Dilemmas: Should we ever `be honest'?

Dennis's girlfriend read a book on relationships, and they had an `honesty' session. He told of old affairs and said she was overweight; she said she was still a bit in love with her old boyfriend. This has driven them apart. How honest should you be in a relationship?

VIRGINIA'S ADVICE

It makes me squirm to think of Dennis and his girlfriend sitting down in all seriousness to be "honest" with each other. It might be less destructive if they just took it in turns to stab each other with sharp knives. I know they say that "sticks and stones can break your bones and words don't bother me", but the wounds from sticks and stones do heal up eventually, while the things that people say rankle for ever, however hard you try to forget them.

And anyway, what does "being honest" mean? Surely it doesn't mean being hurtful when there's no need to be? Or does it mean "not being dishonest" - a very different matter? And where do good manners and respect for your partner come in?

Is saying: "Well, yes, I suppose you could lose a couple of pounds" any less honest than saying: "You're fat"? What about: "Yes, you have been putting on weight, but I'll always love you whatever size you are." It's usually possible to be completely honest, but elegant and polite and kind at the same time. Rather than say: "How could you have been so rude to our host?" you could say: "I think you hurt our host quite a lot by what you said, although I'm sure you didn't mean to. It didn't do you justice."

Honesty is a bit like a lemon. Not very nice if it's forced, whole, down your throat all at once, but perfectly delicious if added to another dish. I have said the most frightful things to people, but added to a cream sauce as it were. Instead of telling me to get lost they have almost invariably said that they appreciated my honesty, and have taken it as a compliment.

Anyway, what is honest or not is often a question of mood. "You're fat and selfish" is something you can think on a Wednesday, but on Thursday, after he's spontaneously visited your old mother in a nursing-home and then taken you out to dinner, you might think: "You're generous, lovely and cuddly". Which is the "honest" view? I suppose you could do things the American self-help book way: "Today I am irritated by your weight problem and can only see your selfish side." But although it's an absolutely splendid way to talk in theory, I don't know a single soul who, though they endorse the idea behind it, can bring themselves to speak like that. Perhaps because it means you'd have to say the nice things that way, too. "I love you" would turn into: "Today I feel great love for you". Not very comforting. I mean, cripes, what about tomorrow?

In his diaries, James Lees-Milne wrote, having been asked by his wife whether he thought she had a sense of humour and replied that he didn't think she did: "People take it as the deadliest insult to be told they lack sense of humour; it is worse than being told their breath stinks. I shouldn't have said what I said. The truth is, one cannot be candid, or honest with one's dearest. One cannot be honest or truthful. Truth is not Beauty. It is something to be hidden in the deepest depths of one's inmost being. One must act all the time."

I don't think Dennis and his girlfriend should act all the time. They should be honest - but only when honesty is called for, and not as an end in itself. They must never, never, be "brutally" honest or, indeed, brutally anything. Honesty is no excuse for being rude, disrespectful, hurtful or unloving. Honesty is terribly important; but so is presentation.

READERS' SUGGESTIONS

Honesty is the best policy

In a long-term relationship, anything less than honesty engenders mistrust and stores up a wealth of future problems. For the first three years of my current (very long-term) relationship, I did not allow my partner to see me without make-up - fearing that he would surely leave if he saw "the real me". However, I plucked up courage, braced myself and left it off one day. He didn't notice. He is three stone overweight and I would quite like him to lose some of this; however, it in no way diminishes my feelings for him, as he is well aware. One should invest only in a relationship that is true, underpinned by trust and love. Too many people accept romantic myths, self-delusion and empty flattery. The divorce courts are full of people who have bought and sold fairy tales about each other. These are cheap, come without guarantees and carry a high long-term cost, emotionally and financially.

BETTY B

Birkenhead, Merseyside

No such thing as a clean slate

Don't use a "getting-to-know-you" period as a confessional: there's nothing to be gained by trying to start a new relationship with a mythical clean slate because you both will have past experiences (unless you're very young) which you will undoubtedly wish to conceal. Past relationships will have helped you to mature, and made you what you are today. Be truthful, but I'd advise caution about being too inquisitive of each other. Each of you may have secrets that may upset the other if revealed.

You're being too introspective as a pair, maybe. Chuck the How-to-do- Relationships book away and join a tennis or squash club. You'll have far more fun and learn more about each other.

MARTYN LLOYD

Woodbridge, Suffolk

It's time to move on

Maybe telling you about it was an opportunity for her to let go of feelings for her old boyfriend. Sometimes I view the feelings within our hearts as having limited space to exist in.

Tell your girlfriend how much you love her now. The past is gone. Look to the future and enjoy your present.

ANNA GILLESPIE

Glasgow

Next Week's Dilemma

Dear Virginia,

I'm 36 and recently realised that I desperately want children.

I've been going out with a man for three years but we keep splitting up. Now he's got broody, too, and wants children. Should I break with this man and try to find a more stable relationship? If so I'm afraid of never having children. Or should we just go for it and see what happens?

Yours sincerely, Wendy

Anyone with advice quoted will be sent a bouquet from . Send letters and dilemmas to Virginia Ironside, `The Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, fax 0171-293 2182; e-mail dilemmas@independent.co. uk, giving a postal address for a bouquet

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