“The truth? You can’t handle the truth!”
(This is a follow up to our previous post:
How imperfect people find true and lasting love)
Of course it would be lovely if you never had to confess a long-buried—or even a recently buried—secret to your partner. It never goes well. We’re all such freakin’ hypocrites! We say starting out, Oh, let’s always be honest with each other. And the other person says, Yes! I’ll never ever lie to you.
And then? You do tell some truth. “I forgot the mortgage payment. Now we have penalties.” Are you rewarded for your honesty? Noooo! You get the crap kicked out of you for what you’ve done. It’s as if in most relationships the rule is: All messengers will be shot on sight.
I know I’m exaggerating, but only to make an all-too-true point. Honesty is rarely rewarded.
Which brings us to the problem of the day:
What do you do when you’ve withheld the truth from your partner for days, weeks,
months, or years, and now you feel it’s time come clean?
First of all, and most important, be sure you actually need to reveal this truth. If it’s something that happened a long time ago that your partner will never find out about and that’ll just cause pain and damage now, what’s the point of revealing it now? Let’s say you got drunk at your bachelor’s party the night before your wedding and slept with a girl you met at the bar afterwards whose name you don’t even remember now. Is there any point on earth to spoil your wife’s memories of her wedding by adding this sordid story into the mix? None! And believe me, if you still feel guilty about it, she’s not the one to relieve you of your guilt.
So, second, be clear about why you’re revealing this secret at this time. Is it because something needs to be dealt with? Because the secret’s about to come out anyway? Whatever the reason for revealing the secret, be honest about it. Because let’s face it: the minute you confess a secret your partner’s trust in you will plummet. (No, they won’t hold a parade in honor of your new-found honesty!) So for goodness sake, don’t make things worse by being anything less than absolutely honest about the reasons for the reveal.
Third, be prepared to tell the whole story. Nothing, and I mean nothing, erodes trust more than telling a half truth with corrections and more confessions dribbling out in the days and weeks to come. That is always a disaster. If you did time 20 years ago for armed robbery and sexual assault, don’t just confess to the armed robbery. The sexual assault charge will come out, and you’ll look that much worse.
Fourth, have realistic expectations. Whatever it is you think you are doing—and you are doing a good thing in the long run—in the short run it will be a blow to your partner’s ability to trust you. The first questions you may very well get could be, “Why didn’t you tell me sooner” and “If you did that, what else haven’t you told me?” and “I don’t know who you are anymore.” So be prepared for a process of rebuilding trust that might take months.
Fifth, tell your story the right way. And the right way is: tell the truth but meet the need. We wrote a whole book about this: Truth without Fear. In principle, it’s easy. What is the truth you have to tell? Say that, in the simplest words possible. For example, “Honey, I never told you this—and I’m so sorry I didn’t—but I was born with a heart condition that might limit my life expectancy.” Okay. That’s the truth. You could spin it out, but that’s the core. Once you’ve told the core truth, don’t go into the peripheral stuff.
Instead meet the need. Once your partner hears you have this heart condition, what would you guess are going to be their greatest needs? To know your probable life expectancy? To know what your doctor has to say about all this? To know if there are any restrictions on your activities? To know if you have any other health issues? Whatever needs you think your partner might have, address them immediately as best you can.
Remember: once your words are out of your mouth, this is about your partner, not about you.
Sixth, understand you are now facing one clear but complicated task: rebuilding trust. Again, we wrote a whole book about this huge issue that comes up over and over again in a hundred different forms for couples in our book “I Love You but I Don’t Trust You.” By following these six steps, you’re already in good shape. But what’s critical is what comes next.
Your partner is going to have to do a lot of processing. Remember: you are now a different person from the one they thought you were before! So just know that you will have to go through a period, much longer than you’d like, of listening to your partner, of answering questions, of being on the receiving end of a lot of emotions, and of facing a lot of doubt. If you understand that this is all about cleansing a slow-to-heal wound, you’ll be fine. But for the love of God, don’t try to short-circuit the process! It’s a given that’ll it’ll take longer and be more painful for you than you’d like. There’s only one good way to deal with that and that’s to ride it out.
Let’s face it: you held onto your secret because you were putting your own needs first. So now you have to put your partner’s needs first. That’s just the way it goes.
On the other hand, the good news is that this is the way a broken leg heals. It sucks to break your leg and it sucks to go for weeks and weeks of discomfort and disruption. But in the end you’ll be good as new. In your case, bringing the truth into your relationship is even better. You’ll be better than new: you’ll have ended the era of buried secrets, as well as rebuild your trust.