that she gave birth to a litter of puppies. Over time, classmates asked to come see the puppies. Now what was I going to do? My anxiety grew as I realized I was going to be found out.

I was lying first to pretend that something I wanted was true. Then I lied because I loved the attention. At the end, panicked, I lied because telling the truth about all the other lies was unimaginable. I was just avoiding a difficult conversation.

In a marriage, lying to pretend or for attention, would create big problems pretty quickly. You probably never tell these kinds of lies. But if we count lies told in service of avoiding difficult conversations, or even more common, facts withheld to avoid these conversations, we’d have to admit: We’re pretty big liars!

We tell ourselves that we are lying or withholding to avoid causing others pain or worry. In truth, it is typically our own difficult feelings we try to avoid. Paradoxically, lies told to make things easier have the opposite effect. Half-truths and omissions create a wedge in relationships that block intimacy.

They also create enormous anxiety for the liar, which isn’t usually noticed initially. At first, it is a relief not to mention how much your new coat really costs or to not speak up about your spouse’s habit of disappearing when your family comes to visit. But lies over time, big and small, create distance, anxiety and resentment – the very opposite of the relationship you set out to create.

If you commit to radical transparency with your spouse for a week, you’d be surprised at how many times you’d need to suppress the urge to stay silent or to tell a small lie. Initially, it will spark your anxiety to force yourself to be clear and speak up. But quickly you will find that thoughts and feelings that have a lot of power when you are keeping them to yourself suddenly lose their hold when they are brought out into the open.

Obviously certain truths, “I drink a fifth of vodka every morning as soon as I wake up.” are going to have greater impact than others, “I do mind putting the kids to bed for the third night in a row – its your turn.” If the truth will throw your relationship into a tailspin, then clearly major work is required. A therapist can help you sort this out in couples counseling.

Here a couple of suggestions to get you started on your path to the truth:

Observe yourself.

Take few days to notice what you lie about. Are there certain subjects you feel compelled to gloss over, omit facts, or stay silent? Check in with your body. Are you holding your breath, grinding your teeth? Is your eye doing that twitchy thing it sometimes does? This is your body absorbing the cost of staying silent. Notice what happens when you contemplate being more forthright. Do you get distracted and zone out? Does a lump form in your throat? Be curious about yourself. What is coming up for you? Write these observations down in a notebook and notice if any patterns arise.

Speak up even if you don’t think it will change anything.

People often protest bringing up difficult conversations for problems that seem intractable. What’s the point? Well, marriage is a co-created experience where we get to have someone who is on our team. Talking, even if it doesn’t solve the problem right away, allows you to understand each other, empathize, and create a plan about the direction you want to head together. Speaking up, especially when it’s hard to do so, will either vastly improve your relationship or bring all the cracks up to the surface where they can be dealt with collaboratively.

Back in Kindergarten, I thought I solved my problem when I told my class, tearfully, that a speeding UPS truck killed Sadie and the puppies, all at once. My tears were real because by this time I was a wreck at the idea of being found out. I was caught anyway when my kindergarten teacher offered condolences to my very surprised parents at parent-teacher conferences. I heard the story of “The boy who cried wolf” many times that year.

The instinct to lie is rooted in self-preservation. This is misguided. In all of our relationships, not just marriage, speaking up is the only way we get our needs addressed.

Staying silent, and not allowing others to know what you are experiencing, whittles away at your sense of self. In next week’s post I discuss how couples collude to keep the status quo in a relationship, even if the status quo is terrible, and give a framework to approach finally having these difficult conversations. Stay tuned!

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