“My partner and I are totally honest with each other.”
I give this phrase so much side-eye every time I hear it. I find that the more people I hear it from, the more wary of the phrase I become. It doesn’t seem to ever come from people who are mature about their relationships. In my experience, it most often comes from people who have a Dunning-Kruger-level understanding of honesty.
Richard Feynman is widely quoted as having said, “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.” This is roughly the stance that I take on “total honesty”. If you think you’re “totally honest”, then I tend to suspect you don’t understand how complicated being honest actually is, and I tend to suspect that your lack of understanding probably means you’re a lot worse at being honest than you think (which isn’t difficult if you think you’re perfect that it).
Being honest is complicated. It’s almost never as simple as telling the literal truth. It’s a marriage of truthfulness, compassion, context sensitivity, timing, phrasing, and framing that no human being could possibly ever be perfect at.
It’s about truthfulness, e.g. being honest about it when you started to become interested in a new partner.
It’s about compassion, e.g. communicating this new interest in a way that is understanding and respectful — “So I think I’m becoming interested in this new person, and if you want to talk about any feelings you or I might have about this at any point, let me now”, and not, “So New Person and I are serious now, okay, gotta go!”
It’s about context sensitivity and timing, e.g. understanding that the best time to talk to someone about your feelings is probably not when that someone is drunk, overwhelmed, in subspace, emotionally triggered, etc., and yet also recognizing when the issue is important and immediate enough that even if someone is pretty overwhelmed, there’s nothing for it, and you have to have the conversation anyway.
It’s about phrasing and framing, e.g. saying, “Yes, that was difficult to hear, but I’m grateful that you were honest with me about it, since I’m sure it was a scary thing to say to me, and I really appreciate that you made the effort to say it anyway”, instead of just, “Well, that’s a shitty thing to hear.”
Being skillfully honest is complicated. As important as it is to strive to be honest, it’s just as important to realize that it’s not a thing that you decide to do one day any more than you can just decide to win every game of chess you play from here on out. It’s not a question of flipping a switch or of having at least 17 points of willpower. It’s a question of really thinking about how to be compassionately transparent in every new situation your relationship presents you with. It’s a muscle you exercise, and that you always have to keep exercising, and it makes no more sense to say that you’re “totally honest” than it does to say that you’re “totally fit”.
Don’t ask yourself whether you’re “totally honest” with your partner, ask yourself whether or not you’re doing your best to be compassionately honest, and whether or not you’ve arranged your relationship and your life in a way that makes being honest as easy as possible — open lines of communication, understanding friends to talk to, the elimination of the stressors that it is feasible to eliminate, etc., etc. Make a commitment to exercise the honesty muscle, but be wary of ever assuming that you’ve gotten to the point where you’re “done”. Though there may at times be situations where the hardest thing to do is simply decide to tell the truth instead of lie, situations are rarely that simple, and the work of being honest is rarely finished at the point where you decide to tell the truth.