What it is and What it can Do

by Peggy Vaughan

Honesty is the single most important factor in dealing with all aspects of affairs. It is the best prevention of affairs in that it's the critical ingredient in determining whether or not someone has an affair.

For instance, no matter what reasons/excuses may be offered as to why someone has an affair, there is an essential "trump card" that is necessary in order to proceed. In the final analysis (regardless of the reason for wanting to have an affair), acting on that desire ultimately depends on one thing: being willing to be dishonest and deceptive.

Honesty is also the most important factor in rebuilding the marriage. The future possibilities for the marriage are not determined by what happened in the affair; they are determined by what happens after the affair is known. Specifically, it's determined by the degree to which the one who had an affair is willing to be honest and answer all their spouse's questions about the affair.

You've probably heard the lyrics of the song (actually several songs), that say: "Ask me no questions, I'll tell you no lies." Many people define honesty as "not lying." However, honesty is much more than just "not lying;" it's "not withholding relevant information."

To clarify..."not withholding relevant information" doesn't mean sharing every single thought. That's not possible, even if it were desirable. But it is possible to make a point of not withholding information that is relevant to the relationship. By this standard, most of us are far from honest.

We all like to think of ourselves as honest, but our ideas of what it means to be honest are different. "I'm an honest person," frequently means, "I don't tell outright lies." Or sometimes it means, "I'm basically honest, but there are some things you just can't talk about."

These statements are short-sighted in that they don't consider the consequences of defining honesty in this way. If we want to change our lifelong pattern of suspicion, anxiety, and pain, we need a new standard of honesty.

All too often, when we think of "honesty," we think of "brutal honesty" (unloading or dumping our negative feelings). For instance, if someone says: "Can I be perfectly honest?"... you know that the next words out of their mouth are likely to be some kind of criticism. But that is not "responsible honesty."

Responsible honesty is a special kind of honesty that a couple undertake for the specific purpose of sharing "who you really are," allowing each of you to fully "know each other," so you can build a stronger bond, a stronger connection. And within that framework, you can talk about absolutely anything!

Telling the truth in relationships is hard work, but it's essential if we're to develop intimacy and keep the relationship alive and growing. It's hard because we have to search our thoughts and feelings to be sure we're getting at the important stuff. Often we have mixed feelings about an issue, and it's difficult to be clear within our own minds, much less be able to express it accurately to someone else. We also change as the relationship progresses, and it takes ongoing work to keep up with where we stand, both as individuals and as a couple.

It's also very tough to sustain an honest marriage within a dishonest society. It's like swimming upstream against a very strong current. It takes a tremendous effort to make any headway at all. On the other hand, swimming downstream is a cinch. It takes very little effort to simply go along for the ride.

This is what happens all too often. We take what we think is the easy way out—just keeping our thoughts to ourselves. It's no wonder we often give up on our relationships when the level of withheld thoughts and feelings seems too great to overcome.

Unfortunately, people haven't appreciated how much risk is involved in dishonesty. They typically focus only on the risks they fear in being more honest. And this is particularly true when it comes to discussing sexual issues.

Frankly, most people are dishonest about sex. They don't consciously choose to be that way. In fact, they're often not aware of it—until there's a crisis in their lives that forces them to face it. One such event is discovering that your spouse has had an extramarital affair. This is what happened to James and me. Our efforts to understand and deal with this issue led us to a degree of honesty with each other that we had never considered possible.

Below is more about honesty excerpted from The Monogamy Myth:

A Commitment to Honesty

"The way to rebuild trust is not by making a promise of monogamy, but by making a commitment to honesty. There's a tendency to think of honesty only as telling something that was previously kept secret. But the main power of honesty is in sharing feelings. When a couple share their deepest feelings about everything, including the "scary" stuff (like attractions to other people or fears of their partner having an affair), they develop a deeper understanding of each other. Many people think that talking about such emotional issues will inevitably cause problems. But it's far more likely that it will lead to a closer relationship because of the comfort involved in feeling you will be told the truth about anything that comes up.

"It's ironic that while honesty is recognized as important to a relationship, most people also fear it and see it as a risk to the security of the relationship. Unfortunately, they fail to see the risk involved with dishonesty. Part of the reason for the current fear of honesty is because of the kind of honesty that became prevalent in the 60's with "saying it like it is" and "letting it all hang out." This led many people to see honesty as thoughtlessly hurting each other with bluntness, which, in turn, led to excusing dishonesty as tact and kindness toward others. This is a narrow, shortsighted view of honesty and a naive view of dishonesty.

"Of course, honesty can be harmful if it's practiced with no regard for its impact on the other person. But there's much more involved than simply deciding whether to be honest. It's important to focus on when, why, and how—paying attention to timing, motivation, and caring. These factors will be discussed more thoroughly in the guidelines for developing good communication later in the chapter.

"The fear of being hurt is one of the main drawbacks to a wholehearted pursuit of honesty. Because of this fear, many people question just how much honesty is good or desirable in an intimate relationship. They rationalize that they're being honest as long as they're not actively lying. But honesty is much more than simply not lying; it's not withholding information or feelings that are important to the relationship. The idea of this kind of "total" honesty seems so unrealistic and unachievable for most people that they may feel there's no point in even trying to be honest. But developing honesty is a process, not an event. And the goal for each couple (which is certainly attainable) is to gradually increase their level of honesty.

"It's understandable that there will be feelings of anxiety associated with trying to establish a relationship based on open, honest communication. Lack of honesty tends to break down relationships over the years, and it becomes very difficult to change old ways of relating. The effort to convince a spouse to be honest (who is obviously resisting the effort) becomes a very trying experience, especially when dealing with an emotional issue like affairs.

"One woman described how her husband had ignored all her efforts to talk about his affairs—he just wanted to forget the whole thing and expected her to do the same. She was extremely frustrated that he thought she should just accept him back without working through her feelings about what had happened. She felt unable to stay with him without more honesty, so she eventually left the relationship.

"Sometimes when a person can't get their partner to talk, they begin to wonder if they would have been better off never knowing about the affair. I understand this way of thinking; I still wish it had never happened to me. But since it did happen, I don't wish I'd never found out about it. My strength and vitality as a person comes from knowing what's going on in my world, not from pretending that what I don't know won't hurt me. That attitude only robs a person of the right to lead their life based on the facts instead of on pretense. It's important to believe you're a person worthy of honesty and to insist on a relationship that reflects that worth.

"Honesty was the motivator for my husband telling me about his affairs. He became uncomfortable with deceiving me and felt I deserved more fairness and equality in the relationship. We also relied on honesty as a way of working through all the feelings that had built up through the years. And honesty was the basis of our commitment to the kind of relationship we wanted to develop in the future. While I wanted a monogamous relationship, I recognized the fallacy of a promise of monogamy. So James didn't promise to be monogamous; he promised to be honest. But the result of our commitment to honesty has led to our being monogamous during the thirty years since that commitment was made.

"Our honesty is not restricted to issues related to affairs; we're honest about everything relevant to our relationship. This includes talking about our personal hopes and dreams as well as our private fears and anxieties. While this kind of honesty brings a special bond to a relationship, there's a personal benefit as well that is often overlooked. Honesty provides a firm place to stand in the world. It forms a solid basis from which to embark upon the challenges of everyday life. It provides strength in dealing with the many issues everyone faces outside their relationship. Many people report that developing an honest relationship with their spouse helped them to communicate more honestly in all their relationships."

(end of excerpt from The Monogamy Myth)

Some Common Excuses for Dishonesty

When we ask people what would happen if they increased the level of honesty in their relationships, typical responses are:
     "I couldn't do that."
     "He/she could never take it."
     "I wouldn't hurt them like that."
     "What purpose would be served by pointing out all his/her faults?"

(Responsible honesty is about disclosing yourself, not describing the other person.)
The common element in all these responses is the clear implication that there's a lot of dishonesty in the relationships.

Here are some of the ways the dishonesty is rationalized:

"I don't want to hurt his/her feelings."
Protecting the other person is probably the most common reason given for being dishonest. No doubt this is a genuine motive in some cases. In others, it's a rationalization. We need to ask ourselves, are we really thinking of the other person or are we protecting ourselves from having to deal with their reaction to the truth? Even if our motives are pure, there's still a chance that our secrecy will eventually do them more harm than the truth.

"He/she doesn't want to know the truth."
Much of the time this is an assumption that's never checked out. It's especially convenient to assume this when we aren't personally prepared to deal with the truth. This assumption by one partner often leads to an unspoken agreement by both to be dishonest as the relationship ages. Neither partner thinks of it as being dishonest. It's just being practical and respecting each other's wishes. Of course, sometimes this is more than an assumption. Sometimes, for instance, one spouse will specifically say something, especially about a sensitive subject like extramarital affairs, that reinforces this assumption.
Here's the way one wife described it:
     "I am positive that my husband is having affairs.
     But even if he felt he should tell me, he can't.
     I made that impossible by telling him early in the marriage
      that I would divorce him if I found out about his affairs."

"Some things are better off not discussed—just kept to yourself."
This serves to avoid problems for awhile, but it doesn't solve anything. In fact, it usually makes it worse. The number of things you can't talk about grows like a cancer until there's very little meaningful conversation left. The results of this kind of alienation are easy to detect if you pay attention to the way couples relate to each other when they're eating out in a restaurant. It's not difficult to tell which couples are married just by watching them for awhile. When there's no conversation, it's a pretty good clue that they're married and just don't have anything to say to each other. They've probably long since ceased to share anything but the most practical aspects of life. They may have accumulated so many hurts and resentments through the years that they find it safer and more comfortable to say nothing.

"What he/she doesn't know can't hurt them."
This is the classic rationalization used to justify keeping an affair secret. The problem is, it ignores the different ways of knowing. Sensing and intuiting are ways of knowing just as surely as being told something in words. And this kind of knowing does produce hurt—as well as a heavy dose of anxiety.
Here's the way one woman described it:
     "My husband tells me I have no reason to be insecure, no reason to be suspicious,
     but there are those gut feelings and small clues and things that strike you wrong.
     He says these things I feel and think I know are all my imagination;
     so he enforces my feeling that I'm crazy."

The General Dishonesty about Sex in our Society as a Whole

I've continued to study the issue of honesty and to discuss it with the many people who have contacted me through the years. As I worked on developing ways for people to better understand and deal with extramarital affairs, I came to see that the dishonesty about affairs is part of a much larger issue—the general dishonesty about sex in our society as a whole.

We're all well-trained (conditioned) in deception and dishonesty about sex, starting when we're born and continuing throughout our childhood and teenage years. Our parents are seldom honest with us about sex when we're growing up. Very few children get good, clear facts about sex. And almost none of us gets sound information about sexuality and sexual love.

I encourage you to consider the impact of the lack of solid parent-child communication about sex, leading teenagers to believe that "sex and secrecy" go hand-in hand. This situation contributes to the pattern of secrecy and deception so common among teens—and then later among married adults who have affairs.

As teenagers we're unable to talk honesty with our parents about sex, so we present a false image to our parents when we become sexually active. By the time we get married we've had plenty of practice at being deceptive and dishonest about sex. When a married man or woman has an extramarital affair, they're continuing this pattern of dishonesty about sex that began long before the extramarital affair, long before they ever married.

When I found out about the numerous affairs James had over a seven-year period, I kept thinking, "How could he have done such a thing?" I was overwhelmed by the contrast with his image of being a "faithful husband" during that time. He seemed almost like a stranger as I became aware of this new information. It seemed impossible that he could have been so deceptive. After realizing this was the kind of pretense he'd learned when we were teenagers hiding our sex lives from our parents, I could better understand how he did it.

I also realized that just as our parents didn't question us directly about their suspicions when we were teenagers, I didn't question him directly about my suspicions of his affairs. At all stages of our lives the primary way we deal with sexual issues is to close our eyes and hope for the best. This kind of cooperation in the deception is an important factor in understanding how it happens.

Most of the pain and unhappiness we experience around dealing with our sexuality is not caused by sex itself. It's our lack of honesty about sex that leads to most of our problems. We need to take a hard look at the price we pay for this dishonesty. It's far too high, both as children struggling to deal with our fears and questions—and as adults struggling to develop trust and intimacy.

For more about the importance of effective parent-child communication regarding sexual matters, see: For Parents Only: Providing Sex Education for your Children.

And to read (or re-read) other pages on the website that deal with the importance of honesty (including those on "answering questions" and "talking through an affair"), see:
Learning and Practicing Responsible Honesty
The Need to Know
Talking about Affairs
Overview of Survey Report ("Help for Therapists and their Clients in Dealing with Affairs") in which I provide statistical evidence of the strong correlation between "answering questions and talking through the entire situation" with both "personally recovering" and "rebuilding the marriage."

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