By Margot Carmichael Lester
Though lying isn’t one of the seven deadly sins, we all learned early on in Sunday school that honesty is always the best policy. While bald-faced lying is never a good idea, there is such a thing as too much information—and that’s the problem with total honesty! It sounds great in theory, but like the author C.S. Lewis once said, “The reality is more complicated than I supposed.”
So how much should you tell someone you’ve just started dating? What if the person you’re chatting with over chai lattes wants to hear all about your romantic past, the broken engagement—the whole nine yards? Or is simply probing about family matters or a tricky job situation you’d rather not discuss? And how do you tell the difference between appropriate disclosure and too much information? Here, some guidelines.
Try for the truth
“When you’re first dating someone, you should tell the truth, and if there are certain issues you don’t feel comfortable talking about, say you don’t want to talk about them,” counsels William Merkel, Ph.D., a psychologist in Portland, Oregon. “But then your date is free to fantasize all he or she wants, and may fantasize in ways that are inaccurate—and expensive to your relationship.”
Let’s face it:
Nature abhors a vacuum, and if your partner wants information that you don’t want to give, she or he has to find something to fill that gap. And most of the time it’s something much worse than the truth you didn’t want to tell. “I’m great at spinning all kinds of Oliver Stone-like theories when I think my date’s withholding information,” admits Morgan Peters of Houston. “The truth’s never as outlandish as my scenarios, but I can’t stop doing it.” So, know that’s a risk you take when you tell a date who’s probing for info, “Thanks, but I’d rather not talk about that.”
When questions get too personal
Of course, some issues may not be your date’s business. Maybe you aren’t comfortable talking about why you left college in your senior year, or you don’t want to reveal the details of a past relationship with a substance-abuser. Those details don’t need to be divulged during the getting-to-know-you phase. It is important to know your own boundaries; they are an important part of relationships. You should be in control of your information. Other people don’t have a right to your secrets. Perhaps the best way to handle inquiries about such matters is by saying, “You know, that’s a complicated matter for me. Let me fill you in more as we get to know each other and get more comfortable.” That way, you aren’t slamming the door and encouraging wild speculation—you’re saying that this is a touchy topic for you, and you’ll explain all about it in good time.
To tell the truth
So when should you start divulging deep, dark secrets? “When you begin to think the relationship is moving on the right path towards being a serious relationship,” explains Mike Paul, reputation management expert and president of MGP & Associates in New York. “The risk/reward equation becomes more serious in sharing information as the potential for spending your life together increases,” he continues.
That said, don’t feel you have to spill all once you’re sure you have real, deep feelings for a person. Remember: You are always in control of your answers, no matter what the question or subject is. You can agree to answer, ask for more time or declare it off limits.
We all know the truth hurts. And sometimes withholding information hurts. “I was so hurt when Jamie said he didn’t want to talk about his past,” recalls Sabine Freret of Atlanta. “I decided he didn’t think I was worthy of having that information and put some distance between us for a while. But as our relationship grew, I realized he just hadn’t been comfortable talking about it. When he finally told me, it strengthened our relationship.”
No matter how your date reacts, it’s important for you to keep your cool. “Acknowledge your date’s feelings,” Merkel says. “Be empathic and listen. You don’t need to defend your position,” but do realize the other person needs to process what he or she has just heard. You’ve taken a risk by sharing—and hopefully it will be rewarded with understanding and compassion.