A recent Twitter post by Nathan Fielder asked his followers to text their partners and say “I haven’t been fully honest with you.” If that isn’t anxiety provoking enough, they also weren’t supposed to respond to any reply sent by their partner for one hour.1 Not only is this a brilliant comedic premise, but it also provides a great example of an “interpersonal dilemma.” Interpersonal dilemmas are situations where people face competing motives such that they can either respond in a way that harms the relationship or in a way that benefits the relationship.2 The interpersonal dilemma created by those who followed through with Nathan Fielder’s tweet is socially risky because the people receiving the ambiguous text are unsure if they’re about to be accepted or rejected.3 Their romantic partner could say, “I haven’t been fully honest with you...I’ve been cheating on you with your best friend.” Or “I haven’t been fully honest with you...I think you have the most beautiful eyes I have ever seen.” (Although, what kind of jerk starts a compliment with “I haven’t been fully honest with you…”?)
How people respond to ambiguous messages depends on their personality and their relationship history (e.g., if cheating has occurred in the past).3 People who are higher in attachment anxiety,4 who have lower self-esteem,5 or who are sensitive to rejection6 tend to read more into and interpret ambiguous situations negatively. People with higher attachment anxiety also often have a harder time trusting others.2 So they might put their partner down or distance themselves from their partner after receiving a text message indicating that trust might not be warranted. For example, some people responded to “I haven’t been fully honest with you” and the subsequent silence by breaking up with their partner.
People who are secure – i.e., those who are lower in attachment anxiety, who have higher self-esteem, or who are less sensitive to rejection tend to interpret ambiguous situations more positively. Because of past relationship experiences, people who are secure often approach relationships with the goal of having a great relationship.3 They also have an easier time trusting their partners.2 Receiving that same text message from a romantic partner might still make them want to respond in a way that could harm the relationship, but their motivation to make the relationship great overrides any selfish impulses.5 So they might forgive, think more positively, and feel closer to the partner.5 If they automatically trust their partner, then they’ll respond positively even if they’re distracted.7 For example, one person responded to “I haven’t been fully honest with you…” with “Your [sic] not using positive communication strategies right now,” and another person responded with “Ok Don Draper.”8
Ultimately, it boils down to trust. Trust is a key component to healthy relationships (and a healthy body), and it is built over time by depending on and committing to the relationship and by behaving in ways that benefit the relationship even if they do not directly benefit the self (e.g., by compromising when an issue comes up).2 By putting the relationship first, trust involves making yourself vulnerable to being hurt. The fear of getting hurt is why receiving a text saying, “I haven’t been fully honest with you” taps into the wariness people have of trusting others and can be a quick way to place a foundation of trust on shaky ground. If that ground is already shaky from previous experiences in or outside of the relationship, then negative outcomes, like breakup, are likely to occur (see reply texts from angry partners for examples).
Take home message: Interpersonal dilemmas are a given in relationships. If you ever receive a text from your partner that reads “I haven’t been fully honest with you,” or something similarly ambiguous, take a breath. Although you might feel the need to respond to text messages immediately, when it’s ambiguous and playing into doubts that you may or may not consciously have, try to draw on past positive experiences and give your partner the benefit of the doubt. Hey, he or she could be following Nathan Fielder on Twitter.
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1Tucker, R. (2013, May 30). Prankster Nathan Fielder asks Twitter followers to text ‘I haven’t been fully honest with you’ to partner; chaos predictably follows. The National Post. Retrieved from http://arts.nationalpost.com
2Wieselquist, J., Rusbult, C. E., Foster, C. A., & Agnew, C. R. (1999). Commitment, pro-relationship behavior, and trust in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 942-966. doi:10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2062
3Murray, S. L., Holmes, J. G., & Collins, N. L. (2006). Optimizing assurance: The risk regulation system in relationships. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 641-666. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.132.5.641
4Collins, N. L. (1996). Working models of attachment: Implications for explanation, emotion, and behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 810-832. doi:10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.110
5Murray, S. L., Rose, P., Bellavia, G. M., Holmes, J. G., & Kusche, A. (2002). When rejection stings: How self-esteem constrains relationship-enhancement processes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 556-573. doi:10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.1686
6Downey, G., & Feldman, S. I. (1996). Implications of rejection sensitivity for intimate relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 1327-1343. doi:10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.1247
7Murray, S. L., Pinkus, R. T., Holmes, J. G., Harris, B., Gomillion, S., Aloni, M., & ... Leder, S. (2011). Signaling when (and when not) to be cautious and self-protective: Impulsive and reflective trust in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101, 485-502. doi:10.1037/a0023233
8Molloy, M. (2013, May 31). ‘I haven’t been entirely honest’ – Cruel text prank leaves partners furious. Metro News. Retrieved from http://metro.co.uk
Lisa Hoplock, M.Sc. - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Lisa's research examines how personality traits like self-esteem and attachment influence interpersonal processes in ambiguous social situations -- situations affording both rewards and costs -- such as social support contexts, relationship initiation, and marriage proposals.