Dangerous to be Real

Sometimes, one of the hardest things to do is to be real, to be authentic, to be genuine, to say out what you truly feel, think and need.  Being real is never about talking about somebody else, but it is about talking and taking action for self.  There are those who believe you should say straight out what you feel and think, whether it is about self or another.  However, if you call your wife ‘stupid’ or ‘histrionic’ or ‘a controller’, you are not being real, but you are being defensive.  Anytime we send a ‘you’ message, we are hiding what we really want to say.  In the examples given, the authentic message could be: ‘I’d like my opinion to be at least listened to’ and ‘I have a need to discuss issues calmly’ and ‘I’d prefer to make my own decisions on this issue’.

What is it that makes it difficult for us to be real?  The answer is that it can be dangerous to be real – physically, sexually, emotionally, intellectually, behaviourally, socially, creatively and spiritually.  The greater the threat, the more unlikely it is that you will risk speaking your truth.  Children learn this defence early on when they know the risks of not conforming to the demands and expectations of a parent/teacher who dominates and controls or is passive and over-protective.

A good question to ask about a couple relationship – husband-wife, lover-lover, friend-friend, parent-adult offspring, manager-employee is: ‘is this relationship a series of dangerous moments with a few safe ones?’ or ‘is this relationship a series of safe moments with a few dangerous ones?’  Clearly, when it is the latter scenario, it is safe to be real in most situations, with maybe one or two taboo subjects.  In the former relationship, most topics pose a threat and conformity would appear to be the safer option.  Certainly, in the case of children, conformity is the safest option, unless they can find some adult who will champion their just cause.  Adolescents frequently attempt to find support to be real from their peer group and this change of events can give rise to many emotional storms within the family.  Adults cannot afford to wait for others to make the world a safe place for them to be true to themselves.  However, unless you have come into a fairly solid place of acceptance of self and separateness from the slings and arrows of others, you are more likely to continue to conform to the ways and expectations of those whose reactions threaten your well-being.  Such a conformity makes for deeply unhappy relationships, and unless one of the parties to the relationship finds the solid inner place from which to speak their truth, the relationship will continue to deteriorate.  Conflict of its very creative nature continues to escalate in an attempt to wake up those in conflict to the unresolved issues that lie within each of them and between them.

However, when past experiences of attempting to ‘talk things over’ have been met by such threatening responses as verbal or physical aggression, hostile withdrawal and unrelenting silence, screaming, threatening to leave, to hurt self, to commit suicide, take to the bottle, swallow tablets – then it is wiser to say nothing.  Not saying nothing does not mean doing nothing.  On the contrary, urgent action is required in such dangerous situations, but it needs to be of a nature that it does not escalate the danger to self.

One definite action you can take is to ‘break the silence’ on the untenable situation with a person with whom you feel emotionally safe and who will listen, be discreet, be non-judgemental and, on request, be able to suggest sound directions to take.  Having such a support may help you to determine ways of confronting your partner about your unhappiness.  Possible strategies are:

  • write to your partner
  • give him an audio-tape of your concerns
  • request somebody he respects to talk with him

When there is no positive response to such overtures, stronger measures are required: actions always speak louder than words.  Be sure that such actions are taken within a climate of unconditional positive regard.  It is the behaviour and not the person of your partner that is the challenge.  Possible actions are:

  • move to a separate bedroom
  • break the silence on the difficulties to both sides of the family
  • attend counsellor for self and offer same to partner
  • send a solicitor’s letter

where there is intimidation or violence, report it to your medical practitioner and police, seek refuge and obtain a protection order from the District Court.

Frequently, any of the above actions may escalate your partner’s defensive responses of verbal aggression, control, manipulation, silent treatment or violence.  Such reactions are an attempt to deter you from continuing your assertiveness.  Sometimes, compensatory responses emerge – weeping and promising all sorts of changes – once you come back.  However, these behaviours are also defensive in nature.  The best proof of change is sustained efforts to respond to your unmet needs.  A particularly good index of a partner’s willingness and readiness to change is his/her agreement to attend for either individual or couple counselling.  Refusal, generally, means a short-lived return to a blissful reunion.

Dr. Tony Humphreys is a clinical psychologist.  Listen in to the final programme in the RTE radio 1 series ‘Relationship, Relationship, Relationship on Wednesday next on RTE radio 1 at 7.00 p.m.