-- Question for John --
I have been in a relationship with an incredible man for over a year now. We were recently engaged. However, I have created some problems in our relationship that have taken me and us directly to the “hole.” In the beginning of our relationship I wasn’t completely honest about my past. I was afraid of what he would think of me. But now he doesn’t trust me.
Eventually, I told him some of what he asked about. It was very hurtful to him, but he learned to understand it and still love me. Recently, after our engagement, I had mentioned something to him that signaled him that I still hadn’t been completely honest with him. Granted, it was about a friend of mine, and not directly related to me, but he said it said a lot about my character and more than that, I lied to him by not telling him the truth the first time.
I tried to explain to him that I didn’t give him the information he asked about because it was detrimental to the character of my friend. After we discussed that issue, he asked if there was anything else that I had lied to him about. There was, and I told him. This time it was about me and a past relationship. I have not made the best choices, before dating him and while dating him (by not telling the truth). I have hurt him by not being honest with him at the time that I should have been.
My only reason for not telling the truth was because I was fearful of his reaction. I now feel terrible about myself. I am, however, proud of myself for finally coming clean and facing it all and facing him and his reaction and feelings. He is devastated, feels that he cannot trust me, and is hurting unbelievably. The problem I’m having now is that I know what needs to be changed, (I need to make choices for myself, stop being a people pleaser, stand up to people when I’m being used and taken advantage of, and be completely honest with my partner) but he is not going to see that and trust me until an opportunity arises to do either of these things. He is looking for an answer now, when the reality of it is that he will not get it until he can see it. What am I supposed to do now?
I’m devastated, hurt, angry (with myself) and so lost. How do I help him to understand that the things I did were not done to hurt him intentionally, that when things like this come up and I’m honest with him about them in the future that I don’t want to be judged for what I did, but instead would like him to be able to see the courage that it takes to admit things that I’m not proud of if they come up? I completely understand his point of the lie – that it hurts him and makes him feel as if he can’t trust me. This I can correct by simply being honest. But to also judge me for something that I did three years ago makes the situation worse for me and for him. What can I do? I’m so incredibly lost.
I am willing to do anything to correct my mistakes, to show him that I love him more than he believes I do, to change my behavior patterns to be a better person and feel better about myself. Any help you can offer will be greatly appreciated. Thank you for taking the time to read this. I anticipate your response.
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-- Answer from John --
First, I appreciate your commitment to face your fears and grow personally from this stressful challenge. You have accurately identified the importance of being honest and authentic, regardless of the risk. You have accurately recognized the importance of overcoming the behaviors you have engaged in that have kept you from fully being yourself in relationship. It is great that you are working to overcome a tendency towards people-pleasing behaviors, which are often based in fear of rejection or of others’ reactions. Standing up for yourself, saying what is true for you, setting better emotional boundaries, saying “no”, being honest about what is real for you — these are the pathways to your personal freedom and wholeness, as well as more authentic and healthier relationships. So, in a word, congratulations.
You are also accurate in what it will likely take to rebuild trust with your partner. Action. Doing the new, positive behaviors. Truth-telling happens not just about the big events, but in everyday life. There is ample opportunity for you to demonstrate your self-commitment to authenticity in the days and weeks to come. This would include, oddly enough, doing the same healthy behaviors with your partner in every day life — setting clearer emotional boundaries, saying what is true for you (even when that includes negative feelings), asking for what you truly want (even if you may feel you don’t deserve it), saying “no” when that’s what you feel, and not simply being a people pleaser. As he sees that the “real you” is showing up more presently each day, he will come to know more deeply inside that he can trust what you say is true.
So, yes, apologize to him and clean up the past omissions of the truth. And let him know that your commitment to being authentic includes not just talking about past events and embarrassments. Tell him it also includes authentically sharing what you feel, what works for you and what doesn’t, in your current life, and in that most important place of all, with him — your most intimate other.
Being authentic in relationship is an ongoing challenge. Know that committing to it verbally is one step. And acting on it, with behaviors that reveal authenticity, will require daily vigilance, awareness, and courage. The sense of risk in being authentic is inextricably entwined. As you stay true to your path, it will become easier. You might want to do some more reading that inspires authenticity or even get some coaching or counseling short term to help you integrate authentic behaviors into everyday experience, including with your partner and in this very situation that challenges you.
I do not know what the particulars are of these “untruths” and it might help me to know more specifics. You allude to another component of this situation (“to also judge me for something that I did three years ago makes the situation worse for me and for him”). If he is judging you, this may be worth looking at in terms of resolving the situation also, and it may be giving you an opportunity to authentically express something that is not working for you. I’d probably need more details to have a clearer picture of what this is all about. But I would warn you to be especially aware that you not fall into the fear-based people-pleasing syndrome around how you are handling your partner’s reactions to all this. Avoid internalizing his judgments.
Remember the part in my book about “Watching the Volcano” and know that when someone is expressing strong emotions, it is not the best time to take the verbal part of the communication personally. Judgment is really just a poor attempt to express the emotion of anger, which is often sitting on top of the feeling of pain and fear. Don’t fall for the verbal part. Simply being able to sit with him will likely help, and stay centered in yourself, and know that you have committed yourself to learning and growing from this — that is positively assured. Do this, and do not try to fix him or defend yourself, and as much as possible hold onto yourself and stay present as he feels his feelings. That may be a path to re-establishing trust.