Kindness and honesty: Can we have one without the other?

I’ve blogged before on the tension between kindness and honesty: how, often, when we try to communicate honestly we sacrifice kindness, and when we try to be kind to others we sacrifice honesty. I concluded that it was important to find a balance between the two: holding that tension whenever we communicate with others, or indeed ourselves.

Lately, however, it seems to me that kindness and honesty are more inextricably linked than I previously thought. It struck me that kindness without honesty is not really kindness, and that honesty without kindness is not really honesty. So whether we are somebody who – in life – prides ourselves on our openness and straightforwardness, or on our compassion and generosity, we have to engage seriously with the other aspect in order to be truly as we are aiming to be (honest, or kind, respectively).

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Stuart Jeffries’ great piece in The Guardian last weekend quoted me as saying – about suggestions that infidelity might be a good thing for relationships

why is deceit taken to be a good thing? The answer is to communicate

If we agree that communication is a good idea this begs the question of what is meant by communication. How do we actually go about communicating about our relationships with the people we are in relationships with? My book deals quite a lot with communication about points of conflict, and includes some suggestions regarding communication about sex, monogamy and commitment, but I thought that it was a topic worthy of further exploration here.

I’ve been at two workshops in the past month or so which have dealt with relationship communication in general, and with communication about sex in particular. At both of these I came across some useful ideas which I’ll share in the next couple of posts.

Communication part 1: Relationships
The first workshop I attended focused on the idea of communication about communicating. This might sound a bit meta, and indeed one word for it is meta-communication.

Basically what it means is that people have different ways of communicating which they prefer, or which come more easily to them. Instead of launching into conversations with people in our lives, and then becoming frustrated or angry if they communicate in ways we find difficult, it might be worth starting with a conversation about how we’re going to communicate.

Counsellors and therapists refer to this as a focus on ‘process’ rather than ‘content’. When we’re dealing with the process of communication we’re talking about how we communicate. That means we can then go into the content of communication with an awareness of this. If the discussion of content becomes difficult it can often be useful to return to talking about the process, before getting back into it.

Of course this is applicable to all kinds of communication. For example, it can be useful to start a workshop or group discussion with a consideration of the kind of communication people would like and what processes would be best to enable it. It might be worth putting some ground rules in place, or agreeing on some mechanism by which people will take turns in contributing like putting up hands, holding an object and passing it around, or nodding when they’ve finished talking. Agreement, disagreement, need for clarification and other things can also be expressed in various ways verbally or nonverbally.

The aim of communication
This brings us to consideration of the aim of the communication, which is vital. The style of communication that works best depends very much on what we are aiming for. For example, in a workshop or seminar, if we are aiming for as many diverse views as possible to be expressed, and for everyone to feel as safe as possible expressing them, then ground rules which cultivate a culture of openness and open up space for different contributions are a great idea. If we are aiming to reach a quick joint decision, or to have a feisty back-and-forth debate, then other modes of communication might work better.

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Is infidelity good or bad for relationships?

I was asked onto Sunday Morning Live (BBC1) this morning to discuss whether infidelity can be a good thing for relationships.

The question comes off the back of the publication of a couple of recent books which make the argument that affairs can be very positive experiences for those who have them, and that it is our cultural attitude about infidelity that is the problem, rather than infidelity itself.

Infidelity is good for relationships?

For example, in his latest book How to Think More About Sex, philosopher Alain de Botton argues that we must not underestimate how tempting and exhilarating affairs can be, nor how difficult it is to stay with one partner over our increasingly long life-spans. This is especially tough with all the (historically recent) pressure for genuine love and passionate sex to last through illness, children, conflicts, and all the other challenges that long term relationships face. Alain de Botton argues that:

spouses should not blame each other for occasional infidelities; instead they should feel proud that, for the most part, they have managed to remain committed to their union

He suggests that it takes immense patience and kindness not to sleep around and also not to end up hating one another.

In sociologist Catherine Hakim’s latest book The New Rules, she argues that high rates of marital breakdown can be linked to puritanical approaches to infidelity. She suggests that internet dating and ‘playfairs’ (recreational sex) could actually be a path to happier relationships, and certainly should not inevitably lead to break-up.

But what about honesty?

There is a lot to commend the fact that de Botton and Hakim are questioning the taken-for-granted rules which people have applied to relationships, pointing out the historical and cultural shifts which have left us with the current attitudes we have towards infidelity: that it is a terribly thing and should inevitably result in the end of the relationship.

However I’m surprised, when reading extracts from these books, that both authors seem content to accept, as taken-for-granted, that people must get married and that any additional relationship must take the form of a (sexual) affair. They question whether infidelity should always be viewed so negatively, but they don’t seem to seriously question whether there might be other ways of doing relationships which offer alternatives to the marriage plus secret affairs model.

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Sex Critical?

There’s a great new blog up by a colleague of mine called Sex Critical.

In the first post the author defines what they mean by the term which is an attempt to move beyond the dichtomy of ‘sex positive’ and ‘sex negative’. New sex-related phenomena (such as the recent 50 Shades trilogy, or any new ‘sexualised‘ trend amongst young people) tend to be met by two responses: either criticism of the ways in which the phenomenon reproduces and reinforces problematic gender roles, and often coercive or violent sexual practices (sex negative), or defence of all sexual practices and erotic materials as liberatory, with an emphasis on people having freedom to choose what they do sexually (sex positive).

[Note: as Radtransfem, commenting on Sex Critical, points out, it is also often the case that the ‘sex’ in ‘sex negative’ and ‘sex positive’ actually means different things. For example, in ‘sex negative’ what is meant is often ‘objectifying-women-negative’ and in ‘sex positive’ what is meant is often ‘diverse-sexual-practices-positive’]

The author of Sex Critical argues for an alternative position to sex negativity/positivity – being sex critical – whereby all sexual representations and practices are considered equally critically. This is an important point because it tends to be non-normative sexualities (such as sadomasochistic sexual practices or lesbian, gay and bisexual sexualities) that are subject to scrutiny in wider society, whereas people rarely question the sexualities that are considered to be ‘normal’. It is also important because there is a tendency for some ‘sex positive’ writers to assume that all sexual representations and practices are inherently good and liberatory, when actually there might be reason to question the ways in which they operate, and problematic norms that may be present.

So being sex critical we wouldn’t assume that any sexual representation or practice was beyond question, or inherently  positive. Rather we would ask questions about it such as how it fits within wider culture, what ideologies it upholds, and whether it really offers any kind of truth about who we are (something that is often assumed about sexuality).

Sex Critical is written by a humanities scholar, so is perhaps more focused on representations of sexuality than on our own sexual practices. From a psychology/therapy perspective I am interested in how the idea of being sex critical might be useful in people’s daily lives. My chapter on sex in Rewriting the Rules certainly has a sex critical flavour as I question how people might be constrained by the cultural rules about what kinds of ‘good’, ‘normal’ or ‘great’ sex we should be aspiring to, and then look at the possibilities that are opened up, and closed down, by various sexual communities who understand and practice sex in different ways to this (e.g. bisexual, sadomasochistic, erotic fan fiction, and asexual communities).

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Tuning out, turning in – Turning out, tuning in

Yesterday I found myself reflecting on two different issues that I think about a lot: depression and conflict.

I’m about to start writing a chapter for my mindfulness book on depression so I’ve been mulling over what the experience of being depressed Is like, and what things help and hinder when we’re in that place. At the same time I’m becoming fascinated and concerned by the processes of conflict between people which seem to inevitably happen in all the academic and activist groups I’m part of. I’m wondering what might be done to maintain some kind of useful dialogue, rather than people convincing themselves that the other side is wrong and bad whilst they are right and good, and thus ceasing all engagement. Even as I see the problems in this approach I recognise the same tendency in myself.

As these two lines of thoughts unfurled themselves yesterday I found that they began to weave together into a similar set of ideas, so I decided to write a little about the patterns that I see in how we experience depression and conflict, and in how the experience can shift. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised that these ideas have come together: I deliberately started my book on relationships with a chapter on the self because of the connections that there are between how we relate to ourselves and how we relate to others.

Depression: Tuning out, turning in
When I reflect on being depressed the experience is one of being simultaneously tuned out, but turned in. What I mean by tuned out is that when we’re depressed many of us become terribly concerned with other people and the outside world. We monitor ourselves closely through the imagined gaze of others and judge what we think they are seeing very harshly. We become anxious about what others will see in us, and frightened that we will get it wrong somehow and be exposed in all our uselessness. Decisions become very difficult because we are so tuned out – trying to be okay for everyone else – that it is almost impossible to tune in to what we want and need ourselves. We might find ourselves busily rushing around trying to please everyone and not letting on how much we are struggling, or we might withdraw from contact as much as possible for fear of what others might see if we let them in close.

At the same time as being tuned out, we are also turned in. Whilst we are hugely concerned with what other people think of us or how we are being seen out in the world, we don’t really see or hear the people around us because we are so turned in and focused on our own struggles. We often spend a great deal of time in internal conversations with ourselves about whether something is wrong with us, what it is, and how we might fix it. We view other people in terms of their danger to us (‘they might see me as I really am!’), or the possibility that they might be able to help (‘maybe they have the answer’), but it is hard for us to make the shift that is necessary to understand how they are feeling and what is going on for them. Often we assume that we are the only person who is this bad and full of problems, and we are so fixated on not showing other people that this is the case, or apologising to them for our perceived wrong-doing, that there is no space available to turn towards their experience and let go of all of our own stuff for a moment.

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Enduring Love?

Monday 16th January saw the launch of a new Open University research project called Enduring Love? Here I will introduce the project and also summarise the talks at the launch about current thinking on relationships, and the pressures they are under.

There has been plenty of research on break-up, divorce and separation. The team behind this project decided that it was time that we knew more about what makes people stay together as well as what makes them split up.

The plan is to get as many people as possible to fill out the online questionnaire so that the researchers can get a good idea of the diversity of ways in which people are experiencing long-term relationships, as well as anything that people who stay together have in common. At the same time, there will be much more in-depth research on sixty couples who will keep a diary of their relationship, take part in interviews together and separately, and explore the way they live and how they feel in their relationship. The detailed research will consider various aspects of the couple relationship such as emotions, sex, commitment, and the way that their partnership fits with other important relationships in their lives. You can already get an idea of the kinds of things people are saying about their relationships from the video clips and podcasts that the team has put together.

The project is called Enduring Love? with a question mark to give the title a double meaning. The researchers are keen to explore what makes relationships work for those who stay together long term and who find that a fulfilling way to live. At the same time it is clear that some couples feel pressured to stay together even when they are very unhappy. It is useful to know what makes an enduring love, as well as what the experience is like when love itself becomes something to be endured. Of course many relationships include elements of both these things: when times are hard the relationship feels like something to be endured, and when things are going well the ‘enduring’ nature of the relationship is something that may be celebrated. Enduring hard times can build intimacy as well as sometimes breaking it.

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Christmas presence

Also appears over on Society Matters.

In Charles Dickens‘s classic festive story, A Christmas Carol (and in the Muppet version of same which is compulsory viewing in our house at this time of year), Scrooge is visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. He is taken back through his childhood to understand the process of how he came to be the unpleasant miser that he is today; he gets to see what Christmas is like at the moment for the people in his life who he has never got to know or care about; and he reluctantly views what the future has in store if he fails to mend his ways: Dying alone with nobody to mourn him.

After these journeys, Scrooge is returned to the present day: Christmas day. He is so appreciative of being given another chance that he delights in everything that previously would have elicited a ‘bah, humbug’. I would argue that one thing we can take from the story – whether or not we celebrate Christmas ourselves – is the value of being present. In understanding ourselves, in really seeing other people for what they are, and in remembering the impermanence of life, we can return to the present more fully than before in a way that is better for ourselves and for others around us.

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The Royal We

Also posted over on Society Matters

With the royal wedding fast approaching it is interesting to consider what advice could be given to Kate and William, or any other young couple marrying in the UK in 2011. If we bring together psychological, sociological and philosophical work on relationships, as well as the experiences of relationship therapists, what are the key things that we could offer to people on the point of tying the knot?

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