Consult a Counsellor: Striving for honesty in family relationships

I am not sure what to do. Some of my family members seem to have a lot of difficulty just being open and honest with me...

I am not sure what to do. Some of my family members seem to have a lot of difficulty just being open and honest with me. I do not think that they are trying to be mean but it feels hurtful and disrespectful. It makes our interactions uncomfortable and I am not sure what I can do to change this dynamic. The situations themselves are not such a big deal and I would rather they would just be straight up with me rather than skirt around the issue or be dishonest. When I try to bring it up to address it directly it often makes things worse than better. Oftentimes it turns into an even bigger mess and maybe I should just be quiet and pretend it is all okay. However that does not feel so good either. The situation is damaging our relationships and I desperately wish things could be different. Help!

I am sorry to hear that things are so difficult for you right now. Family relationships can be tricky to navigate at the best of times. It is always that much more difficult when you do not feel that you can have as close a relationship as you would like.

Honesty and openness in relationships is an important thing. It is the basis on which trust and closeness is built. Without that, the vulnerability that is inherent in close relationships is threatened and the relationships suffer because it is no longer emotionally safe to be that close. Family relationships that threaten your vulnerability likely feel like a betrayal and damage your ability to trust the relationships in the ways that you want to.

There are many reasons people are not open and honest in their interactions with each other. In the end, most of those reasons centre around avoiding dealing with something that is anticipated to be unpleasant. Very often, in the situation that you describe, it is rare that individuals are being deliberately malicious. Often they are surprised and upset to hear how you feel. Unfortunately, regardless of whether their lack of openness and honesty is about trying to avoid conflict, trying to avoid upsetting someone, or trying to avoid some other anticipated outcome, it is a bit of a double-edged sword. Sometimes the avoidance works. Yet, often the pain created by that avoidance when it becomes apparent is greater than the pain that would have been created by dealing with the situation directly itself. Brown and Levision’s work on Politeness Theory offers some interesting insights on this dynamic and a primer on the theory can be found easily by searching for more information on the web.

In the end, there are no easy answers to how you should deal with this. Ultimately you cannot control the choices that your other family members are making about how they choose to communicate with you. They have their own reasons for what they are doing, and in the absence of any feedback and dialogue about what those reasons are it is really hard to address them effectively.

You can, however, control the choices that you are making and the ways that you are engaging with your family members in this dynamic. Make sure that you are not feeding it by making it difficult, (through your actions, words or reactions), for them to be open and honest with you. Let them know how you feel, what your hopes and wishes are and seek some feedback from them about how they are experiencing the interactions. Try to avoid blame, criticism or conclusions about their actions and intentions. Focus instead on how you are experiencing the interactions and how you would like things to be different. Be curious about what is going on for them and model how you want them to be with you by letting them know what is going on for you in as open, honest and non-threatening a way as possible.

In the end, even when you do this well, it may not effect very much change. Family dynamics and approaches to dealing with conflict or perceived conflict are strongly established patterns that are not easily disrupted. However, regardless of the outcome, (which you cannot control), if you have let people know how you feel in a constructive way, if you have been open to understanding what is going on for the individuals on the other side of the interaction, and you have invited them to participate in the relationship with you in a different way, there is not much more that you can ask of yourself.

To ask a question of the counsellors, for a response in future columns, e-mail  info@pacifictherapy.ca. Consult a Counsellor is provided by registered clinical counsellors Nancy Bock, Diane Davies Leslie Wells, Andrew Lochhead, Sara-Lynn Kang and Carolyn Howard at Pacific Therapy & Consulting inc. It appears every second Thursday in the Record.

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