Should You Always Be Honest with Your Partner?

When openness and diplomacy collide.

Posted Aug 31, 2018

Most people would agree that being authentic and transparent in interactions with one’s intimate partner is essential to a successful long-term relationship. Many of my own patients have expressed how much they value honesty and authenticity in their partnerships.

Their comments consistently support those beliefs:

  • “If you love and respect the person you love the most in the world, shouldn’t you automatically want to know what makes each of you think and behave the way you do?”
  • “You can’t really expect to have a truly intimate relationship if you withhold your true feelings or needs from the person you care most about.”
  • “If you hide stuff from each other, how can you know what is going on, or resolve problems? It’s so much better not to find out later what you might have been able to fix if you knew about it earlier.”
  • “Isn’t it always better to try to work out things between you and your partner rather than trying to figure them out by yourself?”

I have helped many couples learn how to openly express their inner thoughts and feelings to each other. But many patients in apparently successful relationships have challenged me as to the absoluteness of those teachings. They have asked me if totally honest and unfiltered responses in all situations are always the best reactions. After many years of self-examination, I must respond that the answer is a carefully qualified “not always.” Exempting ever using intentional dishonesty to intentionally cheat or betray the other, there is a grey area in every intimate relationship in which total honesty and diplomacy conflict or overlap.

All intimate partners have their unique reasons why, when, and how much they choose to share with one another or what to withhold. They may worry that the price of sharing certain thoughts and feelings would be too high to pay as a self-protective and self-serving reason. Or, feeling compassion for their partners, they may hold withhold them to express something that would only hurt or anger, feeling that non-disclosure is a kinder action.

Here are some of the more common reasons how and why people make those decisions. Please explore them with your partner. If you can listen to what drives your partner to be transparent or to withhold experiences from you, you might be able to help one another feel more secure in changing some of those patterns in the future.  

When you are processing this together, do not ask what thoughts or feelings have been withheld, or why. You must first understand what it is about the other that drives each of you to withhold what you do.  

Secret Versus Private Thoughts

All people have internal feelings and thoughts that they keep to themselves. Whether they had been suppressed by early caretakers, experienced rejections, or otherwise lost potential opportunities by sharing too much, they have not had good experiences when they’ve been totally honest.

When you enter any intimate relationship, it is natural that you will automatically hold back some things about yourself that you yet don’t trust to share. It is up to every individual what he or she feels they can say about themselves at any stage of an intimate relationship.

Problems do arise if those experiences, for whatever reason, become exposed later on in the relationship. If your partner continued the relationship under false pretenses, he or she may wonder whatever else you are still hiding. .

My patients have shared many of those feelings with me over the years:

  • “I just thought it best to leave it buried. There’s no chance it will come up, so why take a risk?”
  • “I don’t act the way I did so far back and the guy I’m dating would probably not knowing that part of me. If it does come out in any way, I’ve got a story that would hopefully minimize the impact.”
  • “My mom cheated a lot on my dad and my boyfriend’s last two girlfriends cheated on him. I’m afraid that he’ll lose trust in me if he knows the kind of mom who raised me.”

Many people have private thoughts that they don’t want to share, and shouldn’t need to if their presence is not a danger to the relationship. For instance, what if you occasionally fantasize about someone else while you’re having sex? Or you may feel insecure about your partner’s previous relationships, but don’t want him or her to think that you are overly possessive or jealous. Maybe you occasionally secretly wish you could have a short affair with someone else but have no intention of acting on it.

Private thoughts are normal for everyone. But, they have the potential to become a danger to a relationship when their presence is negatively affecting the other or when you are in danger of acting on them without your partner’s knowing.

Privacy then becomes secrecy. Secret behavior is anything you hide from your partner that you are going to act on that could cause him or her distress. Any action that would threaten the relationship should be open to a vote from the other partner before it is taken.

Why Many People Withhold

When my patients have confessed to me the things they withhold from their intimate partners, they have shared multiple reasons as to why they make those decisions. Sometimes they just don’t want to worry that partner or unnecessarily threaten the relationship.

If you feel similarly, you will often feel that hard-to-resolve combination of self-serving and altruistic motivations when you withhold from your partner. The more self-serving your reasons are, the more you will be concerned about your own needs rather than your partner's. Alternately, the more caring you feel for your partner over your own needs, the more your motivation is likely to be consideration for his or her experience.

Here are some examples my patients have shared that illustrate those confusing mixtures of altruism and self-serving reasons for withholding.

  • “If I’m really turned on by his best friend because he is sexier than my partner, why in earth would I tell him that? I’m never going to act on it.”
  • “She’s gained a few pounds and I know how sensitive she is about it. I’m worried she’ll get out of hand but she’ll only feel terrible if I say something. She always asks me if I still desire her, but I know she just needs reassurance. She knows how being fit is important to me, but, you know, I love her anyway and I just hope she gains control pretty soon.”
  • “He doesn’t know I got herpes fifteen years ago from a one-night stand. I’ve never given it to anyone because I’m really careful. We’ve been together three years now with unprotected sex and things are fine. I think it would be a disaster if I told him now.”
  • “My last EKG wasn’t normal but the doctor just said I need to reduce my stress and lose twenty pounds and everything would probably turn out okay. My partner’s dad died of a heart attack about my age. Why would I worry her when I can do something about it myself? When the tests are normal, I’ll tell her then.”
  • “My high school boyfriend has been contacting me on Facebook. He said he never got over me. When he left me, I couldn’t even function for a year. Something in me just wants to meet him once to show him how well my life has turned out and to put some closure on it for me. My boyfriend would freak out if I told him, but I know I’m not going to leave him for this guy who hurt me. Just one time. Is that the wrong thing to do?”
  • “I’m really done with this relationship but I’m not going anywhere until she’s more stable. I don’t want the guilt of leaving her feeling abandoned like the guy before her did, but she’s literally driving me crazy. I don’t want to spring it on her, but every time I even bring up that we’re not doing so well, she either starts crying or acting like some kind of sycophant to a rock star. That just makes it harder. I told her to get some therapy, but she won’t. I don’t know what to do.”
  • “Whenever I try to talk to my boyfriend about the ways I want him to touch me, he immediately flips it and tells me that I am never satisfied with anything he does and it becomes a huge drama. I’ve tried everything I can to approach him in the right way, but nothing works. I know I’m building resentment and pulling away but he just can’t seem to see it.”
  • “My wife is so caught up with the kids that she pretty much falls into bed at night without even saying good night. I wanted these twins even though she wasn’t as crazy about the idea, but I didn’t think it meant that our relationship would be sacrificed. I know if I tell her how I feel, she’ll just think I’m a needy wimp and tell me I should help more or something like that. And, if I didn’t mention it, no sex for six months. I’m beginning to watch porn to get off, and I can tell you, that would not go over well.”

What are the Areas You Must Share Even if you Have to Risk Your Relationship?

No one wants a negative surprise. They are a two-edged sword of humiliation and disappointment. In any relationship that you value and want to continue, you must be willing to share anything that might currently or in the future endanger your partner emotionally or physically, no matter how hard that may be to share.

But when? In a new relationship, there are only a few that must be shared upfront because your partner’s finding out later could end the relationship. Some examples of early confessions might be:

  • You may be in danger of developing a hereditary disease.
  • You have an STD.
  • You are deeply in debt.
  • You have a criminal record, even if it expunged.
  • You have a prior partner who has a vendetta against any new person you care about.

If your new relationship develops and begins to form a sustainable bond, you then need to uncover the parts of you that are closer to your heart. Examples might be:

  • You no longer speak to your family.
  • You have trouble with managing money.
  • You have strong political or social biases.
  • You have sexual anxieties.

If the two of you eventually become an exclusive relationship, make family and friends a regular part of your social circle, and begin making future plans, you must both be able to share those experiences that are more vulnerable or might require your partner to understand why you act the way you do:

  • You could have been raped in the past and certain words and phrases that your partner may innocently say during love-making remind you of that terrible assault.
  • Or, your dream job might require a lot of traveling and you don’t know how that would affect a family. Perhaps you have a checkered past but are fearful that your partner would not have approved of what you used to be, but have left behind.
  • Or, you might have given up your faith in a God and fear that your partner’s deep faith would make her no longer trust you.
  • You might be harboring terrible guilt for something you have done in the past that still haunts you.

Future Experiences Not Yet Known

All people change as they go through life. Old desires and dreams are replaced with new ones. Great relationships are all about new discoveries which can only come from continuous personal transformation. Transformation creates change and change creates new thought and feelings.

If you or your partner begin to feel differently about yourselves or the relationship for whatever reasons, and do not share those internal changes as they happen, you may lose the bond that keeps you close without even realizing it is happening. You can, seemingly out of nowhere, feel that you have become more like old friends, but no longer as intimately connected.

Many patients have told me that they hesitate to “rock the boat” when they’re not sure that what they are thinking and feeling might upend that balance when they are not ready to face those potential consequences. Perhaps their thoughts and feelings are just of the moment or caused by extraneous circumstances that will pass. They make the decision to postpone sharing it in hopes that will happen.

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Every intimate relationship is unique. What, when, and how internal thoughts and feelings are shared must be decided within each partnership. However, it cannot be denied that the level of true intimacy is directly related to the level of transparency and vulnerability any couple shares.  

If you are clear about our own motivations when you make the decision to withhold your inner self from our partner, begin by honestly answering the following questions:

  • Am I making this decision to hold on to something that I might lose were I to be honest for my own comfort?
  • Am I withholding because I truly believe my partner would be unnecessarily harmed were I to tell him or her what I was feeling?
  • Am I being private or rationalizing secret behavior that my partner would not be able to tolerate?
  • Is my holding back going to help or hinder the successful future of my relationship?
  • Would I want my partner to do the same?