She Said, He Said: How can I trust him?
She Said He Said
Dear Lori and Jeff,
My husband recently ran into one of his exes and apparently spent some time hanging out with her but never told me (I heard about it from a friend who saw them together). I’m not worried that he’s cheating but am angry that he’s not being transparent. It makes me wonder why he’s hiding the full truth. When I ask him, he says there’s nothing going on and his interactions with her are the same as running into any person he hasn’t seen in a while. We’ve been through this scenario a few times now and I’m still not dealing with it very well. How do I make him understand that he needs to tell me when he sees her?
Signed, Tainted Trust
Lori and Jeff: Honesty and transparency are crucial for a healthy relationship. However, there still has to be room in the relationship for both partners to be complex human beings. It’s easy to assume that the withholding of information is motivated by selfish reasons. But omissions can actually be good intentions gone awry, particularly when they are driven by the desire to not cause seemingly unnecessary hurt or conflict.
Lori: If you want your husband to be open and transparent, you have to create a safe and welcoming space for honesty. This person was a part of your husband’s life and if he’s willing to have a conversation with her, there clearly isn’t ill will between them. If you have unintentionally (or directly) conveyed judgment for his wanting to be an acquaintance with her, you have created an emotional bind for him. He has to choose between ignoring or shutting her out to please you, or being authentic with her at the potential cost of criticism from you.
I hear you saying that you have been asking for honesty, but is your energy actually inviting him to be transparent? Ask yourself what your emotional history with this woman is. Have you ever felt jealous, insecure or threatened by her? These felt experiences leave emotional markers in the relationship and can erode the trust that your partner has in your ability to have grounded and mature conversations about her. If you want him to be transparent, work on owning how you may have been contributing to making that difficult. Also take time to contemplate what you would like to ask from your husband to feel safer about him periodically having conversations with his ex. Perhaps you would like to be welcomed into that friendship or to know that he is sharing positive aspects of your relationship with her.
Jeff: Sometimes the truth can hurt. When we share a life with another person, we develop a level of vulnerability that often needs to be handled with great care and sensitivity, so a lot of what we do has the potential to create a painful experience for them. This does not mean we’re allowed to omit things or twist them around to suit our needs. But it also means we cannot punish our partners for doing just what we’ve asked—being fully transparent. If there is any conveyance of shame or of “being in trouble” for telling the truth (even if some small lines may have been crossed) then there will be much less likelihood that the full truth will be told again in the future.
Our lives are full of many choices and interactions that, within a relationship, we might hesitate to fully reveal. We could be confident that we’re making these choices with no malicious intent but we might also know that our partners might be hurt or angry about what we’re doing. Seeing ex partners, spending money, indulging in certain behaviors or actions are all choices that can bring into question the trust or commitment we have within our relationship. Ideally, we all make those choices within the boundaries of those relationships. But sometimes, for many different reasons, we blur the lines and take the chance that we won’t have to disclose our actions. It’s better to err on the side of over-sharing than withholding, so your husband will have to learn how to do just that—as long as he has the space to sometimes make decisions that could possibly hurt your feelings.
Lori and Jeff: Being fully transparent is not always easy. Create clear boundaries and expectations within your relationship. If sometimes those lines get crossed, there needs to be a safe and non-judgemental space to explore what feelings, fears and stories are getting in the way of the truth.
Lori and Jeff are married, licensed psychotherapists and couple-to-couple coaches at Aspen Relationship Institute. Visit http://www.aspenrelationship.com/blog-1 for all previous She Said, He Said columns.