Earlier this week I had a fascinating conversation with some friends about how much honesty is helpful in a dating or marriage relationship. For instance, how much should a dating couple share about their past experience? Or in a marriage, how much should a man divulge his sexual thought life to his wife? This is an extremely delicate question because there are two opposite yet dangerous errors that you can make in this area–sharing WAY too much and hurting someone more than is necessary, or sharing way too little and losing the element of trust and open communication in your relationship.
I shared with my friends that, when Ike and I were dating, we had a rule of full-disclosure about our past. We didn’t go into great detail about our past relationships because we didn’t want to create visuals that the other couldn’t forget, but we also wanted to know each other thoroughly. I might not like the things that Ike did or the decisions he made, but I still want to know the path that led him to me. I want to understand the experiences that shaped who he is today. I also wanted him to know that I love him entirely and unconditionally, flaws and all. At times the conversations were intensely painful, but I’m glad we did it. The knowledge of his past doesn’t hurt me anymore, and I now trust him immensely.
For us, we were concerned about the danger of hiddenness and lies in our marriage. We promised each another that we would never lie to one another (except about surprise parties!) or intentionally hide anything that the other should know. If one of us gets a text message from an ex, even an innocent one, we tell the other. No matter how seemingly small or insignificant, we are careful not to dismiss such interactions with the excuse, “It doesn’t matter” or “He doesn’t need to know.” If we do, then that little white lie (or omission) becomes an entryway for deception to enter our marriage and damage its structural integrity. As you can tell, we take this VERY seriously. And we have enjoyed the fruits of that decision.
However, Ike and I also benefited from the fact that our “baggage” prior to our relationship was about the same. Neither one of us had more or less experience than the other. That made it a little bit easier to be honest with one another. But in relationships where one person has more baggage than the other (especially when it is significantly more), there is a new level of complication. The truth can almost be violent to the person with less baggage, and while that doesn’t mean that it is better left hidden, it does require a greater degree of mercy and calculated timing.
As I reflected on the above discussion with my friends, I decided to survey a number of colleagues who have been married longer than I have, and also serve as pastors at local churches. I compiled some GREAT advice that I am going to bear in mind for the future, so I thought I would share it with you now. As you think through the nature of honesty and truth-telling, here are some pointers to bear in mind:
+ Jesus dealt differently with different people. He did not speak truth to the woman caught in adultery in the same way he spoke truth to the Pharisees. That said, consider the person with whom you want to be honest. Do you have the kind of relationship in which they feel safe, and honesty is well-accepted? Will they be hurt by the truth and is there any way to prime the conversation in advance? Should you unload everything all at once, or gradually build up to it?
+ If you are too eager to tell a hard truth then you should probably wait. When you know that you are going to hurt someone with a truth, the telling should come from a place of godly sorrow, not harsh judgment.
+ Do not engage in honesty for the sake of honesty. One friend pointed out the danger of a culture that is all about “being real,” thereby leading people to share MUCH more than they should. With this in mind, remember that honesty is only a tool for love. Sometimes loving people means hurting them in the short-term by sharing difficult truth, but that does not make transparency a virtue unto itself. There are times when withholding information can be loving.
+ Don’t wait too long to share your past with your boyfriend or girlfriend. It only becomes more painful the longer you are together. One colleague recounted his early dating relationship with his now wife, sharing that he informed her of his past after just a few months of dating. Things were getting more serious but he didn’t want to proceed under false pretenses, so he explained that he had a rocky past and that he would be happy to share as much as she wanted to know. At that point in their relationship, it was early enough that she could receive the information without being devastated by it.
+ There is no true imbalance in baggage. Although people may come to a relationship with past baggage that is more hurtful than other types of baggage, the reality is that we are all broken people saved by grace. While it is important to understand how your past can injure the person you love, it is also important for the person with “less baggage” to work toward showing grace. Chances are the person with more baggage feels sick about it, but they are helpless to change the past. This is an opportunity to reflect God’s grace back to them. It is difficult and painful, but consider Matthew 18:21-35 (The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant) and work toward showing mercy and forgiveness.
+ Have an accountability partner for on-going struggles. While it is important for married couples to talk about their weaknesses, any sins that are particularly hurtful to one’s spouse need to be handled tactfully. Have a same-gender friend with whom you can share the gritty details, because it is not loving to share them with your spouse. He or she needs to be aware of it and know that you are taking the necessary steps to fight it, but anything beyond that is not merciful.
When it comes to honesty in relationships there is no formula. There is also no way to take away the pain of difficult truths. Sin results in brokenness, and that is the reality of the world we live in. That said, I will close with a passage of Scripture that is a helpful directive amidst the messiness of honest relationships: Ephesians 4:15-16
Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
The verse is ultimately about spiritual maturity, and it reminds us that in order to cultivate a mature community of believers in which Christians relate to one another in edifying ways, there must exist a careful mixture of both truth and love. Truth can be conveyed in ways that are unloving, but love without truth is not really love.