Ruthless Honesty

What would happen if we could read each other’s mind? Where would we be if our every thoughts were shared, and what would we do with the unpleasant or unfriendly ones?

My wife and I grappled with these questions repeatedly before we finally made an agreement to tell each other the truth, the whole truth, the ruthless truth, without censure, to see what would happen. Since, at that time, we had been together for a highly communicative two years, both of us believed things were pretty clear between us. To our surprise, immediately after the agreement was made, a large backlog of little gripes and pet peeves surfaced.

“When you vacuum,” she said, in her new mode of honesty, “you never reach the corners and I have to go back later to finish the job.”

“That’s nothing,” I said, “when you tell me something, you drop your voice on the last three words and I can’t understand what you are saying.”

“You never clean the kitchen.”

“You never sweep.”

“Oh yea, you burp too loud.”

“You suck your teeth.”

“You’re a dweeb.”

One can already see how a conversation like this might disintegrate, and as anyone might guess, we quickly digressed into the lowest common denominator; “Well, you’re a *#&%$#$.”

Is that what we wanted? Not exactly, but since we were committed to this experiment, we continued in our truth-telling to see where it might take us.

If true honesty is the ultimate intimacy, we were determined make the best of it, no matter how unpopular, politically incorrect, or insignificant the subjects.

She said this, I said that: On we went for months into the chaos of the unknown, expressing our pettiness and trivial judgements, each of us faithfully committed to our agreement. Each day we dropped deeper into an ever-darker, more-terrifying abyss of truth telling and learning how to listen without taking every word to heart.

Once the backlog of little peccadilloes and snippy gripes had been purged of our relationship, an interesting development took place. After uncounted arguments arose from the bleaching of our dirty little laundry, the regurgitating of our disappointments, one day, and it wasn’t a conscious choice, while in the mist of yet another extended conflict, our dispute dropped a notch deeper into a more basic division.

“I’m afraid of women.” I had never admitted it, even to myself.

“I don’t trust men.”

Once our honesty tumbled, and trust me, it was a slow, extremely painful process to get to that moment, issues came to the surface we had never before considered.

“I’m afraid you’ll leave me alone some day, so I always hold back a part of myself just in case. I mean, what would I have left?”

“I’m afraid that you will pull your love away and give it to someone else or some worldly interest, and I’ll feel abandoned.”

“I’m afraid to be alone.”

“Me too.”

This deeper level of communication went on for another year or so, all the time she and I feeling closer and more connected because we knew one another and ourselves so much better.

Yes, the small gripes continue to come up. Yes, we persist in upchucking our feelings the moment they arise, sometimes being forced to pull over to the side of the freeway or while we stand in line at the grocery store, not waiting even five minutes for a more appropriate moment. At times it’s been embarrassing, and we certainly have a reputation as a couple often in public conflict. The problem with waiting is, after only a few minutes, especially if it is some miniscule little glitch, almost not important enough to say anything in the first place, we usually forget the reason for the dissatisfaction. We have heard that some things really can’t be spoken or we would be in conflict twenty-four hours a day. For us, we found this statement to be a resounding, Not True! If not dealt with on the spot, the subject quickly is forgotten and thus driven underground where it festers until it is forced back to the surface a week or month later. Instead of being independent and singular, as it would be if dealt with immediately, it hangs, leach-like, hidden under the belly of another subject. When this happens, it takes hours of hard conflictual labor to unravel the layering of concealed gripes, to find the splinter of truth and extract it with the tweezers of ruthless honesty.

Our experiment began six years ago and I must report that it has been so successful, we have never stopped. Not that we like this kind of honesty, nor is it fun, but it continues to be a pivotal tool in maintaining the closeness and immediacy of our marriage. Does it mean that we no longer have conflict? Quite the contrary. In a single day, I would guess that we average twenty confrontations. The difference is most of our conflicts now are well worn.

Like a favorite pair of shoes, they are comfortable. In dealing with them moment to moment, the drama has been removed. It usually is the drama which causes so many problems. The conflict comes up, one or the other of us says what he/she feels, and it dissipates sometimes in seconds. Lately, we have found that our gripes stem not from our different personalities, nor the subject, but a more base disagreement of the Masculine and Feminine. These larger gender conflicts can never be resolved, but simply spoken, understood and accepted.

“Why do you take so long with everything?” I might inquire with an attitude, while waiting to go into town, and I have the right to my attitude. “Do all women take so much time?”

“Why do you always have to rush me?” She demands, and she has an equal right to demand. While she still carefully applies her lipstick just right, she says, “Do all men find it necessary to rush their women?”

Then I remember that yes, she is a take-all-of-the-time-she-needs-woman after all, and I am a push-myself-to-the edge-of-collapse-male. If I look carefully, I realize that we balance one another out perfectly. Although we bug each other in hundreds of ways, while continuing to verbalize frustrations, we have come to accept and appreciate our differences.

If we have learned anything from this experiment, it is to give vent to our feelings immediately and to accept the others expressions without allowing the topic to become personal. We have found that it is the act of expression that is important, not the subject. When we are successful, we don’t have to go into the darkness of extended conflict.