"I'm not a cheater," says the man on my couch. "I'm a responsible husband. I have a job, I parent, I don't abuse my wife. We even have sex together. So I fulfil the basic requirements of marriage. Why do I have to talk to her about everything? Why does she have to know that on occasion I have sex with men? Is it necessary for her to know everything? She will call me 'gay' and this will be the only story of our marriage."
I get it. We are an ignorant homophobic heteronormative society and anything that publicly tells a different story hurts and further marginalises people who fall out of the mono-heteronormative model. I also get that his wife is shredded with this explanation.
For her, complete disclosure is the essence of a marital contract. She should have been told by him before they married that he is bisexual. She wants radical honesty in her marriage. Otherwise, she says, it is difficult to trust him. Radical honesty centres on the notion that an individual should be honest with other people in their lives, at all times, without limitation or restriction.
I wonder how many people in truth believe this hyper constructed requirement for love and relationships: radical honesty, no secrets, conditional privacy, total disclosure of all that came before you met and forever after. I know people agree to this as a romantic ideal. Perhaps when radical truths are discovered, the crash and burn that follows is so extreme because they have worked so hard to achieve what I think is a challenging and compelling goal of radical honesty.
We're trapped in a double bind: Disclosure is at once compulsory and forbidden. For example, you practice compulsory monogamy when you should be frank about your wish to love more than one person. Yet you withhold this truth for fear of losing face, your relationship, community and children. So actually it is forbidden to do a total disclosure.
There is a complicit unsaid agreement between a couple not to talk about certain subjects.
I ask you: Is it necessary to talk about everything? When is it necessary to talk about everything? Why don't you talk about everything to your partner/s? What are subjects you believe you have a right to remain silent about?
Marriages tacitly hold secrets. There is a complicit unsaid agreement between a couple not to talk about certain subjects. Like sexuality. Like sexual orientation. Like fantasies. Like our online lives. Like dreams, fears and past pain.
Everyone has boundaries in intimate relationships, limits to what they comfortably share with others, and we might not always know what those boundaries are. So you may inadvertently be perceived as being dishonest when you hide things about yourself that you think your partner won't like. After all, sometimes honesty can be dangerous. Your partner may react to your honesty (even if it's merely a request for privacy) with hostility, rage or even violence.
Other times, honesty is merely difficult. It might cause people to dislike you, break up with you or get justifiably angry. Being honest might make you feel shame, guilt or fear. Being honest might mean you don't get what you want. But none of that justifies recklessly violating another person's boundaries. None of that justifies coercing someone into a relationship structure or a sexual situation to suit your particular fetish or sexual orientation.
I pose a few conundrums so you can see how complex radical honesty can be:
- You're bisexual, but rather than declaring this to your partner, who will judge or even divorce you, you occasionally suggest threesomes with men so you can have sex with straight men.
- You're a conservative woman, yet you engaged in a threesome to get pregnant -- without disclosing this to your partner.
- You know you have an STI. Do you disclose this to a new partner and risk losing this person?
- Your partner takes a sleeping pill every night. You know this and capitalise on the 15 minutes before she falls asleep and have intercourse with her, as you know she will have limited memory of this time.
- You fear being rejected by a man so you get drunk and seduce him. The next day you deny doing this and blame it on the alcohol, thus saving your heart the pain of possible rejection.
- You agree to swing despite having a deep resistance to and fear of it. You reckon this is the least painful way of consensually allowing your partner to have sex with other women.
I invite you to think about radical honesty differently:
1. Rethink honesty. See honesty as privileged.
2. Honesty decentered. Prioritise other values, such as family values.
3. Appreciate opacity between darkness and transparency.
4. Redefine cheating. Reclaim the word "cheater", for example, bisexual and polyamorous people are cheating the system.
Perhaps we can move away from the dichotomy of "lying" and "truth-telling". I like the notion of telling your partner upfront which topics are difficult for you to be radically honesty about. For example, past stories of abuse that may trigger trauma for you. Or past relationships, because you know your partner is racist and your last lover was a different colour to him/her.
Declare your intention for an honest, intimate relationship and then set boundaries -- before you get accused of misleading, coercing or hurting a significant other.
In summary, I don't believe that pure radical honesty is possible nor necessary. I prefer that you practise radical honesty with yourself first and foremost. Then make a personal agreement to live with integrity when entering an intimate relationship/s.