Why Pretense Hurts Relationships and How to Eliminate It

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This is the biggest mistake couples make from the moment they first meet and why it almost always leads to failure…

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See the author’s TEDx Talk on Creating Extraordinary Intimacy in a Shut Down World

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Unfortunately, a lot of couples “pretend” that everything is okay, or even great, in their relationship when in fact it is anything but. And there are a lot of rational sounding reasons for doing so. Protecting the kids, not hurting each other’s feelings or avoiding the financial and emotional uncertainty that can come with a breakup. However, relationship pretense really fools no one. Not your close friends, not your kids and, deep down, not even yourselves. And, as a strategy for coping and staying together, it is doomed to fail almost every time…

“I didn’t think you were that handsome.”

I’m not sure why, but Friday evenings after a great night out (usually dancing) seems to bring forth a curious impulse in my Life Partner. She has this way of casually mentioning things that often leave me somewhat flummoxed and my ego crushed, at least momentarily anyway. For example, last night we were reminiscing about a four-day music festival we attended a couple of years ago and how during one of the bigger acts she looked over at me and thought I had the most handsome face in the world. And just as my chest was heaving ardently skyward, she went on to wonder out loud why she hadn’t recognized that fact earlier in our relationship. Never having learned to leave well enough alone, I asked my first stupid follow up question:

Me: “Well, did you not find my face attractive before then?”

Her: “I loved your eyes and your mouth!”

Me: “Okay… but what did you think about my whole face before then?”

Her: “Um… not so much –but I do now!”

Me (silently in my head): “WTF!? – OW!!!!!”

Though it took about an hour for me to nurse my ego back to a semblance of healthy self-confidence again, I realized some very important insights as a result of our exchange. First of all, neither she nor I were what you would call “head over heels” for each other when we first met. We started out as friends before we became romantically involved. While we both found each other interesting, there was not an immediate strong physical attraction on either side.

Secondly, and far more importantly from my perspective, her willingness to be absolutely authentic in her thoughts and feelings is an immensely refreshing departure from my previous relationships. Sure, her forthrightness hurt my ego, but it also bolstered my confidence in knowing I can always count on her to be honest and authentic. The reality is that she is the kind of woman that simply would not stick around if she was not truly attracted to her mate. And, since I have learned to separate my ego from my heart, these briefly painful episodes of authentic sharing can be taken in stride and used to further strengthen our bond.

One of the many surprising things I’ve learned from our relationship is that the longer we are together, the more beautiful and attractive we appear to each other. Even after three years, when I look at her face I am almost overwhelmed by her beauty –inside and out. And I know she feels the same way about me.

Ironically though, I believe this happens because of our authentic communication and not allowing an ounce of pretense to enter into our lives.

From the First Time You Meet

For many people, relationship pretense starts the moment they first meet. It’s almost a cliché how both parties put on their best side to maximally enhance their ability to appear attractive (physically, emotionally, intellectually etc.)

Pretense is like a cancer. Once it takes hold within a relationship it tends to spread and corrupt everything it touches.

Unfortunately, because the way we are wired as human beings with an ego that incessantly demands attention, this is a sure-fire recipe for eventual relationship failure. No matter how wildly attracted you both are in the beginning. And the reason is very simple. Deep down, most of us have a highly refined and intuitive truth detector. The only thing is, it has a very quiet voice –one that is easily drowned out by the strident needs of the ego to feel accepted, “loved” and even taken care of.

When I asked my first wife to marry me 30 years ago, we both knew that we were far from perfect for each other. Though she was (and still is) a wonderful, nurturing woman who would be (and is) an incredible mother to our kids. Likewise, she saw my intensity and drive for “success” to be an attractive quality in terms of supporting our future family, but also knew it would eventually be a source of discontent given her innate need for “normalcy” and equanimity.

So, for lack of risking authentic sharing with each other, we chose to get married. Our marriage lasted 26 years where during the last 11 we were effectively roommates. And, quite frankly, if we hadn’t had the outside focus of having kids and starting several businesses together, I doubt if it would have lasted anywhere near that long.

Everyone Knows Anyway

Pretense is like a cancer. Once it takes hold within a relationship it tends to spread and corrupt everything it touches. Initially it starts out just as hairline cracks that, if left untended, results in the complete crumbling of your beautiful coming together. It also makes it very easy for the ego to ignore the obvious in the hopes that the worst of its fears are not true.

While the ego has a vested interest in not seeing the elephant in the room, it is often glaringly obvious to everyone else around –especially the kids. I remember telling my wife at one point that even though we are putting up a “good front” for them, they will know at some level that all is not well between us. And, we are effectively teaching them how NOT to be authentic in addition to giving them a very distorted view of what intimacy between partners looks like. And sure enough, when we finally did split, my eldest (daughter) actually laughed and said: “Dad, what took you so long?” Where my much more introspective son was devastated because his unspoken fears had come true. Both of them were hurt and damaged in their own ways due to our lack of authenticity. Damage that time hopefully will eventually heal.

Pretense can cause a relationship to end in a number of ways: a) quick death – the relationship ends and you each quietly go your separate ways, b) slow death – you settle and stay together as “comfortable”, yet highly unfulfilled, companions avoiding drama or confrontation at all costs, or c) agonizing death – it devolves into a high-drama contemptuous battle of egos bashing each other while simultaneously seeking unconditional acceptance.

So common, so tragic and so… unnecessary.

Intimacy: In-To-Me-See

True intimacy, the very foundation of any successful long-term relationship, requires giving permission to see each other for who you really are –warts and all. Pretense, by its very definition, precludes this from happening. And people use pretense out of fear of what other people (especially their significant other) may think of them if they allow this to happen. But think about this for a moment: what part of you is fearing this? Your ego or your Heart?

True intimacy, the very foundation of any successful long-term relationship, requires giving permission to see each other for who you really are –warts and all.

This suggests a very straightforward (but not particularly easy) way to avoid pretense once and for all. To lay the foundation for a relationship of true authenticity required me to recognize the distinction between my ego (i.e. false self) and my Heart (i.e. true self). Keep in mind, I’m not saying this duality is true, just that it has been and continues to be a very empowering context or lens through which I view my existence.

Thanks to this context, I am able (most of the time) to see my fears as existential threats to my ego rather than my timeless self. This makes it possible to be fully open to and present for authentic communication with my Life Partner and others.

Now, does this mean I won’t feel pain or the sting of wounding? Of course not. But I would rather be fully aware and feel everything rather than pretend that the pain or fear is not there. This approach also helps with the concern of hurting someone we love by telling them the truth. That fear stems more from how we think they will react and potentially become angry or even abandon us rather than some noble altruistic motive.

If you want your relationship to grow, blossom and become only better over time, there is no room for pretense whatsoever. And once you cross that threshold you will likely find that your significant relationships, as well as your life in general, just became a lot easier and incredibly more fulfilling.

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