You are trying to decide whether to disclose an important truth, but reconsider when a friend urges caution and suggests that you not take the unnecessary risk. So you reconsider. You decide to postpone the decision, even as you yearn for the release that authenticity would bring. You are stalled by ambivalence.
We grow up being told to always tell the truth. But parents inevitably send a more nuanced message when we hear them tell a half-truth, or tell untruths out of kindness, or remain silent, perhaps to keep a promised confidence, and thereby send a false message.
Is it better to tell or not tell?
I was sometimes asked this question by a partner who had strayed and now sought to revive a relationship gone adrift, or who wished to avoid the consequences of an angry response. I have no pat answer. The complexity of people’s lives, which even good fiends know only partially, suggests that giving advice on this issue would be unwise. At best, we can suggest probing questions for the keeper of the secret to explore. Sometimes it seems that making the admission will well serve only the teller, not the unknowing other. Guilt is made more bearable by confession.
But others find living with deception to be untenable, believing that only through a shared honest exploration of the past, and the hoped-for future, can they restore or possibly transform a genuinely loving and committed relationship. Disclosure offers both parties the opportunity to explore new choices and take new directions. Holding on to the secret denies the unknowing party the chance to consider a different path.
It’s risky, either way. And it’s not an easy call when the decision to tell the truth is unilateral, but the impact of truth-telling potentially falls on many.
A case in point: for some time, a wife has been silently enduring her husband’s sustained lack of sexual interest. Finally she gathers the strength to ask him if he is gay. He answers emphatically and angrily that he is not— knowing that he is. He fears that exposure will cause the loss of his precious connection with his young children.
I was asked for advice about this potential disclosure, and I surprised even myself by comfortably responding, “Of course, the truth should be told.” And in this case, it was. All his worst fears came true in living color. His wife raged. He was awash in guilt and dread. The children were confused and frightened, and the family’s community of friends were unbelieving, some falling away. The family shed many tears and endured sleepless nights. But over time, with the support of skilled professionals and loyal friends, the family was reconfigured, and acceptance and accommodation evolved. They once again expressed loving feelings. The world shifted, but righted.
This truth clearly had to be told, for the damaging impact of keeping the secret seemed too serious to justify the lack of honest disclosure. But clearly is not a good choice of words, for these decisions are often anything but clear. Had this wife been a vengeful, vindictive person, her gay husband might well have made a different choice or at least postponed the truth telling.
Not long ago I confided to a colleague, a young attorney, that I still have occasional moments of self-doubt and that fears of poor performance can bring on a blue mood. Weeks later when we met again, her eyes brimmed with tears as she shared her gratitude. How reassuring it was, she told me, to know that such feelings, which sometimes haunted her days, were not hers alone, but were shared by someone who had already achieved significant professional success. What a gratifying moment for me, for both of us. Disclosure begets disclosure.
On reaching adulthood and beyond, as self-knowledge and self-acceptance grow, most of us allow ourselves a good measure of authenticity, a willingness to openly share our truths. One of the true joys of growing old is recognizing that the need for pretense falls away. And that one is loved nonetheless, even admired, for sharing truths that it once seemed important to hide.
But concerns will inevitably still arise when we must choose between telling a hard truth and protecting our privacy. We strive to maintain the delicate balance between our own well-being and possible harm to others. Perhaps that effort is one important definition of maturity.
You’ve just read a sample from my new book, The Third Person in the Room: Stories of Relationships at a Turning Point. Hard cover copies of the book can be found at www.nolankerr.com; paperbacks and e books are available on Amazon.com. .