Stronger at the Broken Places

How challenges can strengthen your relationship

Full Disclosure, It’s Not What You Think It Is

How Much Information Do You Really Owe Your Partner?

The term “full disclosure” gets tossed about quite a bit these days. It’s one of those phrases that seems to arouse strong opinions in people. There are those who believe that there are some things that are best left unsaid, and that revealing what they consider to be unnecessary detail is just asking for trouble. Then there are those who believe that the withholding of any information about one’s past is a form of dishonesty and if/when that news comes to the attention of one’s partner from any source other than him or her, the damage to the trust level in the relationship can be extreme.  

The answer to the question of whether or not couples should practice full disclosure must be preceded by the answer to the question of what full disclosure actually means. From our perspective, what it doesn’t mean is to share all of the details of one’s past experiences (particularly those that relate to one’s sex life), in as much detail as possible. It has more to do with a willingness to reveal on an ongoing basis, what is arising in our field of thoughts, feelings, concerns, desires, needs, and whatever aspects of our ongoing experience that are relevant to our current relationship. In other words, what we are disclosing has at least as much to do with what is happening for us in our current experience, as it has to do with what we’ve done in the past.

This requires each person to have developed the capacity for self-reflection and self-awareness of their own moment-to-moment experience. This awareness doesn’t require us to continually report out every feeling that we have, but it has to do with the willingness to do so when what is going within us is relevant to our relationship. To withhold such information could diminish the quality of the connection, including the level of trust, understanding, and intimacy.

What determines what is relevant? That is for each couple to decide. If I went to the store and I had trouble deciding what toothpaste to purchase, that’s not relevant to the relationship. On the other hand, if last night I came home three hours later than I usually do most couples would consider it legitimate to ask where I had been. By the same token, my partner has a right to know something about my relationship history, although the amount of detail that is appropriate to share is a matter that is entirely up to both of us to agree upon. If I am feeling upset in response to something that my partner did or said to me, concealing or denying that feeling would be a violation of an agreement of full disclosure and could do damage to our relationship. Full disclosure is about being transparent and honest with each other out of the intention of promoting deeper trust, respect, and integrity in the relationship. It’s up to each couple to come to agreement in regard to what constitutes relevancy and importance and to practice the sharing of that information. When there is a difference of opinion as to what constitutes sufficient importance, it’s best, in general to take the conservative path and go with the partner who needs a higher degree of disclosure. Over time as trust builds, the need for greater disclosure often diminishes.

Many people believe a full disclosure agreement requires them to confess all their embarrassing, uncomfortable, or shame-filled experiences from their past. This point of view holds disclosure as a kind of confession that is expressed out of a hope of experiencing some degree of absolution in the revealing of these experiences. There is a significant difference between own feelings while simultaneously being connected to those of the other. If you add to this, the additional distraction of the TV, another person, a cell phone, or any other third ingredient, even a distracting thought about something other than the issue at hand, it’s nearly impossible to have a meaningful conversation. It’s necessary to create a “distraction-free zone”, one in which both partners can feel assured that there will be no competition for attention. To do this it is necessary to set a context that will support forgiveness and disclosure.

Both giving as well as receiving information in the disclosure process can be challenging since the process may activate strong emotions in each partner. The person who is receiving information from their partner is challenged to tune into their own response to the communication, and to report out about what they are experiencing. It’s necessary for partners to honor their disclosure, one that is free of any other activity that requires any degree of awareness from us.

When two people agree to a full-disclosure agreement, they create a way of being together that is different from the way that most couples relate. It is not simply a matter of bringing more information into the relationship. We can’t practice full disclosure unless we have created a context within the structure of the relationship that will support it. The essential ingredients of such relationships are: sufficient time to process the information, the capacity for self-awareness, mutual trust, and a shared appreciation of the value of this kind of communication.

Some of the payoffs of practicing this kind of disclosure include: A sense of ease and peace of mind that promotes greater security on the part of both partners, greater closeness and shared intimacy a feeling of being seen and known for who we are, fears, flaws, and all. A feeling of freedom to bring up any subject that we feel the need to discuss without fear of being judged or reprimanded. A sense that nothing is taboo. A feeling that we are truly loved and respected for who we are, rather than for providing the persona that conforms to the expectations of others. An absence of the fear that “if they really knew me, they wouldn’t love me”.

When two people create an agreement to this kind of self-disclosure, they open the door to possibilities that don’t exist in relationships in which withholding of any forms of dishonesty are tolerated. This kind of connection isn’t an overnight creation, but rather is one that is built slowly, gradually, lovingly and patiently over time. It begins with a willingness that each partner brings to the relationship to engage each other with openness, authenticity, vulnerability, and honesty. This may seem like a tall order, particularly given the level of integrity that many couples settle for in their relationships, but when you consider the benefits, it’s a pretty low price for a very great return. We’d call that a fantastic bargain!

Linda Bloom, L.C.S.W., and Charlie Bloom, M.S.W., are the authors of Secrets of Great Marriages: Real Truths from Real Couples About Lasting Love.

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