Emotional dishonesty is a remarkably common and accepted behavior. Without guilt or remorse, people lie about what they feel.
The special allowances for emotional dishonesty probably derive from the belief that emotional lies are harmless – an assumption worth exploring.
Take, for example, the phenomenon of making believe that you had a good time on a first date. At the end of a very disappointing evening you say, “Well, I had a wonderful time.” Your new acquaintance responds enthusiastically with “Great, let’s get together next weekend.”
Taken aback, you say “Okay, let’s talk during the week” (believing you can dodge it). Your partner replies, “I’ll be difficult to reach. Why don’t we set a time now?” Bingo, you got yourself another date!
When you try to save someone from emotional hurt, the rescue sometimes prolongs the agony. The other person already has – or soon will have – an intuitive notion of where things stand. The involvement gets deeper, the web thicker and the hurt more intense.
Sometimes a carefully worded, accurate and supportive statement can save some heartache. For example: “Thank you for the evening. I’m glad we had a chance to meet.” If pushed about getting together again, you can kindly say that you don’t want to take it further. (Remember, “I’ll call you later” isn’t honest.)
Emotional dishonesty often occurs without telling a lie. Instead, it’s lying by omission. People withhold feelings: They hide their anger, fear and hurt. They don’t express their wishes and desires.
On the surface, lies by omission tend to appear harmless. They may even be seen as a sign of maturity or strength (protecting the other person from the truth) A closer look, however, reveals complications.
Karen goes into her living room to relax. Upon arrival, she sees her partner’s dirty dishes spread across the carpet. It makes her angry. Karen knows if she doesn’t move the clutter, it might remain for days. She thinks to herself; “It’s easy enough for me to pick up the mess.”
Slightly irritated, she takes the dishes to the kitchen. When her partner sits down next to her, she shivers slightly but doesn’t mention her feelings.
Karen thinks of herself as strong, loving, and as “someone willing to put the other person first.” She doesn’t think at all in terms of emotional dishonesty.
Now she’s feeling a little distant and withdrawn. Detecting this, her partner backs off a bit and they pull apart, without any spoken communication. “Surely,” Karen thinks, “the bad feelings will pass.”
However, what about tomorrow night? Next evening, more dishes – right in the same spot. More mental gymnastics and again Karen takes clutter into the kitchen. Another day, another mess. A little more distance.
She doesn’t feel justified about complaining about a day’s dishes. After all, “It’s no big deal.” However, she eventually tires of the picking up. After a few weeks, months or years, she may conclude her partner is a “filthy slob” and finally explode in anger.
We’re all affected by the actions of other people. Emotional dishonesty may shield the others from our immediate reactions to their behavior. But it leaves us dissatisfied (or hurt, or frightened, or whatever we happen to feel). It precludes the possibility of a discussion and eliminates an opportunity to work out a problem.
Emotional honesty is a bold alternative. If we dare to speak what we feel, others will have an opportunity to take the feelings seriously. In some instances, they may want to clean up their act (and maybe even their dishes).
In other instances, it could backfire. Emotional honesty requires two people who want to deal with the truth. If you want an honest relationship, part of the work is convincing your partner of its importance. Part is practicing good communication skills. Part is learning to resolve differences cooperatively.
For 8 years, Robert Schwebel Ph.D. wrote a weekly psychology column for the Sunday edition of the Arizona Daily Star. This article is one of many.