There’s a problem I’ve been seeing a lot since I started doing couple’s counseling with rationalists: we are, on the whole, uncomfortable with lying, particularly to people we care about, even if it’s for a good cause. Being put in a position where someone asks you to lie to them can feel like a gear grinding in the head, or a disembodying from your true self, or a sense of suddenly walking on eggshells.
Not just rationalists feel this way, of course, but the following exchange is nearly ubiquitous in normal romantic culture:
“Do you think [bad thing will happen]?”
“Of course not, everything will be fine.”
On an intellectual level, the person asking often knows that their partner can’t actually promise this. But for many people, particularly in times of crisis, words to the effect of “Everything will be fine” are comforting, and all they’re really asking for in that moment is emotional reassurance. There’s nothing wrong with that, any more than there is a desire for aspirin when you have a headache.
Meanwhile, this is what might happen for rationalists:
“I’m scared of [bad thing happening].”
“Well, there’s a chance that it does, of course, but on net it doesn’t seem likely.”
or, if it does seem likely:
“Well… [brain lock]… Uh… [something meant to be reassuring but undermined by tone and affect].”
And sometimes the issue isn’t even about probabilities at all:
“Have I gained weight/does this make me look fat?”
“Are we going to be together forever?”
“Do you think they’re more attractive than I am?”
“Does it bother you when I get really sad for no reason?”
Again, it’s taken as the default in general romantic culture that what matters in responses are that they are reassuring, not that they’re true. Most people in normal culture would react with indignant outrage on their friend’s behalf if told that a spouse gave an honest answer to any of the above that reaffirmed the insecurity.
And again, even for other rationalists, the person asking may know that they’re putting their partner in a double bind, but the thing they want is not actually a “comforting lie.” Many people, particularly rationalists, really appreciate a partner who will be scrupulously honest with them.
But what still matters more than the object-level question is answering the implicit query:
“[I’m feeling insecure; do I have reason to be?]”
Which is why it might help to see the desire for verbal reassurance as similar to the desire for a hug; it’s about the sensation and the signal, and those can be provided without saying anything that feels false.
First, its important to reiterate that this is meant to be a way to reassure someone who is having a bad time, not a method of “fixing” underlying insecurities. Everyone needs a hug now and then, and sometimes all you can do for a cold is pop some aspirin. If there seems like a deeper issue at play then resolving that requires more in-depth discussion than this article is going to cover.
Second, I am not suggesting platitudes. If you can’t think of something both honest and reassuring to say, that’s a separate problem; if your partner wants reassurance that you love them or are committed to the relationship, and you can’t give that, don’t make it seem otherwise.
Third, remember to be ready to reverse all advice. Some people do actually want to be told “Yes, that makes you look fat.” But hopefully you will learn this through the relationship itself, and often even in those cases people don’t just want radical honesty, but also reassurance and understanding; this article is trying to help those who have already tried addressing the object-level and found their partner wasn’t reassured, without ignoring the possibility that they did in fact want object-level reassurance about improbability and wanted more emotional reassurance.
Speaking of which… a related problem is the one where people are unsure if their partner wants to “vent” or “problem solve,” and this post has advice on that which is very relevant here too.
…my answer is almost always “I want to understand my problem better, feel understood, and be reassured that the people important to me agree that this is a real problem, or at least that they support me in general. If understanding itself doesn’t solve the problem I will want to problem solve after I understand it”.
Similarly, people expressing insecurity through unanswerable questions often want to feel understood, and reassured, and maybe then also problem solve. That might look something like:
Am I getting fat?
What’s making you think that?
I no longer fit into these pants.
I’m sorry, I know you like those pants. I think you look great, but maybe we can find another pair you might like as much?
But that’s a nuanced and context dependent maneuver, not a one-size-fits-all password. The point of this post is to highlight to those who ask questions like this why their partner might have trouble answering them, and help those who are asked these questions understand what’s really being asked for is not always an answer to what’s being asked.
The root generator you want to tap into here is the one that creates your own optimism. What do you feel good/safe/confident about that you can share with your partner? What truth about yourself or your relationship do you want them to take comfort from?
“Do you think I’m going to get long COVID?”
“Either way, I’m here for you. We’ll get through it together.”
“Are you attracted to them?”
“Not the way I am you. You’re the only one I want to be with.”
“Do you think we’re going to make it through this?”
“I don’t know what the future holds, but I’m with you because I believe in us.”
“I hate how depressed I get all the time. I feel like I’m never going to be ‘normal.’”
“I know that must be frustrating, but I want you to know that I love you, and feel so lucky to be with you.”
And so on. For that last one, conversely, a bold prediction like “Don’t worry, I’m sure you will someday” could be counterproductive even in normal romantic culture. Some might want that object-level reassurance, but for others it would be missing the point; the actual thing they want is, again, to know that your love and support isn’t dependent on that happening.
Remember, try to find words that are true for you and feel right for your partner, and stay curious about what your partner is actually seeking in those situations; it may change over time, or be different in one context vs another. Then, once the moment is past, talk to them about it! Ask them what they felt when they asked something, what they meant by it, how your response was, what they would like to hear more of or less of.
There are also of course physical things you can and should do as well; touch is important for comfort and reassurance, as are gifts and acts of service. If you own a scale and your partner asks “Have I gained weight,” there are some pretty good ways to show that you find your partner attractive, and that question is a decent signal that you should do them more often.