According to the Oxford dictionary, a secret is something that is “not meant to be known as such by others.” There you have it. We should all just keep our secrets to ourselves, because they aren’t meant to be known by others. Ever.
That might work…if you plan to live alone for the rest of your life. You want intimacy, romance, and a relationship strong enough to last a lifetime. To find it, you’ve ventured into the world of dating—an activity whose chief purpose is to get to know others, and to be known by them. That means you will eventually have to lower your mask and reveal your secrets—things about yourself and your past that you’ve hidden away for many reasons. It is a romantic rite of passage that often marks a deepening of your relationship.
Here are five tips for getting to the other side stronger than ever:
Decide whether disclosure is truly necessary. A few “secrets” are so deeply buried in the past that they are no longer relevant in your present life. In other words, some skeletons should stay in the closet. For instance, if you spent your entire freshman year in college more or less intoxicated—what do you stand to gain by dredging it up now, or to lose if you don’t? On the other hand, if that phase of your life resulted in a felony conviction (or an eventual drinking problem), that fact has direct bearing on your life today and your partner is entitled to know it.
Forgive yourself first. Chances are, your big secret is something you are not proud to admit. By sharing the details with your partner, you are implicitly asking the person not to hold it against you—to accept your past as past and still be willing to build a future together. But the truth is, that task will be twice as hard if your partner senses you haven’t yet forgiven yourself. He or she will take emotional cues from you, so make peace with your own past before you expect someone else to do so.
Go slow. It is true that keeping relevant secrets hidden for too long can be toxic to any intimate relationship. When a troubling truth finally emerges, trust can be seriously undermined. But revealing too much too soon can be just as damaging. Playing “truth or consequences” with someone new can feel like an exciting step toward genuine intimacy. But the key phrase here is “someone new.” He or she doesn’t yet know you well enough to put your revelations into present-day context. Be careful with your secrets, because once they are out, there is no getting them back. Rush it and you may be stuck with truth AND consequences—in the form of a promising relationship cut short and your private details becoming not so private any more.
Allow your partner time to process the information. You’ve decided that disclosure is necessary and that the time is right. Your secret is important and potentially hurtful or at least cause for concern—if not, it wouldn’t be much of a secret. So don’t expect your partner simply to take it in stride without a second thought. He or she deserves as much time as it takes to digest the news. By waiting with as much grace and patience as you can muster, you’ll increase the chances that your partner will return to thinking of your future together and not of your past.
Be prepared to reciprocate. When struggling with the issue of when and how to reveal possibly unpleasant things about your past to your partner, it is easy to forget that you aren’t the only one with secrets. Every human being has something to hide. Don’t be surprised if your partner matches your revelations with ones of his/her own. Take it as a golden opportunity to give the very thing you hope to get—kindness, compassion, understanding, and forgiveness.
Most of the time, secrets are not nearly as scary in the light of day as they are in your mind. If you’ve got something to say, tread carefully and compassionately, and your relationship will emerge stronger than ever.
What has been your experience with sharing secrets? Was it the right decision?