If honesty is the foundation of trust and intimacy, why does it sometimes lead to hurt feelings?
Perhaps we need to practice honesty the way we practice other skills.
It’s not simply a matter of saying, “Your laugh is annoying” or “You drink too much.”
To avoid hurting each other’s feelings, we have to pick the right time and place, choose our words wisely, and – paradoxically – be ready to hear the truth about ourselves.
Here are six ways to be honest without hurting your spouse’s feelings.
1. Pick the right time
To start, pick a time and a place where your spouse will be open to hearing the uncomfortable truth – whether it’s about their unflattering wardrobe or the lack of romance in your relationship. Timing matters, because it takes patience, energy, and emotional hardiness to be on the receiving end. We should avoid difficult conversations after a long day of tedious work or a missed lunch, because we experience what psychologists call “ego depletion”: our mental reserves of self-control are running low.
Instead, pick a time when you both are refreshed, and you don’t have to rush. For most people, it’s best if these conversations happen in private. Entrepreneur and investor Brad Feld and his wife Amy Batchelor actually schedule monthly “Life Dinners” to discuss issues, so they’re both mentally prepared for an honest conversation.
2. Explain your motivation
Hurt feelings happen when your spouse feels like they’re being criticized or judged. To avoid that, explain that your motivation isn’t to hurt them but to help them and make your relationship better.
Betsy Talbot, the cofounder of Married with Luggage, had a difficult time listening to her husband express his concerns about her eating habits and weight gain. But then she reminded herself that he wasn’t insulting her, but helping her stay healthy.
“I (at the time) thought: ‘How dare you say that to me? We are never having sex again,’” recalls Talbot, laughing. “I had to realize that he was having this really difficult conversation with me – being honest – and his intention was good, and there’s no good way to say all those things.”
But before you proclaim your good intentions, take a moment for some self-honesty. Are your intentions really good? Or are you just getting something off your chest, taking revenge, or trying to wound?
3. Choose your language
Many of the cardinal rules of communication apply here. For example, start with “I” and not “you”: “I feel upset when you’re away so much,” not “You abandon me every weekend.” Avoid superlatives like “never” or “always”; it’s unlikely your spouse is “always lazy” or “never loving.” And criticize actions without pronouncing judgment on the person; “I’d love to see you get a job” instead of “You’re good for nothing.”
Next, try to be as factual as possible. Say “I felt hurt when…,” for example, instead of “You tried to hurt me when…” You may think you understand the situation completely, but perhaps your interpretation is wrong. If you know your spouse is sensitive about certain issues, it might even help to rehearse what you want to say.
4. Focus on solutions, not problems
If your goal is really to help your spouse or the relationship, dwelling on the problem won’t get you anywhere. It’ll only make them feel criticized and less open to addressing it. So when you prepare to bring up an issue, take some time to brainstorm solutions.
Some of those solutions may come from things your spouse does well – which is a great opportunity to sneak in a positive along with the negatives. If they don’t spend enough time with you, bring up that wonderful weekend getaway they planned last year, or the Friday dinner dates they used to organize.
But don’t settle on a solution in advance – after all, this is a conversation. Your spouse may have different ideas about the best course of action, and you should be open to them.
5. Ask for honesty in return
This is one of the most crucial and hardest parts of having honest conversations. It’s easy for them to degenerate into blame-fests: you criticize your spouse, they retaliate by criticizing you, and all the guidelines above go out the window.
So when you walk into an honest conversation, be ready for some honesty in return. You may find out that their annoying laugh is fake, and they don’t find you particularly funny. Or maybe they drink so much because they feel like a failure in your eyes. No matter what the circumstances, it’s quite likely that you play some role in the problem. Admitting that upfront can prevent their angry response. Say, “I know it doesn’t help when I snap at you,” or “Maybe you’d make dinner more if I did the grocery shopping.”
In general, showing that you can be honest about yourself and hear uncomfortable truths sets a good example: if you can face facts, so can they, perhaps. Then the blame-fest can turn into a more peaceful exchange, made up of thoughtful observations, all in the service of a better relationship. And the result should not be hurt feelings, but appreciative feelings, and even loving ones.
6. Participate in the Honesty Experiment
To help couples improve their relationship, I created a free 30-day challenge called the Honesty Experiment for Couples. You get one tip or question to discuss every day, like these:
- What has your partner taught you?
- Surprise your partner with a little gift.
- Do you spend enough or too much time together?
- Plan a date or vacation to do together.
- Do you feel understood by your partner?