Truth and family – how much can you bear?

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I had an elderly relative who insisted on telling everyone in the family “the truth” and was very proud of her “truthfulness”. Unfortunately, the truth she chose to say to everyone was “her truth”. And usually, the things she chose to say were not very nice. She was telling a chubby cousin she is fat and ugly and she should do something about it, another one going through marital problems was told her husband is a loser and she should divorce him (which she eventually did)…

On the other hand, to strangers, she was very polite, almost obsequious even, when they were in a position of authority (doctors mainly, at her advanced age).

No surprise, strangers found her charming (for a bit) but no one in the family could stand her and she lived her last years very isolated as she had driven everyone away.

What I found heartbreaking to observe was the fact she never understood what was the reason of that isolation. Was telling the truth to people she cared about a bad thing? Wasn’t honesty a virtue? Why would no one understand that she meant it well? She was just alerting these people she cared about to things they should know so that they could improve – it was her way of encouraging them to be better… so why was everyone angry at her? No one else will tell them these things because the others don’t care enough for their wellbeing, as she does? She owed them honesty, right? Truth above all else, right?

My elderly relative was an extreme case, but I believe we are all sometimes guilty of too much of such “truth telling”. And having thought about this a lot, I believe there are some basic rules to follow so that we can keep being honest with our loved ones, without being hurtful:

  • Don’t focus on the negative – yes, you are occasionally allowed to say to your partner/parents/children (at your own risk) that he or she has gained some weight or that they are a grumpy bastard in the morning, or that they have an annoying (unhealthy) habit, if that’s true, but you should also equally (and even more!) notice and say the good things – when they have a nice new haircut, when they are elegant or nicely tanned, when they are kind or helpful… when they have done something courageous, or difficult for them (like when my husband gets up early in the morning to help although he is NOT a morning person). This is a tricky balance and we usually err on the side of complaints, rather than compliments.
  • Not all truths are good to say out loud – although I do believe that honesty is generally a virtue – too much honesty is aggressive, intrusive and incompatible with living with other people. I may believe that my friend’s husband is an idiot, but my repeating it to her every time we meet will not improve either our friendship or her marriage. Sometimes, it’s better to shut up and – if the dislike is very strong – avoid the guy while still meeting up with my friend. Just to use another example, referring to people’s unhealthy relationships’ with their parents (or any other Freudian references) are usually to be banned, however true they may appear to you.
  • There is a right time for certain truths – for example an angry mother telling her son that he was an “accident” and unwanted child is very bad in itself, although it may (have) be(en) the truth – when she tells him during his already difficult adolescence, it is fatal for their relationship.
  • No using secrets and truth as weapons to impose one’s power. Basically, this is just plain blackmail. We have all of us things we are not proud of in our lives, we have made mistakes and hopefully learned from them. There are some things we are ashamed of. Yet when someone around us always brings out this “truth” to get the upper hand, especially in front of other people, get away from them fast ! This is the most unfair and toxic habit and you should avoid this at all costs.
  • Realise that the “truth” you want to talk about is “your truth” or at least “your understanding of the truth” and that you may have limited (or erroneous) information – other people can see things differently, there may be reasons you are not aware of why a person behaved a certain way – your cousin’s idiotic husband (that you disliked for the last 5 years) can have changed quite a lot since you started avoiding him, he can be a great dad, and there are aspects to him that you don’t see and your cousin does and these are what counts for her… Similarly, your aunt may be looking fat because her thyroid is playing up not because she binges on chocolate cake (although you have once seen her eat three pieces of cake at aunt Jo’s wedding anniversary). So don’t act all righteous and superior, because you may not be seeing the bigger picture.

With these rules in mind, let us be truthful yet kind in our interactions with our families and the feedback we give each other. Make an explicit plan to be kind and supportive to those closest to you. Truthfulness is a certainly virtue, but family is a value. They are your backup. They are on your team. They are not perfect, but they are yours.

So this week I will tell my partner what a great cook he is (and he is !) instead of complaining about him being grumpy and insufferable in the morning. I will let my brother know that I am grateful for all the things he does for our parents (while I am a comfortable 1000 km away from their daily worries), despite the sometimes difficult circumstances and tensions. And I will tell my dad, next time I talk to him, that I am impressed at all the work and effort he’s been putting into compiling the family genealogy and not chide him about what he eats and the fact that he doesn’t do much about his health.

Truth as a way of reaching out to others, repairing bonds, and cultivating relationships, not as weapons to define, control or hurt people I care about or drive them away.

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