Editor’s Note: Strong relationships are at the core of a happy life, but sometimes, dealing with the people in our lives is tricky. That’s why Thrive Global partnered with The Gottman Institute on this advice column, Asking for a Friend. Every week, Gottman’s relationship experts will answer your most pressing questions about navigating relationships—with romantic partners, family members, coworkers, friends, and more. Have a question? Send it to [email protected]!
Q: I’ve always been an open book, and I expect the people I’m dating to be the same way. I truly believe honesty is the best policy, and when I started dating my boyfriend eight months back, I told him that upfront. I recently found out that he got arrested a couple years ago, and he never told me about it. When I confronted him, he admitted that it was true, and he was just too embarrassed to tell me earlier. He promised that was the only secret he had been keeping from me, and I want to believe him, but I’m scared that after this incident I can’t trust him again. Am I being too dramatic — or was this a red flag that I should call it quits?
A: Trust is broken in a relationship when a partner discovers that their significant other has been hiding something substantial from them. This ends up feeling like a betrayal, and it’s quite natural to wonder, “What else do I not know about?” Reassurances from partners that there are no other secrets typically won’t ease these concerns.
When meeting a new person, it generally isn’t really appropriate on a first date to share the darkest, deepest secrets. However, if the relationship develops into something more serious and committed, there is a time early on — before moving into that transition — to inform your partner of any significant history that needs to be talked about. This provides the opportunity to address concerns and issues, and whether the person is still willing to sign on for the relationship. There are deal-breakers in relationships, so it’s important to have full disclosure in any areas of concern.
There are some questions I explore with couples in helping the couple manage and talk through discovered secrets and other betrayals. Most important is talking about what these secrets mean to each partner, and how the couple is managing this discovery. Try going through these ideas and see how you feel at the end of this exploration:
Partners need to feel safe in relationships. You may feel, after getting the details, that this is a deal-breaker because of the nature of his arrest, and/or that keeping the secret has created an unsafe feeling. As a result, you may be unwilling to go forward in the relationship. If, on the other hand, you feel you still need more information and time to sort this through, hopefully the above questions give you a starting point.
Drs. John and Julie Gottman’s work on trust, betrayals, and affairs highlights the importance of the betrayed partner talking about the betrayal. It is critical for you to be able to ask questions and get details and share your feelings, even though this will undoubtedly be difficult and uncomfortable for your boyfriend. The purpose is not to make him feel bad, or to punish him, but rather, to have a process to heal from the betrayal, which provides the relationship a chance to move forward — if that is what you both want to do.
How do couples build trust? Dr. John Gottman states that “attunement” is the skill built by couples and is “the blueprint for building trust in long-term committed relationships” (Science of Trust). An important component of attunement is for partners to be able to express negative emotions when there is something upsetting or concerning happening in the relationship, and to have their voice heard.
Couples can recover from betrayals, but it takes a willingness to have these conversations. They may be difficult in the short-term, but they can make all the difference in the long-term.
Read more “Asking for a Friend” columns here.