By Richard A. Frank, M.D.
Lately we find that truth-telling at the highest levels of power cannot be taken for granted. This disturbing reality, however, presents a valuable opportunity to think about the consequences of dissembling in our personal relationships.
American Psychoanalytic Association Susan Kolod, Ph.D. is Chair of the Committee on Public Information of the American Psychoanalytic Association. She is a Training and Supervising Analyst and Faculty at the William Alanson White Institute and is in private practice in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Wylie Tene is the Director of Public Affairs for the American Psychoanalytic Association. He has more than a decade of experience working in the mental health field.
Editor: Talha Khalid
Some years ago, I fell asleep behind the couch while conducting a session of psychoanalytic therapy. My patient, a young man I’ll call Michael, turned around and caught me with my eyes closed.
“Are you asleep?” he asked. I jolted awake and scrambled for an answer. “No,” I said, “Just resting my eyes.” Michael lay back down, unsatisfied. “I don’t know,” he said, “I’d like to believe you, but I don’t.” He went on voicing his doubts, asserting himself in a way he never had before. As the seconds turned into minutes, I grew more and more uncomfortable until I could no longer bear my feelings. I admitted the truth.
In the wake of this incident Michael wanted to quit. He moved from the couch to the chair, where he could keep an eye on me. Over the next few weeks, he expressed his angerand disappointment. He struggled to square his new disillusion with his trust based on years of a warm and fruitful alliance.
In the end, he decided to stay, protected and energized by a new attitude: “Trust, but verify.” The experience spurred his development into a mature adult who recognized his responsibility in the conduct of a relationship. Michael never again used the couch, but we continued the partnership that enabled him to conquer his fears and achieve his goals—starting a business, marrying, and becoming a father.
What compelled me to admit my failure, despite my shame and fear? Dedication to truth is a bedrock principle of psychoanalysis. If I am to help my patients face their truths, I must also face mine. Otherwise, how could they trust me to show the way?
Absent honesty, we are engaging not in real dialogue, but in what I call “fake conversation,” which aims to manipulate another person for selfish ends.
For a relationship to work, must we always tell the truth?
Following a late afternoon meeting, you go out to dinner with Sally, a co-worker for whom you’re developing romantic feelings. You arrive home late, and your partner asks where you’ve been. Do you tell her that you dined with an attractive co-worker, or with a group of your office mates?
Is it okay to lie about the company you kept? Not if you want to give your relationship its best chance of survival.
Trust is the soul of every solid relationship—and nothing erodes trust faster than lies. Not convinced? Ask yourself this question: Would you entrust yourself to someone you don’t know? If you can’t tell what is true and what is false about him or her, do you really know who that person is?
What if your partner doesn’t ask why you arrived home late? Is it okay to just not tell him or her what you were doing?
If you tell your partner, you’ll surely hurt them, but you will also create an opportunity for a much-needed honest conversation about your relationship. Talking it out helps remove obstacles to togetherness—the experience of your relationship as meaningful, dependable, and joyful. If you don’t tell, you may spare your partner pain for now. But this is a risky choice. If you continue meeting with your attractive co-worker but don't tell your partner, you are likely to inflict more pain and to weaken the bonds of your relationship to the point of no return.
Honesty does not mean sharing whatever is on your mind. By all means, tell your analyst everything. The more you tell her or him, the better the analyst can help you understand the obstacles that deter you from loving. We are trained to process big dumps of raw data; your partner may not be. What enlightens your analyst may frighten and confuse a partner.
It is worth doing a potential damage assessment before deciding whether to share or withhold an emotion-laden thought: Revelations that express hope, give praise, or promote discussion are usually useful; those that convey defeat, inflict criticism, and stifle communication are not.
The fact that many thoughts do remain private does not detract from the fundamental principle that any relationship worth having is built on a foundation of truth.
Michael’s forward movement toward an adult relationship rested in part on my commitment to the truth with him—just as your success in fostering the forward momentum of your relationship rests on your own devotion to the truth.
Relating honestly is not for the fainthearted or lazy: It exposes us to intensely disagreeable feelings like vulnerability, shame, and sadness. But in exchange for this exposure, we reap the reward of a lively, intimate, long-lasting connection with another person.
That is a precious thing, indeed. If you don’t want to lose it, nourish it with daily helpings of truth.