Honesty is essential in any relationship and a key component of building trust. But brutal honesty, well, that's a different story. Often people disguise these types of cruel comments or judgemental behavior as "just being real," but if left unchecked, it can lead to a toxic relationship dynamic. The red flag is literally in the term brutal honesty.
Still, differentiating between healthy honesty versus brutal honesty can be tricky, especially when there are many other relationship red flags to look out for (and green, yellow, and orange flags, too). To help with this, below experts spell out the difference between the two, explain how brutal honesty can morph into emotional abuse, and share tips on what to do if someone is brutally honest with you.
Healthy honesty vs. brutal honesty
Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, an New York City-based neuropsychologist and director of Comprehend the Mind, defines healthy honesty as being open with each other without judgment, which helps build trust over time. "Your partner should care about your feelings and be able to empathize with you, even if they are right," she says. "There needs to be a mutual level of respect between both parties."
Susan Trombetti, a relationship expert, matchmaker, and CEO of Exclusive Matchmaking, says some examples of healthy honesty include offering constructive criticism and using positive, encouraging, or uplifting language to help you get out of a negative situation. It can also look like asking if you're okay if they've noticed emotional or behavioral changes, or telling you an idea may not be the best option.
Brutal honesty, on the other hand, Dr. Hafeez explains is when the “honesty” is aimed at you as a person versus your actions (i.e., "you're so stupid"), lacks compassion, comes off across as aggressive, and is said with the sole intention of hurting you. In other words, Trombetti says brutal honesty is when the comments are more like insults rather than genuine constructive criticisms.
Why brutal honesty can be a relationship red flag
Not only is it hurtful to be on the receiving end of those brutally honest remarks, but it also creates an unequal dynamic between partners, and harms the receiver's self-esteem in the process. "If your partner is seen as flawless while they constantly point out your shortcomings, you both find yourselves at opposite ends of the spectrum," Dr. Hafeez says. "Your partner can seem saintly for staying with you, while you may feel lucky to even be in their presence. When there is such a massive power distance, the entire relationship dynamic is off. There is no healthy way to sustain a relationship where one partner is held in such high esteem compared to the other."
Furthermore, Dr. Hafeez adds that brutal honesty can also be a form of manipulating someone to stay in the relationship. This is when brutal honesty leans into emotional abuse territory. "Abusers may sometimes do this to keep their partner's self-esteem low; this way, they feel that nobody else could ever love them and, therefore, staying with their abusive partner is their only option," Dr. Hafeez says. "Similarly, if your partner constantly puts you down, they are now set on a metaphorical pedestal. This leads to feeling like you're not good enough to be with anybody else and reinforces the notion that you must stay with this partner to be loved."
What to do if your partner is brutally honest
There are many reasons why someone may be brutally honest in their communication. For instance, Trombetti notes it may stem from their childhood growing up with parents who were also brutally honest, and they don't realize how toxic it can be. Or, it could be a defense mechanism employed to appear more assertive.
So, the hurtful comments may not always be intentional. The person may not even realize how it affects you. For this reason, as a first course of action, Dr. Hafeez recommends being honest with them about how it makes you feel. "Tell them how their words hurt," she says. From there, the other person may respond positively and be willing to change their actions based on your feedback. However, Dr. Hafeez says, if the pattern of brutal honesty continues, that can lead to emotional abuse, in which case it may be time to leave the relationship.
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