“We can tell each other anything.” Maybe you’ve heard someone make that claim, usually with a little smugness. It’s taken as gospel that being able to tell your partner everything is a sure sign of health and maturity in a relationship. But is that always the case?
Being able to trust your partner is one of the fundamental conditions for developing intimacy between two people. If you and your partner can’t trust one another, the relationship between the two of you is certain to be strained or superficial. Telling the truth draws us closer to one another. When we let the other person get to know us (even the unattractive parts), we create a sense that our connection is based on reality rather than good PR. The opposite is also true: being caught in lies breeds mistrust.
But it’s easy to forget that like you, your partner is a human being who processes the information you give him through his own filter of wounds, doubts, insecurities and worries. The results can be quite different than you intend.
There are many things your partner really must know about you. If you’ve got a sexually transmitted disease and might give it to him, you better come clean. If you’re in serious trouble, that’s going to affect him and not revealing the truth is going to sabotage the relationship. He needs to know who you really are, and you need to have your real self be known by him.
If there is something you’ve kept anyone from knowing out of a fear that you’d be rejected or found unlovable if anyone found out, you may very well need to tell your partner your secret in order to feel genuinely present in the relationship. That’s especially true if your secret involves something that happened to you rather than something you did. Secrets breed shame, and shame undermines the vitality of a relationship. But truth telling can sometimes become emotional masochism, especially if you’re secretly hoping your partner will be able to absolve you of guilt you carry over something you did. A partner is not a priest. (Well, not most of the time, anyway.) If you need to make a confession, go to a minister or psychotherapist.
Confession may be good for the soul, but it’s often hell on a relationship. Sometimes when a secret is told the burden may be lifted off of one person’s shoulders and placed on the other person’s. Acknowledging every indiscretion you committed in previous relationships may make you feel unburdened by guilt, but it may also increase your partner’s anxiety about whether your past behavior is a guide to future plans. Most of us have unflattering bits in our pasts – and most of us would be better off leaving them there.
If you’re planning on telling your partner something that may be difficult for him to hear, take time to reflect first. What’s the motivation behind your desire? What do you hope will happen as a result? Will speaking up create an opportunity for the two of you to grow closer or is it going to make you feel better and him feel worse?
By the way, contact with ex boyfriends is a special case. Lots of times what may seem entirely innocent to you breeds anxiety and paranoia in your partner. You may know there is no spark between you, but it’s understandable if undisclosed contact with someone who was special to you at one time makes your current guy feel uncomfortable. Let him know you’ve heard from your ex without making a big deal of it, and answer any questions your partner has, even if it irritates you.
Finally, smart partners avoid playing private investigator or prosecuting attorney with one another. Anything can look suspicious if you’re paranoid enough. When in doubt, give your lover a break.
John R. Ballew, M.S. an author and contributor to GAYTWOGETHER, is a licensed professional counselor in private practice in Atlanta. He specializes in issues related to coming out, sexuality, relationships and spirituality. If you have any questions or comments you can submit them directly to GAYTWOGETHER or John R. Ballew, M.S. - www.bodymindsoul.org.