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Relationship Trouble? Try 'Radical Honesty' and These Other Tools

Being a good partner sometimes means renegotiating communication strategies so that the question "What's wrong?" isn't perpetually sloughed off. It sometimes means breathing through a bad few months and saying, "I accept this, I can do this, I don't have to fight it," even as you keep fighting for the relationship itself.
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I was recently chatting with a friend, and he mentioned that he was hitting a wall in his relationship. It's long-distance (she's overseas in Tokyo), and, so far, most of it has been conducted online. They have Gchats and Skype dates, and have met a handful of times over the past few months when she's been home, but they haven't really landed into a comfortable rhythm yet. He knows something is wrong, but he's loath to put his finger on it directly: maybe time will heal these problems, or maybe better communication. Maybe they just need to be in the same place for a while.

Or maybe not.

Over the past few years, I've become a big proponent of radical honesty, radical acceptance, and of self-care. Radical honesty is the practice of actually telling people what you think -- not couching in terms of what will make them feel better, or holding back because you know your opinion will hurt their feelings. When someone asks, "Hey, what's wrong?" instead of responding with, "Oh, nothing," a person practicing radical honesty might instead reply with, "I'm feeling really down because you came home later than you told me you were going to." Or, "I'm really angry because you've been vague with me." Cue discussion.

This can be incredibly tough to initiative, because we're usually not socialized to be so honest. We're taught that honesty is good up to a certain point -- the point at which it hurts someone else's feelings -- and then we need to stand down (I'll observe that women seem to do this more often, but it is by no means solely a female practice or problem.) Saying to someone, "Hey, the way you're behaving is shitty" is terrifying. What if I drive them away? What if it exposes some other, underlying problem? What if it's a problem that can't be fixed? What if...and then we're all mired in the emotional tar pits, braying, "Nooooothing" when someone on the shore asks us what's wrong. This is not generally recognized as a super-effective strategy for change.

It also means being radically honest with ourselves: facing uncomfortable truths we've been shying away from because they're too painful to look at directly. It means admitting that our relationships aren't giving us what we need; it means knowing our friendships have ended; it means recognizing that I am acting badly and need to apologize. This stuff is sucky, because knowing that, at some point in the future, you're going to have to break up with someone/quit/apologize/whatever uncomfortable action needs to be taken is the pendulum in your own individual pit.

Radical acceptance is a little different; it's usually a self-directed practice that says, "I'm going to love myself or my situation regardless of the flaws." I was first introduced to the concept in recovery from an eating disorder, and it was mega-disorienting to say to myself, "I accept my body the way it is." I actually felt nauseous the first time I did it; it opposed all the beliefs I had troweled onto myself over the previous decade. Now I do it all the time: I take a deep breath and say, "I love my relationship," knowing full well it's not perfect; I say "I love my family," even though there are moments with everyone that make me furious; I say, "I love my friends," even sometimes I want nothing to do with them. It's a really useful tool for challenging black-and-white thinking. I accept my double chin, I accept my thick arms, and I accept frizzy hair; in doing so, I also accept my flat stomach, my striking eyes, and my shapely legs.

Self-care is the final piece of the puzzle. This is the stuff we do to restore ourselves to an even emotional keel: creative projects, bubble baths, coffee with friends. Self-care isn't supposed to push our boundaries and make us work. It's more like taking an iron pill when you're anemic. It's essential to have a good, varied bunch of self-care techniques in your back pocket. I favour exercise, gratitude journals, playing on Pinterest (don't judge me, it's soothing in there), and visiting with my friends. Someone else's might be a round of Horse, a glass of red wine, a bunch of fresh flowers, a hike, or sketching. The end goal is to simply feel better. This is really important if you've been dealing with assholes, or handing out a lot of radical honesty and acceptance lately -- you need to reset. It's taking responsibility for your own soul's well-being, and not passing that onto a partner. It's also living the belief that you are a person worth taking care of.

So why am I telling you all this? Because no relationship can survive without honesty, acceptance, and independence. The radical versions are a good place to start, but even regular old honesty can feel radical if you're not used to it.

Being a good partner sometimes means renegotiating communication strategies so that the question "What's wrong?" isn't perpetually sloughed off. It sometimes means breathing through a bad few months and saying, "I accept this, I can do this, I don't have to fight it," even as you keep fighting for the relationship itself. It might even mean taking time away from someone -- a weekend, a day, even a few moments -- to do some self-care.

Sometimes, it means walking away altogether. I've walked away from friendships because even radical honesty and love couldn't get them to see past the end of their own nose; there's nothing to be done in a case like that. When the challenges are too great -- distance in space or emotion; disconnect; different goals or values; different needs or priorities; too much emphasis on one person's needs and none on the other's -- sometimes the best thing to do is to end it. To recognize, with love and honesty, that fixing the relationship means changing the bedrock of who you are and who you want to be, and that price is too high.

It is hard, I know. But it's really hard to thrive in the question mark -- is this good? Is this good for me? -- and not have a few tools in the chest to help you.


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