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Telling each other the truth

By Robert C. Crosby

When people submerge their true feelings in order to preserve harmony, they undermine the integrity of a relationship. They buy peace on the surface, but underneath are hurt feelings, troubling questions and hidden hostilities just waiting to erupt.

It’s a costly price to pay for a cheap peace, and it inevitably leads to inauthentic relationships.

— Bill Hybels

What is the most beautiful word in the English language?" Reader’s Digest once asked this question of its readers. Thousands of responses came back and overwhelmingly the number one answer was … home.

Most Christians would agree that the only way to make a house into a home is to fill it with more of Christ — to fill our houses with the things that Christ was filled with as He walked this planet. The Scripture tells us that when Jesus came to earth He was full of "grace and truth" (John 1:14). Our homes desperately need to be filled with Him and with them. Truth, in particular, is vital in every relationship expression.

To build a home, believers must speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). Without truth, offenses emerge, unforgiveness fills hearts and homes, bitterness grows, and walls are erected between family members.

Two kinds of people
The world is made up of two kinds of people: peacekeepers and truth tellers. Most people prefer peacekeeping to truth telling.

Many women, for example, who find themselves in difficult marriages will avoid confronting their husbands. Starved for closeness and intimacy with the man she loves, a woman will perhaps ponder confronting him. She will probably rehearse doing so in her mind and imagine what he might say in return. Still, many avoid the actual confrontation. Some continue to do so until it is too late.

Twenty-five years ago the United States government hired Dr. John Gottman to conduct a long-range study on marriage relationships. Interestingly, one of Gottman’s key discoveries in his monumental research is that appropriately "expressing anger and disagreement — airing a complaint — though rarely pleasant, makes the marriage stronger in the long run than suppressing the complaint."1 Again and again, as he has followed the relationships of literally hundreds of couples over a 25-year period, Gottman has found that people must care enough to periodically confront the people they love.2

Telling the truth — what are we afraid of?
"You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free" (John 8:32, NASB). If truth is the path to freedom, why do we become so adept at avoiding it? I have observed many people ruin and frustrate their lives and the lives of loved ones by simply not telling each other the truth.

When we allow ourselves to keep secrets, believe lies and harbor offenses, life becomes more of an illusion than an experience of reality. Ultimately we create barriers. We hurt ourselves and the people in our lives. Most often the ones we hurt the most are the ones who love us the most. Here are a few of the reasons I believe we avoid telling each other the truth:

We’re afraid of driving loved ones further away. In some cases, the only hope for salvaging a strained or devastated relationship is a "wake-up call." Truth-avoidance only creates greater emotional distance.

We’re afraid of making a bad situation worse. No coach ever gained a better football team by always patting players on the back. No parent ever raised a godly child by ignoring his or her vices. No spouse ever cultivated a strong marriage without facing the music now and then. Fear keeps us from engaging the conflicts in our relationships and, as a result, the conflicts just get more complicated and intense.

We’re afraid of what the truth will look like once it is revealed. Often our efforts at shielding our spouses from the truth are, on a deeper level, our attempts to shield ourselves. This fear enables our spouses or children to continue on a destructive path.

We’re afraid of jeopardizing the relationship. What relationship? A relationship without truth is no relationship at all.

We’re afraid of having our relationship "image" tarnished. In appearing to keep a "good name," many couples not only avoid the truth; they deny it even when it is staring them down. You can hide a cancer with a bandage, but you cannot stop it from growing that way. The only hope for a cure is an honest examination, an accurate evaluation and an aggressively purposeful treatment. So it is with the issues that divide families.

Dealing with the HTTs
What is the last topic your spouse would want you to confront him or her on? I call them the HTTs or Highly Tense Topics of our relationships. What are your sore spots? What are your spouse’s?

Finances? Quality time with the kids? Too much make-up? Not enough? Overworked? Underpaid? A tidier house? Better manicured lawn? A few pounds to shed? A honey-do list to complete? TV sports? Channel-surfing?

Hot topics, all. Should we avoid the HTTs in our relationship at all costs or should we address them? Should a woman confront her husband? Should a man confront his wife? Is it really worth the hassle?

Once again the Bible presents this principle:

"You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free" (John 8:32, NASB).

Confronting each other God’s way
When you have known nothing but peace-maintenance in your relationship, the thought of speaking the truth, the whole truth, can be overwhelming.

Numerous questions arise: How should I say it? When is the best time? Where should I bring it up?

It is important to communicate truth respectfully. Truth shared without respect turns a confrontation into an altercation.

A couple of things to remember before respectfully confronting your spouse:

Register complaint without criticizing character. Your spouse can shut down as a listener the minute you begin to attack his or her character. One way to tell the difference between a complaint and a criticism is that a statement of complaint or concern usually begins with the word "I." On the other hand, a criticism often begins with the word "you."

Here’s a complaint:

"I was so disappointed when you cancelled our date tonight at the last minute."

Here’s a criticism:

"You are forever breaking your promises. I am fed up with it. You never do what you say you’re going to do."

Spouses respond much more readily to honest complaint than to criticism. When they hear a complaint, it better expresses what is going on in your heart to them. When they hear a criticism, it feels like they are in court and you are the judge. This is more threatening than it is motivating.

It is also vital to communicate truth lovingly. Within an atmosphere of love and reassurance, marriage partners can confront each other with much greater results. Too often a confrontation is excessively direct and abrupt. The goal must be more than getting a task accomplished; marriage partners must remember each other’s feelings and sensitivities.

Speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). When the Bible says speak the truth in love, it means speak honestly, but all the while in a loving way, a loving manner, a loving tone. Doing this effectively is the only way to deal with HTTs directly.

Give the truth time to work. One big mistake many couples make when they confront each other is pushing the truth instead of presenting it. When spouses do not get the immediate reaction they were hoping for (regret, remorse, apology, etc.), the tendency is to ball up the truth and try repeated hits until the emotional reaction they want comes. But it will never come that way, not in a sincere manner at least. Our responsibility is to effectively place the truth, to communicate it. If we are on target, it is God’s responsibility to turn it into conviction and, eventually, into change.

Stay on the issue. In an effort to emphasize our point or add weight to our case, we are often tempted to jump into other areas or histories of complaint and criticism. When we do this, we dilute the issue we began with and dig ourselves into a hole. Stay focused when you’re confronting. Remember, "Love … keeps no record of wrongs" (1 Corinthians 13:4,5, NIV).

Carrying out an honest relationship
As long as there are buried resentments, hidden doubts, concealed frustrations and covered-up wounds, there is little hope for intimacy in a marriage or parenting relationship. Choosing to be a truth teller is a daring step and the only one that really works. There is no way to be truly knit together in soul with people you love without learning how to tell them the truth.

If you are in a relationship where trying to tell the truth has brought even more rejection, perhaps even abuse, then you need to find a godly counselor (a pastor would be helpful). However, for most, the answer is a prayerful determination to speak the truth, to speak it in love, but to speak it nonetheless.

Robert C. Crosby is pastor of Mount Hope Christian Center in Burlington, Mass. He and his wife, Pamela, have encouraged couples across the country through their Marriage Blender Conferences. He has also written several books including Funtastic Conversation Starters for Parents & Kids and Creative Conversation Starters for Couples (Focus on the Family/Honor).

1 John Gottman, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), p.73.

2 Ibid., p.66.

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