Just how honest are you with your partner? We know that “honesty is the best policy” when it comes to establishing trust within a relationship—but is there such a thing as too much honesty? For example, if your partner cooked a pasta dish that you absolutely loathed, will you tell them the truth or will you spare their feelings with a white lie?
Lying to your partner might not sit well with you, no matter how small the lie, and that makes sense. “Honesty is integral to a relationship because it builds trust and emotional intimacy between partners, fostering a deeper connection and understanding,” Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a NYC-based neuropsychologist and Director of Comprehend the Mind, tells Lifehacker. “It enables open communication and conflict resolution, allowing both individuals to address issues and concerns constructively. Without honesty, a relationship may suffer from breaches of trust, miscommunication, and a lack of emotional safety.”
Of course, being honest to your partner about not liking their cooking is much different than, say, being transparent about your finances before getting married. These are known as the two types of honesty— discretionary and obligatory—and according to a 2013 study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, they are found in every relationship, each with its own causes and consequences.
Below, experts explain the difference between the two types of honesty and when to use each with your partner.
The two types of honesty: obligatory versus discretionary
Obligatory honesty “emanates from a partner’s mutual agreements about what should be openly revealed in a relationship,” Dr. Carla Marie Manly, clinical psychologist and author of Date Smart, tells Lifehacker. “Obligatory honesty generally refers to issues that impact partners’ ability to connect emotionally, mentally, and in the physical realm. A significant failure in the realm of obligatory honesty can have relationship-ending consequences.”
Agreements on obligatory honesty—while often may be implicit or explicit—are often created early on in a relationship, says Manly, and may differ dramatically from one relationship to another. These agreements often relate to issues such as sexuality, finances, co-created ventures, and household issues.
Discretionary honesty, on the other hand, are what some might call errors of omission or even “white lies,” which Manly says can create a slippery slope. “At its best, discretionary honesty involves the omission of pieces of information that are irrelevant to the relationship. At its worst, discretionary honesty is used to deceive a partner in ways that may seem minor at the time but create damage to the relationship in the long term.” In some cases, partners have clear agreements about what they feel is unnecessary to disclose, says Manly, such as discussions with a best friend, family of origin dynamics, or private work issues—”yet in many cases couples have unspoken rules about discretionary honesty dynamics.” This explains why, according to Haffez, discretionary honesty “involves a willingness to be truthful and transparent voluntarily, even when there is no explicit obligation. Discretionary honesty is driven by personal values, a desire to build stronger relationships, and a commitment to open communication.”
When to use obligatory honesty
Because obligatory honesty is all about setting a solid foundation of security, Manly says it’s an essential element of the dating process. “When two people begin their relationship with a foundation of obligatory honesty, they are more likely to create the trust and safety that are critical for lasting relationships,” she says.
This is why disclosing previous relationships is key, says Hafeez. “Being obligatorily honest about past relationships, including disclosing any previous marriages, children, or significant life events, allows couples to have a clear understanding of each other’s history,” she explains. “This honesty helps build trust and ensures that both partners are aware of potential impacts on the current relationship.”
Financial matters are another important part of obligatory honesty. “Couples often need to be obligatorily honest with each other about their financial situations,” Hafeez says. “This includes sharing information about debts, income, expenses, and financial goals. Honesty in financial matters is crucial for making informed decisions, budgeting effectively, and building trust when managing joint finances.”
However, the need for obligatory honesty doesn’t stop once partners have become committed; in fact, the need for obligatory honesty continues throughout the life of the relationship.
“When we combine lives, it’s important to be fully honest about essential elements such as prior relationship history, sexual preferences, mental health issues, and other vital elements of one’s life,” Manly explains.
When to use discretionary honesty
According to Hafeez, discretionary honesty comes into play when one partner chooses to share their personal insecurities and vulnerabilities with the other. “By being open about their fears or self-doubts, they create a space where both partners can offer support and reassurance, fostering a deeper emotional connection,” she says. This also includes when a partner decides to disclose past mistakes or regrets that may not directly impact the current relationship. “This openness allows both partners to learn from each other’s experiences and offer empathy and understanding.”
You should also use discretionary honesty, says Manly, when a partner asks for feedback. “Discretionary honesty can involve holding back just enough to ensure that the comments are helpful and well-received,” she explains. Additionally, she says when family of origin dynamics get testy, “it’s often appropriate—and sometimes even necessary—to leave out details that might later impact the quality of a partner’s relationship with extended family members.” Although, she adds, “It’s never wise to leave out details that affect a partner’s well-being or the health of the romantic relationship.”