Communicating properly is HARD. We're here to help.
In the canon of relationship communication theory, John Gottman is widely considered the expert on why marriages succeed or fail. His research into the predictors of relationship and marital success and failure provides great help when pondering the impact of honesty within a couple's communication.
Though the conventional wisdom favors honesty above all else, Gottman notes that cruelty and contempt often masquerade as honesty and are reliable predictors about the end of a relationship. So "honesty" isn't a sufficient goal for improving relationship communication, especially when used as a battle-axe ("You're fat and stupid.") versus a lightening rod for greater information ("I'd like to explain how this makes me feel.").
After years of marriage, your spouse knows your weaknesses and sensitivities better than anyone. This intimate knowledge of habits, fears and foibles is sufficient cause to err on the side of silence when frustrated, but sometimes that is just not humanly possible. Sometimes honesty is the only way to clear the air, grow as a couple, and avoid subterranean resentment.
Here are seven ways to build kinder, gentler honesty in your marriage:
1. They agree that honesty is a priority.
If you cannot agree that you should make an effort to tell the truth to one another, perhaps you have bigger fish to fry than simple honesty. Deciding that you want to have open but kind communication is an incredibly important step in establishing honesty ground rules.
Example: I'd like for us to both feel more comfortable talking about things that are important to us.
2. They talk about what they need, not what their partner needs to do.
When someone is approached "honestly" about their shortcomings, they're likely (and understandably) going to get defensive and refuse your request or seek revenge later. Gottman recommends a "softened startup."
Example: I'm feeling overwhelmed lately. Would you help me identify some ways I can get some more support?
3. They identify topics that are off-limits.
Even after you've decided to be honest, some topics are too difficult to tackle, especially if they've been problematic historically in your relationship. Setting some ground rules about what issues shouldn't be talked about at first is probably a good idea.
Example: We both get so upset when we talk about money. Do you mind if we wait and talk about this with a counselor?
4. They wave the white flag when necessary.
Sometimes intense discussions are difficult and exhausting. If you're trying to be honest with each other, make sure you allow one another to "drop out" at some point for a cooling off period or some down time.
Example: I want to resolve this with you but I need a few minutes to cool off. Can we take a ten minute break?
5. They act mature.
No name-calling, derisive remarks, or belittling contemptuous comments should be allowed when carrying on an honest conversation with a loved one.
Example: I have something important to discuss with you, but it's a very sensitive topic for me, so could we schedule a time to discuss this?
6. They allow for a few white lies.
In every honest relationship there comes a time to keep one's mouth shut.
Example: Yes, that skirt looks lovely on you!
7. They aim for progress, not perfection.
Honesty in a relationship requires trust, time and tolerance. Sometimes your spouse shouldn't be the first person to hear about how they're pissing you off, even if you want to tell them. Availing yourself of a confidante in this case is extremely valuable. You can come clean, unedited, with a close trusted friend and then talk to your partner once you've cooled off.
So the next time he asks if he's the best lover you've ever had or she asks if she looks attractive in a particular dress, remember that honesty is sometimes less important than kindness if you want to be happy together in the long-run.