When Should I Have Told You? Negative Surprises that Hurt Relationships

Should you tell a potential partner a vulnerable secret?

Posted May 16, 2011

One of the most difficult dilemmas people face in the dating world is when to tell potential partners something that could scare them away. They hope that embarrassing histories might fare better when they've had a chance to secure a stronger footing first.

Even after we develop trust between us in a therapeutic setting, my patients often wait a long time before they reveal potentially off-putting stories. It can be gut-wrenching to talk about their financial mistakes, religious beliefs, family skeletons, traumas, failed relationships, quirky tastes, inheritable illnesses, or past sexual experiences. Most people are understandably nervous about the consequences of sharing delicate information. They anticipate that someone who is important to them will feel critical of what they've shared.

Most people understandably tell new people in their lives the things about them that are more inviting. Some of their past experiences have shown that partners who have grown to love them might forgive their transgressions more easily. They're willing to risk being seen as untrustworthy rather than give up the chance to prove otherwise from a better vantage point.

From what these treasured people have taught me, I've established The Law of No Negative Surprises. It essentially states that: Any data that could ever hurt a potential partner must be disclosed before it does. The statement is meant to prevent the universal difficulty of restoring the loss of trust when partners fail to inform and are found out later. Once told of a potentially damaging negative surprise, any reasonable partner has to think what others may lurk behind. And, interestingly enough, most people would prefer being told anything that might turn them away sooner rather than later. Yet, they find it very hard to do themselves.

The content of these internal struggles varies considerably, but they are universally human. A day doesn't go by that I don't witness these conflicts. Here are some examples:

"When am I obligated to tell my new lover that I've never had an orgasm during intercourse? I've been faking them for years but I really like this guy and I want to be open with him. My deepest fear is that he'll want to know why, and I'm afraid to tell him what happened to me as a child. It's too painful."

"I just wanted to get to know her better before I told her about smoking dope every night. I was hoping she'd like me better by then and would understand that I treat my anxiety that way. I have a medical marijuana card but I'm not an addict. It's the best medicine I've ever had to help me sleep at night. I'm afraid she might not believe me."

"Does someone you love have to know everything bad you've ever done? I've had three abortions and he's Catholic. I'm really scared he'll never forgive me. I've only told a couple of very close friends and they're sworn to secrecy forever. I don't think it'll ever come out. What do you think I should do?"

"If it's never going to affect her, why does she have to know that I used to gamble? I haven't made a bet in over ten years and I'm not going to. I do go to GA meetings every week. Can I just tell her something else when I go? Maybe when she knows me better, she'll trust me more. The last woman I told left me because her dad was a gambler and she didn't want to take any chances."

"He's so insecure about how few women he's been with. I don't think he needs to know how many guys I've dated, do you? I'm not a slut or anything, but I used to be a big party girl. I'm so tame now; he'd never recognize that person anymore. I know I can stay with one guy forever if I really love him."

"She's so fearful about not having enough money, because she grew up so poor. I just can't bring myself to tell her how much I owe to my folks. If she knew how impulsive I was with money at one time, she'd never date me again. I'll get the debt paid off. I cash my check every week and give them something towards the debt. I may never get it completely paid off before I lose them, but my inheritance will cover the balance. I'm really better with money now."

"My doctor says the STD is under control and I probably can't ever infect anyone between break-outs. I can just tell him I'm out of town when I get a breakout so he won't wonder why I can't see him. Besides, lots of people don't ever tell, guys particularly. Why should I have to be the one who's exposed? I've never infected anyone before. Is it wrong to just bury this?"

"Yeah, I was in prison for drugs, but hell, that was twenty years ago. Do I have to parade that out for anyone I meet?"

"I feel entitled to my privacy, secrets included. What he doesn't know can't hurt him, can it? There's no possible way he could find out. The records were sealed because I was under eighteen. I don't want to have to pay for the rest of my life just because I was a stupid teenager."

The list could go on and on. Every facet of human interaction is susceptible to errors. No one is exempt from making mistakes or doing things they later regret. Everyone brings his or her own baggage of embarrassing secrets to every new relationship and has to make the fateful decision of when, whether, or how, to tell a potential partner. An incorrectly timed confession can make or break a new relationship, but the withholding of crucial information discovered too late can do the same.

What guidelines can you use?

Area One - What you need to reveal as soon as possible.

What Anyone Can Find Out About You:
Most everyone I see now immediately looks up someone on Facebook or Google before going very far in a new relationship. The amount of information about you that is readily available would astound most people. Your work history, places you've lived, crimes you've committed, what you earn, what you've done to earn it, or who is important to you and why, are all there for anyone to see.
If you're uncomfortable telling a new person that stuff outright, at least suggest that they look you up, and let them know that you'll answer any questions if they're still interested. Be honest and up-front when they do. The way you present yourself is at least as important as what you've done.

What Needs to be Told:
Anything or anyone that could cause your potential partner direct or indirect harm is better told up front. Of course, STD's are most often the most painful concerns, but there are others. If you're involved in anything illegal, have dated someone close to that new person, are committed to someone else who doesn't know you're out looking, are on parole, have major obligations to other relationships like children, or have serious food allergies, you might want to mention that early on. Face-to-face is always better because that initial interaction might be your last and you're pretty much off the hook. But, if you like each other, you are better off respecting yourself and that person by being honest.

You can preface your statements with something like, "I want you to trust me, so I'm going to share some things about myself up front here. I hope you won't judge me negatively, but I'd rather you know now so you can make that choice before we give up on each other." Ask yourself how you would feel about someone honest enough to share that kind of vulnerability. Even if you didn't want to pursue the relationship further because of what you've been told, you would probably appreciate that person's honesty.

Area Two - What You Will Need to Reveal Soon
If the relationship seems to be progressing and you're spending more time with each other, it's time to reveal deeper issues that might affect the relationship. You should be having a conversation that doesn't necessarily guarantee a forever commitment, but that does require mutual openness about anything that might get in the way.

This is the time to talk about your aspirations and dreams for your own future, and how you see yourself accomplishing them. Commitments take time, energy, and resources away from a relationship unless they are mutual. Tell your potential future partner what your plans are for you past, present, and future obligations, and how important they are to you. Prior relationships that are still around, aging parents that you feel obligated to take care of, how you feel about sharing money, material things that are important, whether you want to have children, any addictions, and what your personality defects might be under certain conditions.

Tell him or her what to expect with a longer and deeper commitment. Share prior relationship successes and failures and what caused them. In short, give your potential partner a preview of what to expect, should he or she get more involved with you. Of course, you want the same honest, vulnerable statements in return.

Area Three - What You Need to Reveal Before You Make a Commitment
Now is the time to tell your lover what they'd have to share to be with you. Where you stand with financial obligations, if you have an inheritable disease, whether you are open to a long-term relationship with that person, what he or she will face with family, prior friendships, business acquaintances, past or present therapy, medicines you are on and why, and any past entanglements that could surface that might affect the relationship.

You're trying to reach a place of trust with this new partner. No double standards, no doing things behind his or her back, and keeping your word. That means telling it like it is, and taking the chance that the love you've created between you will overcome any barriers that may still be left.

Area Four - What You Have a Right to Keep Private
This area is so vulnerable to personal interpretations. Not knowing how another might see your situation, you are understandably reticent to share these memories. You must ask yourself if it is just too painful to share with anyone, or whether you don't trust the person you're with to understand and help you overcome your fears. Privacy is a right. Secrecy is a potential hazard to the intimacy of a relationship. Only the person struggling with the knowledge can decide for him or herself.
Some of the things that my patients have told me they can never share have to do with painful, embarrassing, or primitive feelings. Sexual fantasies that involve bestiality or virginal conquests are examples. Perhaps they've had an embarrassing homosexual experience that left them conflicted about their sexual orientation.

Many people don't want a current lover to know they were once bulimic, or had sex with more than one person at a time. Incest is a very difficult experience to share, especially if the person still has a relationship with the parent who violated him or her in childhood. Some people have made very disastrous financial decisions and feel too foolish to share them. Others have lived for years pretending they graduated college when, in fact, they did not. Many people don't want to reveal a DUI that resulted in someone's being injured.

Whatever your personal reasons are for withholding information, you must be certain that they will never hinder your mutual love and trust should that information emerge. If it does not impair your partner now or ever, or if is something you have resolved that would not set up barriers to love, it is your prerogative to keep it within your private domain.

Wrap Up
Imagine this fantasy. You are on a first date with someone you are truly excited about, and he or she seems to feel the same way about you. To get any potential barriers completely out of the way, the two of you decide to ask any questions of each other that might ever be a problem in the future. Holding pen and pad in hands, you alternate asking the following questions and writing down each other's answers. You have, of course, agreed to show no judgment, prejudice, or negative reactions because you've promised to be totally open and civil.
Here are the questions you might ask:
•"What is your complete relationship history?"
•"How many partners have you had?"
•"How did your relationships end? Did you leave, or did they? Why?"
•"What kind of physical health are you in? Any inheritable diseases?"
•"Do I need to be concerned about your future medical needs?"
•"Where are you from and where do you want to settle down?"
•"Do you have any skeletons in your closet that would be an unwelcome surprise later on?"
•"How much money do you have? Are you in debt?"
•"How do you feel about sharing our resources?"
•"Who are your people and what were their beliefs about relationships?"
•"What part of your culture are you attached to, and what are you unwilling to give up?"
•"Do you have children? What ages and what are they like? Would I like them?
•"What part do they play in your life emotionally and financially?
•"If you don't yet have children, do you want them?"
•"What are your core values, the things you would symbolically live and die for?"
•"What are your dreams?"
•"What do you think your best and worst attributes are?"
•"Do you get angry easily? When you do, are you abusive?"
•"Is there anything about you that I should be wary of?"
•"Are you compulsively addicted to anything or anybody?"
•"Do you believe in God? Why or why not?"
•"Are your parents still married? Happily?"
•"Have you had any traumas that I should know about?"
•"Do you like sex and are you functional?"
•"Do you have a sexually transmittable disease?
•"Are you trustworthy?"
•"What are your prejudices?"
•"Do you take risks?"
•"Why aren't you already with someone?"
•"Is your family a problem?
•"How do your ex-partners feel about you?"
•"Do you quit when things get hard?"
•"Do you lie about important things?"
•"Are you able to love even when you have to sacrifice?"
•"Why did you want to meet me?"


If both of you liked the answers to these deeply personal questions, you would have an amazing chance to create an unbelievably successful relationship. It may be embarrassing, painful, or scary to be honest about who you are soon into a new relationship, but you will also better know the person you're with by how he or she responds. You must make each of those fateful decisions in the most heroic way you can.