Image: Marcellus Laroon the Younger. A Harliquinade: 1735
"Self-deception remains the most difficult deception," Joan Didion wrote in her 1968 essay "On Self-Respect." Few of us are lucky enough to have avoided the heartbreak that comes from trusting someone who subsequently betrays us. The original transgression, the betrayal, is painful, but even more painful is the realization that we've betrayed ourselves—that we saw the signs and could have predicted the disastrous outcome from the start.
Why are we willing to overlook qualities or behaviors that nag us as problematic? Why don't we listen to our blaring inner alarms? Maybe it's simply that we want to see the best in people. Or, if you're anything like I was during my 20s, when I dated a succession of rude, angry and passive-aggressive guys, your motivations are frequently less noble: loneliness, lust, boredom, insecurity. Often, too, others are on their best behavior in the honeymoon stage of a relationship; we allow ourselves to be seduced by fun times or grand gestures and are then shocked when a very different person emerges in times of adversity.
If we had a set of questions that would allow us to figure when someone has made an honest mistake and when they've shown you, to quote Maya Angelou, "who they are," we might save ourselves a tremendous amount of pain and grief. Not to mention energy. And drama. Instead of vigilantly trying to interpret another person's actions (Was that malicious or a misunderstanding? Did he get busy and forget to call, or was he just plain rude?), we could determine for ourselves what's really going on. We went to a handful of experts for help coming up with five questions to ask about any relationship—whether a friendship, a romance or a business partnership:
How does this person treat the busboy?
"When people are acting disrespectful, contemptuous or superior, pay attention to that," says John Gottman, PhD, author of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work and co-founder, with his wife Julie Gottman, PhD, of the Gottman Institute. It can be easy to justify less-than-stellar behavior when it's directed toward yourself but more difficult to ignore it when you see it aimed at others. We can learn a lot by observing how the person in question treats his family, his friends, the waiter at the restaurant who forgets to put the dressing on the side. "If they kick their dog," says Harville Hendrix, PhD, best-selling author of Getting the Love You Want, "they're probably not going to treat you very well either."
Is this person truthful?
This seems an obvious question—and yet we're frequently willing to overlook or explain away a person's tendency to fib, mislead, or omit crucial details. Does your friend say she's staying home and later post pictures from a party online? Does your spouse tell you he's investing money back into the family business when he's really spending it on the sly? "You simply can't have a relationship if you lie to one another," says Robert Sternberg, PhD, provost and senior vice president of Oklahoma State University and author of The New Psychology of Love.
Knowing whether someone is honest is important because it raises another question: Can I trust this person? "If you don't have trust, you have no reliability," Hendrix says. "You can't make predictions, and if you can't make predictions then you have anxiety and conflict."
I had precisely this experience when I first began dating my fiancé. The issue was minor—I was flaky when it came to keeping travel commitments—but the effects on our relationship were not. I'd cancel or move a flight without a thought, my fiancé would get anxious and critical, and an argument would ensue. Eventually, I realized that it all came down to one fundamental issue: He couldn't trust me to follow through with plans. Not only was I showing him who I was with this behavior (disorganized, terrible at managing time, anxious when pinned down by commitments), I was also, I realized after we discussed it, showing him who I didn't want to be.
Next: Does this person really listen to you?