I thought that friends were supposed to be open and honest with each other, but many years ago I learned that that credo is not quite true. Louisa and I were part of a small group of friends who became close in college. As we found jobs and relationships after graduation, we had less time to socialize, and when we did, that time was more precious. But Louisa started dating a guy who made these gatherings miserable.
A little older than us, with a good job and steady income, this boyfriend had more money than the rest of us (which wasn’t saying much, since we were recent college grads with entry-level jobs). He made it clear that he felt superior, and that when he spoke, which was frequently and for extended periods of time, we were supposed to listen without interrupting. He wasn’t interested in anything we had to say.
No surprise, we began to dread the idea of hanging out with Louisa when he was around. When one of the other women in our group confided in me that she was avoiding getting together with us because of him, I took it upon myself to address the problem head-on. Louisa was a close friend. We were supposed to be honest with each other. I could just tell her that I didn’t like her boyfriend, right?
I was completely wrong. Whoever came up with the idea that we could — or should — be totally honest with our friends either never really had close friends or never had anything bad to say about any of them. Louisa was hurt and angry and stopped joining group activities. Someone asked her what was going on, and when she explained that I’d confronted her about her boyfriend, the group turned on me. How could I, a person who hoped to be a psychotherapist one day, have been so unfeeling, they wanted to know? (Never mind that every one of them had been complaining nonstop about how uncomfortable she was when Louisa’s boyfriend was around.)
So what’s the truth about honesty among friends?
Let’s start with why it’s important to be honest. Author Colleen Bryant tells us that honesty is crucial to trust, and that without trust relationships cannot flourish. This maxim is certainly true in friendship. For instance, we need to know that our closest friend will tell us honestly if a dress is too tight or too short, if we have a piece of spinach stuck in our teeth, or if we have stepped over the line at work. And we have to know that she’ll help us figure out how to fix our mistake. But do we want that friend to tell us when we’ve gained a few too many pounds, or when she doesn’t like our boyfriend? Often, the answer is, truthfully, no.
Bryant also tells us that “being dishonest takes a toll on your self esteem and self worth.” Since lying goes against many moral codes, we will ultimately feel ashamed and unworthy when we are dishonest. Being truthful can affect our physical health, as well. For instance, in a study conducted by Anita E. Kelly, a psychology professor at the University of Notre Dame, a group of adults who spent five weeks saying only what they truly meant reported significantly fewer health problems in the last week of the study than did those in a control group who did not receive that instruction. (The time lag was apparently due to the fact that it takes time to learn not to tell lies.)