Is honesty always the best policy in a marriage? What would George Eliot advise?

February 22, 2021
Is honesty always the best policy in a marriage?  What would George Eliot advise?
George Eliot enjoyed walks along the River Thames pictured above when she lived in East Sheen in 1855
Irish Breakfast tea with a splash of milkJohann Sebastian Bach: Concerto for 2 violins in d BWV 1043

Dear Erica,

There are a number of things about my husband that are driving me crazy right now. In particular, his refusal to call a plumber when the toilet jams up, because of course he knows how to fix it, even though he never actually does. And then just recently, a new neighbor moved in next door with washboard abs, and my husband’s love of donuts and growing gut is looking less and less appealing. Should I tell him how I feel? Would it help our relationship? Or will I do more damage?


Hesitant in Houston

Dear Hesitant in Houston,

I think you know the answer to your own question. As George Eliot would argue, too much honesty in any relationship can be as destructive as too much dishonesty. As she writes in Felix Holt, the Radical, “Half the sorrows of women would be averted if they could repress the speech they know to be useless; nay, the speech they have resolved not to utter.” You know you should not remind your husband about the last time they tried to fix the toilet but then broke it instead, or ask if eating that second donut is really a good idea. But, the words seem to come out of your mouth unconsciously and start a storm of trouble.

If your issue is something that he is unwilling or unable to change(and quite frankly, when it comes to men, that is usually the case with most issues), it may be better to leave it alone.

In Middlemarch, also by George Eliot, the beautiful young bride, Rosamond wishes her husband, Lydgate, had a more gentlemanly profession and foolishly admits she does not respect his job.

She tells him, ““I do _not_ think it(medicine) is a nice profession, dear.”” And his response reflects the pain her remark causes. “It is the grandest profession in the world, Rosamond,” said Lydgate, gravely. “And to say that you love me without loving the medical man in me, is the same sort of thing as to say that you like eating a peach but don’t like its flavour. Don’t say that again, dear, it pains me.”

By vocalizing her displeasure with his profession, Rosamond shakes the foundations of their marriage. And though their marriage endures, Lydgate’s feelings for his wife change and he eventually refers to her as his “basil plant”, or as he sarcastically explains, “a plant that flourished wonderfully on a murdered man’s brains”.

It might be easier just to call the plumber when your husband is not around and deal with it quickly and quietly. His desire to fix the toilet might have more to do with him wanting to prove he is still useful. And despite the growing gut, he wants to remind you that he is still the man you married. And yes, washboard abs are nice, but George Eliot will be the first to tell you that they are not the secret to a happy marriage. Couching the issue in concern for his health might be the safest way to cut down on the donuts.

As you consider the pros and cons of broaching difficult issues with your husband, I would advise you to remember that although his faults may drive you crazy, they also add to his “flavour”. And consider how you would feel if he was honest with you about some of your faults. Would you mind if he said you’d look better if you lost a few pounds, or informed you that those dishes you spent hours making were tasteless? Too much honesty has destroyed many a marriage, whether you live in the the 19th century or the 21st century.