Telling the truth in relationships is perhaps the most challenging aspect of relating. Not doing it makes relationships impossible. It is difficult because it takes time to know our own truth and often, even as we get it, truth is as changeable as the days we live in. The wise among us know that there is no truth with a capital T and yet there are without a doubt, lies. That the truth isn’t something we can grasp and hold on to makes the job of living with integrity deeply intentional.
We all see things as we are, rather than as they are. We all struggle to find the courage to reveal our own perceptions and feelings in our closest relationships. This is where the world becomes dangerous in relationships. The unexpressed and the lies take up the ground between us. Even if we can’t articulate why, we feel ungrounded and fill in the gaps with all kinds of drama and elaborate language to compensate.
Recently, I have experienced the weight and reality of this as I watch the demise of the marriage of some close personal friends. It is shocking when the final disclosure of cheating and infidelity comes out. In retrospect, you could see it coming for years. During the times we spent with our friends when they were together, there was always this unspoken space left for the unexpressed – the untruths, and the detachment that grows around it. It was like there was someone else in the room that no one wanted to acknowledge. Sometimes after another glass of wine, this voice would spill out of someone’s mouth, leaving an awkward silence and a shared recognition of a place to dangerous to tread. Someone would change the subject quickly.
I would often leave those gatherings feeling slightly off and wondering what I could have said that would have given the truth some air. I wish now that I could have said something that would have made a difference but I know that making the commitment to live authentically in my own relationship is work enough. Jamaica Kincaid said; “I am not at all interested in the pursuit of happiness. I am interested in pursuing a truth, and the truth often seems to be not happiness but its opposite.”
Although, I wish it wasn’t so, I am coming to believe that sometimes the work of sustaining a relationship that has integrity is not always congruent with my own search for happiness. And yet on the other side of sharing a relationship which is deeply authentic, there is a satisfaction and comfort to life which exceeds fleeting happiness. When I speak to groups, my first lesson is always to give up the idea that relationships will be or should be easy, or that it exists to make us happy. Relationships exist to teach us how to love and be loved. And while there are moments when relationships feel easy and make us happy, having those feelings is not a reasonable barometer of whether the relationship is working or not.
A more honest gauge of whether your relationship is working is the measure of trust and safety that the work of telling the truth builds into it. Because I can tell my husband that “I feel lonely in my marriage” and that he hears it, doesn’t necessarily fix it, but allows me to live it differently. Feeling lonely in my marriage is an honest place. By saying it and feeling it, I have the chance to let it transform. It doesn’t mean that it will transform him; it might just need to change me and my relationship to the silence that he is more comfortable living in. Either way, the expression keeps us both honest and in touch with each other and the real struggles that living together entails. In a small and dangerous world it is truth and love that keep us safe.