Ask Polly: Is Total Honesty Possible in a Relationship?

By
Photo: Craig Houghton/Getty Images

Get ask polly delivered every week.

Hey Polly.

I have a boyfriend — we’ve been dating for about six months now — who has a stated goal of "emotional transparency." He wants to know what’s in my head all the time, and he wants to be able to say whatever he’s thinking, too. In his view, the best intimate relationships are completely honest.

Sounds good, right? But I’m a little suspicious of the theory and the practice, because I’m sensitive and I don’t like to be criticized. On top of that, I have a substantial amount of negative patter in my head that I honestly don’t want to voice. When I feel something irrational, I want to go to bed, wake up feeling sane again, and talk things out without the shame of knowing that I said some crazy shit the night before. He’s also said something that I find patently nuts: "I’d like to be able to say critical-sounding things without you feeling criticized."

I’m still mostly willing to try it. There’s not too much I don’t want to discuss with my partner, with one big exception: I don’t want to hear about his ex-girlfriend and how sad he is about their breakup anymore. When we got together and were still casual, he was three months post-dumping and extremely depressed. We talked a lot about how sad he was, and it was obviously something he needed. Because he was extremely clear about his interest in me, and a great conversational and sexual partner, I thought it was worth seeing if he would make a recovery. He became a lot less depressed in the months that followed, and we started dating seriously.

He would say things like “I had a bad day of nostalgia for [ex]” or “I had a painful dream about [ex] last night.” And, since he would ask how that made me feel, I would tell him I didn’t really like hearing about it, that it made me feel jealous and bad, even though he has a right to his emotions. I thought maybe he could talk about ex stuff with some of his other friends instead. He says he wants to tell me these things because he likes me so much, and he's visibly baffled and annoyed as to why I’m not persuaded.

Recently, he did it again (another dream about being back together with her), and I responded with something supportive and emotionally nonreactive because I didn’t want to shut him down; he pressed me on how I was feeling about it until I had a whole new reason to be pissed off. I felt like he wouldn’t be satisfied until I told him that I was feeling hurt and angry, so he could assess whether I was still being unreasonable.

Then, while he was away visiting his chronically ill, hospitalized father, my sister had a traumatic and dangerous C-section to deliver her premature son. That night, he said that he didn’t want to talk about his dad because he felt bad about the times he’d tried to be vulnerable to me. He predicted that I would view that as an emotional attack, and that he felt bad about that, too.

Not only did I feel like a day that we both spent at the hospital — me in a panic, him in slow, grinding misery — was not the right time to broach serious relationship issues, it honestly didn’t make sense to me. He doesn’t want to tell me about his dad because it hurts my feelings when he talks about missing his ex? It felt like tit-for-tat withholding, and it definitely does not make me want to enter into a radical-intimacy experiment with him. The next day, when I said I felt pretty bad, his response was “I can’t deal with this right now” — which I get, because that’s MY default position. But when he’s been urging me to be open, it feels a lot like he’s lobbying for transparency on his terms. I tried to point out the parallels between his inability to deal today and mine previously, but he said it didn't apply, because his situation was worse.

The last piece of this is maybe the key: The person who introduced him to this idea of emotional transparency (oh how I’ve come to loathe the words) was his ex. She was divorcing and told him everything about her feelings and cried a lot and it felt really good to him, I guess, because he wants that again. It was so much better, he says, than all the flimsy, superficial relationships that he’d had before.

Am I afraid of realness and being soft, or am I being taken for a ride? Is emotional transparency a Thing, and should I have it? Help a sister out.

Emotionally Opaque

 

Dear Emotionally Opaque,

I'm all for honesty in a relationship. It’s a good way to embrace the fact that every person (even the one who's supposed to play the role of Prince Charming or Irresistible Wife) is complicated, conflicted, and flawed. Managing this kind of honesty can be difficult at first, particularly if you don't love sharing your vulnerability or your anger. But as the trust between you grows, it can make almost every dimension of your relationship richer and stronger.

Sometimes that’s not how it goes, though. You're welcomed in — "Tell me everything! It's safe, I swear!" — and then attacked or rejected. Plenty of people like the idea of total honesty and sharing, but they can't really deliver the goods: They only want to express their own emotions and needs but won’t tolerate anyone else's. Someone will say he wants a communing of souls, but what he really wants is control over an out-of-control world. He can't tolerate caring about someone else unless that person abides by certain rules of intimate engagement — rules that shift and change constantly based on his ultrasensitive needs and ever-changing moods.

Maybe your boyfriend fits into that category, and maybe he doesn't. At the very least, he sounds extremely sensitive and illogical. Like a confused and misguided disciple, he's advocating a belief system that he doesn't understand. Instead of listening and respecting your boundaries, he's pushing you to say more, and then creating trouble over what you reveal. That's not emotional transparency. It's emotional terrorism. No wonder you don't feel safe.

And then there's the tiny issue of him not being over his ex yet. Somehow that loss isn't tragic as long as he can institute the same program with you. But he's using you as a surrogate. It's not surprising that you feel uncomfortable with that. The fact that you don't feel safe is actually a sign that you're sane and healthy — that you have decent boundaries. You should trust your instincts there.

After all, if he's all amped up about honesty, why can't he accept your conflicted feelings around his nostalgia, his recurring dreams, and the fact that he's trying to replicate the same extreme-intimacy boot camp he went through with his lost love? What's more honest than admitting that you’re a little worried about what you've fallen into?

But even if he were over his ex, there are other red flags. No. 1 is that when things got heavy for both of you, he didn't take a supportive, positive stance, recognizing (as an adult might!) that you were both in a tough place emotionally. Instead, he acted like your emotions were an enormous inconvenience to him. Only a pretty confused person would conflate your hesitance to hear about his ex-girlfriend with a hesitance to hear about his sick father. That's a big sign that he's going to take his own emotional struggles and try to make them your problem over and over again.

Of course, it's always a red flag when someone tells you that their problems trump your problems. That's not how adults talk to each other. You both have stuff going on, and you both have feelings about what you're going through. When two people are generous about each other's struggles, that makes for a healthy relationship. Ask anyone in a good marriage or partnership, and they'll tell you that their partner takes their personal struggles seriously. It's easy to trust someone who shows you, again and again, that he understands how big something is for you, even when it seems small to him. Nothing makes it easier to express your honest emotions to your partner than his demonstrated ability to make room for those emotions. I don't see him making a lot of room for you.

I had a boyfriend like that once. He was fresh off a divorce and very intense and enthusiastic about what came next. It all seemed so promising, but he was very dogmatic, very attached to the concepts he'd read in books, and very insistent about the "right" ways to live together and "create intimacy." I was constantly being urged to find the sadness underneath my anger. (Yes, he really talked that way.) But when I did open up and tell him the truth about my emotions, I was always doing it wrong. I could be kind, reflective, careful. I could lay out a precise narrative of what made me feel bad. I could admit my shortcomings along the way. It never worked for him. Every time I thought I was making progress, getting to the heart of the matter, he would shut down and get gloomy and blame me for screwing it all up. He would say crazy shit like "HOW DID THIS HAPPEN? HOW DID WE LAND HERE? TELL ME WHAT I DID TO START THIS SO I CAN AVOID IT THE NEXT TIME!"

It makes a great dark comedy in retrospect, but at the time I felt so completely befuddled by it all. I would try to assert clear boundaries: "Look, this isn't working for me," and he'd lose his temper and then accuse me of being a bully. I believe that he had good intentions, but he was too sensitive and too full of rage to let another person in. He could never just sit and listen and let someone (who wasn't the author of a badly written, reductive self-help tome) tell him something new.

He talked a big game about admitting his mistakes, but in practice he always proclaimed himself beyond reproach. I was the one fucking everything up, and he was, as he put it, "waiting for me to catch up." (This was the same story he told about his ex.) He used his "emotional technologies" (could he really have called them that? What the fuck was I doing there?) as a means of control. He said he wanted a partnership, but what he really wanted was a rigid script for every situation, so nothing was left to chance.

Is your boyfriend smart enough for you? Because you'd be amazed at how much easier it is to negotiate complicated emotional issues with someone who's your intellectual equal. Even if a very smart guy doesn't grasp all of the emotional layers of a situation, he can at least process the logic of what you're saying. When someone doesn't understand the discrepancies in his own "systems" and constantly returns to the words of his half-assed gurus (or worse, supremely wise ex-girlfriends)? Fuck that noise. That's not living.

Forget what you THINK about him, and examine how you actually FEEL when you're in his company. I stayed with my controlling ex for so long, even though I was stressed out and dissatisfied most of the time. We almost never had fun together! He could never relax! He got angry about the tiniest things! He condescended to me even when (especially when?) he couldn't follow what I was saying!

The danger of a guy who's very intense is that it seems like a huge mistake to pass him by. He's so honest and vulnerable and he really wants to work on himself! But sometimes what a man (or a woman) like that really wants is safety. He wants an obedient follower. He doesn't really want YOU. If you keep trying and trying and it always feels risky and wrong, that tells you something.

You know how true love feels? Relaxing. Here is someone who loves me just the way I am. Talking feels soothing and restorative, not nonsensical and frustrating. Don't stay locked into a puzzle just because it's challenging and you haven't figured it out yet. Kick those puzzle pieces across the room, and walk out the door.

Polly


Got a question for Polly? Email AskPolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

All letters to askpolly@nymag.com become the property of Ask Polly and New York Media LLC and will be edited for length, clarity, and grammatical correctness.

(Click here to subscribe to the Ask Polly RSS feed.)

Get ask polly delivered every week.