Monday, June 23, 2014

Open, Honest and Shameless

The woman who wrote to Carolyn Hax dubs herself: Dirty, dirty laundry (DDL). In a few short paragraphs she shows why I keep advising against complete openness and honesty in relationships.

For those who think that I have caricatured the therapy culture, DDL bears witness to its pervasive and destructive influence.

I quote her letter, in full:

After multiple relationships not working out because both parties were dishonest in one way or another, I decided to use a new approach to my current relationship. I am 23, met my current boyfriend (also 23) online, and decided to be COMPLETELY HONEST.

This was meant to mostly cover my feelings, as I tended to hold things in unhealthily, but I let it fold over to all aspects, including the disclosure of my sexual history. I have now learned this was a mistake.

This man is all I’ve ever wanted in a partner, we live together, we’ve talked about getting engaged, and I’ve never had a better friend in the world. But he can’t get past what I’ve told him; he loves to throw things in my face, such as how I won’t try something with him in the bedroom that he knows I did with someone else.

How can I help him get past it? Expressing the frustration it causes me has had no effect on the way he acts or speaks about it.

DDL has drawn the correct conclusion from her experiment. She has realized that, however bad it was to hold back, it is worse to tell all. She has concluded that complete openness, honesty and shamelessness is a very, very bad idea.

She gained nothing of value by recounting her past sexual history to her new boyfriend, apparently in great, and dare I say, pornographic detail.

When I say that the therapy culture made her do it, I am assuming that no sentient individual in full possession of her rational faculties would ever do such a thing.

As for her boyfriend, he sounds like he is confused. He is right to be confused.

Perhaps he does not feel that he has a right to hold her history against her. Perhaps he does not feel that he has a right to hold her indiscretion against her. And yet, he still punishes her by continually reminding her of what she did with this or that man in the past.

Evidently, it’s very difficult to get the toothpaste back in the tube.

Uncharacteristically, Carolyn Hax offers some very bad advice to this woman and to her readers. She should have emphasized that total honesty is a character flaw. Once DDL shows that she is willing to betray her intimacy with her past boyfriends, who is to say that she will not do the same to her current boyfriend?

Hax does not seem to understand the value of discretion, so she tells the letter writer that her boyfriend is punishing her for being who she is.

In her words:

I can’t speak for you, but “all I’ve ever wanted in a partner” is someone who accepts me as-is. You don’t have that — he’s punishing you for who you are. Are, were: Same diff, by the way.

Nothing is to be gained by teaching DDL and other young women that if they do something stupid, if they demonstrate an egregious character flaw, the world is not likely to look very kindly on it? Even less is to be gained by blaming the boyfriend.

According to Hax, DDL did not come to her most recent relationship as a virgin. Hardly very shocking in a 23 year old. In truth, DDL is indiscreet.

Hax continues:

You can’t prevent someone from having mental images of you with someone else, but you can certainly prevent them from being accurately detailed — and you can hold out for someone mature enough not to be haunted or threatened by the fact that you’ve had a life.

Unfortunately, this feels like double talk. It’s one thing to tell a man that you had a previous relationship. It’s quite another to describe it in pornographic detail. The first is public knowledge. The second is private.

You can certainly make it less likely that your boyfriend will envision you having sex with other men if you do not tell him, in detail, about your escapades with other men. If you do tell him, he will, among other things, ask himself why you want him to know this? 

He might fantasize about you anyway, but then his basis will be his experience with you. He will fantasize himself as a participant rather than an observer.

One would have thought that Hax would know better, but blaming the man does not solve the problem.  He is not immature and is not threatened by the fact that the woman has had a life. He is disturbed by the fact that the woman has recounted them in detail. Because when she shows herself capable of doing so, she is also threatening to do it again. If she is willing to recount them to him, who else has she told? What else would she expose about their private life? Can he really trust her? And does he want to get further involved with a woman he cannot trust?


Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
rsj said...

One other aspect to think of is a man listening to all the things his girlfriend has done with others, but wont do with him. How insulting is that?

No, I only do THAT with Tom, and oh noooo I will only do THAT with Dick, you get wornout vanilla. It has to be hard to get past that perhaps?

Lastango said...

"If she is willing to recount them to him, who else has she told? What else would she expose about their private life? Can he really trust her? And does he want to get further involved with a woman he cannot trust?"

That's a problem with getting to know people who are in tight groups, or who socialize through disclosure. Say anything to any one of them, and you've said it to all of them... and all of their web "friends".

I have a theory about social media and anything-goes communication: that people are undertaking activities and having certain conversations in order to have something to share and post. Otherwise they have no "presence", and nothing to attract followers with. Some female-oriented examples:

-- the feminist who calls out her boyfriend so she can run back and high-five with the sisterhood about how she deconstructed his privilege. (Then she wonders why he won't engage with her about feminism.)

-- girls trying to out-slut one another, (oops, I meant being "sex-positive") and posting pix everywhere.

-- women infected by celebrity culture as manifested on the internet, and now trying to establish a similar glow around their own web presence.

IMO it's a cultural disease.

Ares Olympus said...

Sharing EVERYTHING is a crazy idea, but there's still open questions how to share without oversharing, without lying or covering up when its apparent something hidden is hurting you.

Brené Brown's talking about shame and vulnerability would seem related.

Some people like John Bradshaw differentiate between shame and "toxic shame", and I wonder how that fits in? Knowing naked in the garden is ordinary shame, while toxic shame apparently stays with you even if you find some clothes to cover yourself?

Maybe ordinary shame is "solved" by good boundaries, while toxic shame is about trying to wall off unacceptable parts of yourself and pretend they don't exist because they are too painful?

My thought is in relationships sharing things from your past that you're not proud of is a act of vulnerability, if you do it simply because you think it'll make you closer, or think it'll encourage your significant other to also share like that, then you may be disappointed, AND as this woman found, her vulnerability was used against her by someone she cared about.

But, on the other hand, if a relationship lasts long enough, there's going to be NEW things you're going to do that you're not proud of, and if you can't handle a person you love knowing your history and reminding you of it when you don't want to remember, he's also going to eventually do the same with things you can't hide from him.

I'm still not sure I can separate shame from toxic shame, as it seems "pretending" ends up as a defense mechanism in both. If people don't know my secrets, I can pretend they don't exist, and when things from my past make me act in ways that others don't understand, I can lie (pretend) to explain my behavior in ways that don't include what I know is the truth source of something painful.

And that's what socialization is about, pretending things are okay when they're not, because you don't trust people to understand, and because its your problem that you have to just hold inside forever because no one can fix it anyway.

I don't see full answers, see the value of boundaries, and avoiding oversharing. The real problem isn't what people know about you, but what you project other people are thinking about you when they know it, which is actually your problem, not theirs.

And to the oversharing woman and her boyfriend, we don't really know - is he really using her sharing against her, or is that just what she's hearing on things to him which are just facts with no emotional energy at all? Or somewhere in between?

The real judge is her own mind, and she can eventually leave her boyfriend for seeming to judge her, but she can't escape her own self-judge that she hasn't made peace with yet.

Anonymous said...

Honesty is the best policy when no one else is around,

Yikes, this chick is crazy! Quick, duck!!!