Build your dream marriage part 7: Learn to be honest rather than “nice”

Is it possible to be “too nice” in a relationship?

Jennifer said, “I always feel like I’m walking on eggshells with my husband, Tom. Often when I tell him what I really feel, he overreacts and we get into a big fight. So there are some things I just don’t talk about.”

Jennifer is choosing to be “nice” rather than honest.

But, Chuck, can’t I be nice AND honest?

Sure. But we’re talking about “being nice” as a way of avoiding the honesty necessary to build your dream marriage. That’s not really being nice…to yourself, to your partner, or to your relationship.

If your partner is reactive, it’s very easy to try and “keep the peace” by being nice, and not talking about what you’re really feeling or what’s frustrating you. But this is the “kiss of death” to your relationship.

What happens if I choose to be “nice” rather than honest?

• The negative feelings I have don’t go away.

Negative feelings don’t go away unless they are communicated and processed in a safe conversation. By using safe conversation skills, you can learn to be honest in a way that will bring you closer to your dream marriage.

• I internalize negative feelings and become bitter and depressed.

If being “nice” helps you stuff what you’re really feeling, the bitter feelings of anxiety result in depression.

Or…

• I internalize negative feelings and later explode over something insignificant.

Because I’m carrying this simmering frustration and anger inside, it doesn’t take much to cause an uncontrollable eruption that happens over the “stupidest things”.

• My partner never gets to know me.

Hiding the parts of me that are hurting actually robs my partner of the chance to really get to know me – the real me not just romantic projections and fantasies.

Also the pain of “not being seen” continues to grow as I continue to hide. As this pain grows I can be assured of either deeper depression or another eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, or both.

• I don’t heal my childhood wounds.

Instead of healing my childhood wounds, I continue to carry them which has the effect of limiting my growth and progress in every area of life, including my parenting and my career.

• My partner doesn’t get a chance to grow.

Being “nice” robs my partner of the opportunity to see up close where he or she needs to grow. Calling someone to emotional and spiritual growth is threatening. Growing is hard and we will resist some areas of growth to the death.

Unconsciously we know that, so it’s no wonder we’d rather be “nice” than to be the “sand in the oyster” – the one who brings to our partner the irritation necessary to produce a beautiful pearl.

• We won’t have the connection that gives us passion and full aliveness.

A dream marriage, a relationship of safety, connection, passion, and full-aliveness, only comes to couples who can be completely vulnerable with each other.

Being nice at the expense of vulnerability will keep you from a deep connection and from your dream marriage.

So what can I do?

1. Face your fear.

Ask yourself, “Why am I afraid of conflict? Is it the fear of rejection? The fear of abandonment? The fear of intimacy (fear, that if I do connect intimately, I’ll be hurt)?

Fear that causes you to walk on eggshells and not talk about what’s frustrating you will rob you of your dream marriage. So face your fear.

2. Share your fear.

Jennifer started to tell me how her husband Tom is such a nice guy with everyone else. He’s willing to help anyone in the neighborhood, but when she asked him to do something he told her to stop nagging him…

I stopped Jennifer there, and asked her to share that with Tom, using safe conversation skills.

(It does little good for Jennifer to be honest with me. It will do a lot of good for her to be honest with Tom in a safe conversation.)

Jennifer: “You are always willing to help anyone in the neighborhood, but last week when I asked you if you would clean the gutters before the rainy season, you told me to stop nagging you.”

Tom reacted immediately, denying that he’d even said that.

So I coached Tom to regulate his reaction by simply mirroring Jennifer – repeating back to her exactly what she said as close as he could.

Then to check for accuracy.

Then to ask “Is there more about that?” (activating curiosity)

After a few tries, it went like this…

Tom: “Let me see if I’m getting what you’re saying. You’re saying that I’m always willing to help others, but last week when you asked me to clean the gutters, I told you to stop nagging me.

“Did I get it? (yes)

“Is there more about that?”

Jennifer: “Yes, when I’m accused of nagging, it makes me afraid to be honest with you about how I feel.”

Tom: (mirrors, checks for accuracy, asks if there’s more)

Jennifer, feeling safer, goes deeper into her affect, enabling them both to see the fear that is triggering her silence.

Jennifer: “Yes, what I’m really afraid of is that you’ll leave me if I share how I honestly feel. So I just keep it to myself hoping that it will go away. But the frustration doesn’t go away, and I’m afraid that it’s killing my love for you.”

Wow! Talking about honesty! She’s there. But what will Tom do? How will he react to this scary revelation?

3. Dissolve your fear.

For the first time Tom was able to see what was behind the “nagging” that he felt coming from Jennifer.

He went on to discover that their house was an “extension of Jennifer’s identity” so that when their house wasn’t prepared for the storm season, she felt vulnerable and exposed herself.

As Tom continued to mirror and  validate Jennifer’s perspective and empathize with her feelings, two things happened:

First, Tom connected with Jennifer’s fear, and a desire to protect her arose in him. This consciousness of her fear had the effect of dissolving his defenses. Rather than seeing Jennifer as “nagging”, he saw her as afraid of rejection. Her vulnerability caused him to want to love and protect her, rather than complain about her “nagging”.

Can you see how it’s better to be honest than “nice”?

Second, Jennifer was able to process the feelings she couldn’t share before. As a result, she learned that she COULD share her feelings with Tom. Through a safe dialogue, she could be honest in a positive and productive way.

As Jennifer’s fear dissolved, she learned it was possible to be both nice and honest.

What about you? Are you walking on eggshells? Choosing to be nice rather than honest?

The Couples Dialogue is a free tool you can use to have your own safe conversation as a couple. Click on it and use it to follow Jennifer and Tom’s example and be both honest and nice!

Here’s to building your dream marriage!

For further help, read about another powerful tool called “The Left-Hand Column

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Author: Chuck

Chuck Starnes is a relationship coach who is passionate about helping couples find the safety, connection, passion and full-aliveness they are looking for together. He also helps organizations become more productive by improving relationship skills.

2 thoughts on “Build your dream marriage part 7: Learn to be honest rather than “nice””

  1. Thank you for this. I understand that it’s important to be honest rather than hide important parts of yourself, which effectively is withdrawing from the relationship and makes real connection impossible. So “honesty rather than hiding”. Or be “genuine rather than fake”.

    But I’m still confused about the difference between being “honest” and… being transparent and letting it all spill out in a hurtful way. Some people tell it as they see it, claiming they’re just being “honest”, but it’s hurtful and not helpful. There absolutely needs to be tact and healthy dialogue as well. So I’m wrestling with that.

    Specifically, I’m thinking through how “honest” I should be (how much I should share) with another person (who is not my life partner but with whom I must partner in many ways). I could share/say everything, under the reasoning that it’s being fully honest. Or I could ask myself what the nature of our relationship is, and whether it will be helpful for him to know…..

    So I guess I need a clearer working definition of what honesty is. And in your article, I think you’re just focusing on being honest, in the context of marriage, with your spouse, as defined as not hiding parts of yourself. And instead to use healthy dialogue to un-attackingly share important feelings, thus bringing yourself to the relationship rather than hiding and withdrawing.

    1. Thank you Jen for your comments and question. You summarized it well in that we need to be “genuine rather than fake”, “honest rather than hiding”, because if you’re not genuine or if you’re hiding you cannot connect with your partner at a deep level.

      However, to try and answer your question, we should NEVER, NEVER, EVER just let it spill out in a hurtful way. That only causes hurt and then defenses. There are people who “speak their mind” and then say, well “someone had to say it”. That kind of conversation usually ends in a disaster with the other person escalating the aggression or withdrawing from the conversation and eventually from the relationship. Either response makes the conversation unsafe and connection can’t happen. I have some posts that prescribe a ZERO NEGATIVITY pledge that I believe every couple should make because the slightest bit of negativity that comes from a put down in any form will make a conversation between intimate unsafe.

      But therein lies the dilemma and the heart of your question and specifically how it applies to someone with whom you have a relationship but is not your life partner. I would recommend two skills that are found in the book Crucial Conversations – Learn to Look, Make it Safe, and STATE Your Path. These set of skills are powerful and usable in an every day, fast moving environment where their isn’t time to stop and do a more focused dialogue as we do in therapy or in exercises as a couple.

      Learn to look gives you the skill of what to look for and how to tell when a conversation’s safety is in jeopardy. Make it Safe tells you to recover safety when it’s lost. And STATE Your Path tells you how to tell the truth in a way that is “persuasive rather than abrasive”. You can pick up the book on Amazon. I highly recommend it. Hope this helps!

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