Do not tell secrets to those whose faith and silence you have not already tested.
- Elizabeth I
Here's a very common scenario -- and dilemma -- for many men and women in midlife: Let's say you were married for a few years, or even decades. Then, came the divorce (or the death of your partner). After a period of time you start dating again, and one person in particular has grabbed a share of your heart more than the others. You see each other more frequently. You might even meet the kids and the best friend. You're getting the distinct impression that things are moving along very nicely indeed.
But, before you met this new love, you had a life, complete with friends, lovers, spouses, jobs, good decisions, bad choices and ... secrets.
And then comes the inevitable question: Do you tell ... everything? And if so, when?
A friend tried stripping at a "gentleman's club" when she was just out of college to earn some quick money before starting law school. It was 30 years ago, but she still cringes (she's since become a women's rights attorney) at the memory and isn't eager to reveal this little blip in her career path to her new boyfriend. Is she wrong?
A man I know had his "eyes done" but doesn't want the woman he's dating to know, worried that she might think he's too vain and be turned off. Crazy?
Then there is the question posed by a reader to the "Ethicist" columnist in the New York Times recently:
As a very broke and self-supporting 20-year-old college senior, I donated my eggs in exchange for money. It was a horrendous experience, and I rarely speak about it. Although I assume that some children resulted, I regret my participation and do not wish to know the results. I am now 35, engaged and planning to start a family. Must I tell my fiancé that there may be teenagers walking around with my genetic material? NAME WITHHELD
Where do you draw the line? What is considered "need to know" and what's "too much information"? Will how much you reveal now create a pattern for how much you tell going forward?
Always interested to know what my Facebook friends have to say, I asked them to weigh in on this question:
If you were in a new love relationship, would you tell this person everything? If so, when would you tell?
Here are a few of the reactions, reprinted with their permission:
I would not and did not tell. Although there is nothing wrong with what I did in my past, it is to hard for some people, even if you love them, to accept your past.
- Blaine Martell Nell
I would share the important parts of my life that created the woman I am today. I would leave out the crazy details of bad choices, lost loves, my eighties hairstyle and my obsession with Prince. Some secrets are meant to stay that way and others become great memories when shared.
- Vickie Stahl
I don't believe there's necessarily a time to sit down and just tell all. However, I do believe that openness and honesty are part of any serious love relationship and that there should be no secrets; this openness and honesty will eventually bring you both to the point of knowing each other very, very well. It should all be part of your conversations.
- Carolyn Russell Grotevant
I told my husband most things, I still tell my husband most things. We have been married for 20 years and are still best friends. Some things are just between me and my private journal.
- Mary E. Robbins
The past is just that. If it doesn't intrude into the present in a physical or psychological way, why bother with it?
- Nancy Nickerson
I think you choose what to tell as the relationship develops, if and when it is important to tell. Sharing is how intimacy is developed. When you share something, then the other person shares. It is not necessary to share everything. Some things are better in the past and might only damage a burgeoning relationship.
- Melinda Ainsworth
If I was starting a new relationship I wouldn't "tell all" so to speak but I would feel I have to share that I am on an active kidney transplant list. Their response will be telling.
- Jennifer Phillips
I think before you start sharing all about you, it is important to know this is a person you can trust. That takes time to know so I think you need to be learning more about that person before you decide what you really want to share about you.
- Suzy Weiss
When I interviewed relationship therapist Esther Perel for my book, she told me that Americans simply share too much information, which she believes causes all kinds of problems for couples, including sexual. She said:
Americans don't believe in secrets. Popular marital advice tells us that lack of intimacy means lack of closeness therefore you need more talk, more communication, and more transparency with your partner. On the contrary, excess information and over-sharing can lead to nothing but trouble.
Is a "no tell" policy the best way to go? Writer D. A. Wolf offered her views in a recent blog post:
Sometimes, not talking is the better path to maintaining a relationship. It isn't so much that we do not speak, as that we ascertain the best moment to speak.
Sometimes, not talking - in love, marriage, or parenting - riddles the relationship with holes. And the longer we don't talk, the harder it is to begin again.
Looking for more clarity on the topic, I turned to a new book "Love For Grown-ups," which is a guide to forging a lasting love relationship when you've already had a full life (with secrets to spare). In the section called "There's Something I Need to Tell You . . . " the authors (there are three) offer some suggestions on sussing out what you should tell, and when, and propose asking yourself these questions when trying to decide:
- Is it something your new love should know if he's going to be around permanently, but not something that will have a day-to-day effect on our time together?
- Is it something that can't be taken care of without disrupting our life together?
- Is he discreet? Can I trust this person with this information?
- If we end our relationship, will I regret his knowing this information?
They add that if you've decided to tell your new love a few of your secrets, the timing is important. Don't wait until you're in so deep the he or she will wonder why you waited so long to let him or her know. That alone could set the wrong tone.
Everyone has a past, and by the time we reach midlife, we've had pretty full lives. Very few secrets are considered "need to know, " but a few are pretty obvious:
- History of addiction
- Medical issues that could affect your lives together (or future children)
- History of mental issues
As the authors of "Love for Grown-ups" pointed out,
Hard as these conversations can be, these days there are few things people find truly shocking. The problem may feel bigger to you than it does to him. Remember his life, too, has had its ups and downs. In a mature relationship there's history on both sides.
The "Ethicist" columnist, by the way, offered this advice to the woman who sold her eggs in college:
We will always have secrets -- big and small -- and not all are essential parts of our "for public consumption" life story, even for someone you love. Many are for our eyes only, discreetly entered into journals. By the time we've reached midlife, maybe we should consider this simple guideline: enjoy the present, look forward to the future, and leave the past behind. Maybe it's time to write a new story, with a new beginning.
You should tell your fiancé what happened -- not because of the potential disposition of your genetic material, but because of the psychic real estate the experience still occupies. To withhold something that still has such a painful claim on you, while allowing your fiancé' to think he knows you well, would tread too close to lying.
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For more tips on living your best life after 50, check out www.bestofeverythingafter50.com. Staying connected is a powerful tool: "Friend" me on Facebook and "Tweet" me on Twitter (BGrufferman). Be well, and stay in touch!