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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:

  1. What is the actual secret, and how serious do you think it is? Hopefully, you’ve asked him what he was arrested for. If not, ask.
  2. How did you find out? It’s different to find out a secret from an outside person, rather than your partner “coming clean” on their own. Oftentimes, there is a story in how the betrayed partner finds out that may even confirm suspicions that something is off, or being withheld.
  3. Does the partner with the discovered secret agree to discuss it and provide details? Is he sharing with you the details of this arrest? Does he speak out of defensiveness, and not make excuses for not telling you? Does he acknowledge how withholding this information was harmful to you and to the relationship?
  4. Is your boyfriend willing to respond to additional questions, and to any needs you express that can help repair your damaged trust?

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. 

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  • Dr. Robert Navarra

    LMFT, Certified Gottman Therapist

    Dr. Robert Navarra is a Certified Gottman therapist, trainer, consultant, and popular speaker. He has co-authored several book chapters on Gottman Method Couples Therapy with John and Julie Gottman, and most recently co-authored three articles on Gottman Couples Therapy with John Gottman for the Encyclopedia of Couple and Family Therapy.