“I was at an awkward place in my new relationship,” Washingtonian Rachel, 36, told me. “I’d been dating a guy for a month when I was laid off from my job. I was devastated, but didn’t know how much should I share with him. On the one hand, I don’t want any secrets with the guy I’m dating. On the other [hand], I don’t want to dump too much, too soon on him.”
Rachel’s dilemma is a common one for the newly smitten. How do you manage to keep your private emotional struggles from bleeding into the honeymoon period of your new relationship? “There’s no easy answer,” says Ken Page, psychotherapist and author of the Finding Love blog. “But you can take some time to wrap your mind around what’s happening, how much risk you want to take, and how your date might react.”
Weighing the risks and rewards of self-disclosure
Typically, new relationship concerns are focused on mutual attraction and whether it’s progressing at an agreeable rate for both parties. But when it comes to sharing information, most people want that to be mutual, too, and expect similar rates of self-disclosure from their dates. According to Theo Pauline Nestor, author of How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed, “the rate of self-disclosure — the speed at which we tell people important information about ourselves — has a huge impact on the course of a relationship.”
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No wonder so many singles avoid bringing up sensitive topics during their dates! It seems more marketable to promote yourself like a shiny, one-dimensional product instead of a complicated human being. So, many of us focus on what’s sexy, funny and admirable during those initial stages of getting to know someone.
But what happens when you meet a great guy right when something daunting enters your life — such as an illness, a sick parent or child, or a job displacement? Your problem has nothing to do with the two of you, per se, but it could have an impact on what you’re trying to create together.
I recently spoke with several women to find out what they learned from managing a crisis during the early part of a new relationship. Before your next date, check out these guidelines to get a better understanding of when you clue a new romantic prospect in to your difficult situation…and when you shouldn’t bring it up.
If you’re OK with having a “crisis conversation,” follow these three tips:
1. Share only when you feel comfortable doing so. Gauge how you feel first before second-guessing his reaction. “I got great advice from my therapist,” says New Yorker Gina, 37. “I met my new boyfriend around the same time that my mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders as I put on a happy face for each date. I was scared that, if I told him, I’d be undesirable — me and my family baggage. My therapist suggested that once I got comfortable with sharing this so-called ‘baggage,’ my date would be OK with it, too. He was right! When I didn’t pin the ‘undesirable’ label on myself, my date didn’t, either. We’ve been together almost a year, and I am so glad I shared.”
2. Pick a neutral location, a relatively calm time, and then discuss the issue in person. “I learned that timing of disclosure matters,” says Californian Tracy, 34. “When I found out my dog was sick, I called the guy I’d just had a first date with the night before. I freaked out on him during the phone call during a really bad rush hour in Los Angeles. In retrospect, it was a bad idea. I should have called a close friend first. It wasn’t so much what I shared — it was how I shared it that ruined the chance for date number two.”
3. When it comes to a health issue (an STD or Mononucleosis diagnosis, for example), then by all means, you owe it to disclose information that could possibly jeopardize your partner’s health. It might not work out the way you want, but it’s the right thing to do. “I told a guy I was interested in that I had herpes and wanted to make sure we were careful before getting closer,” says Virginia resident Lisa, 32. “I never heard from him again. He’d come on so strong, but that was a deal-breaker to him, I guess.”
Fortunately, sharing even difficult news like this doesn’t always signal the end of a relationship. “I just had a client tell me that the time her new relationship bloomed most beautifully was when she shared a lot during an early date,” says Page. “It bonded them.” Marylander Brenda, 42, agrees: “I was terrified to tell this great new guy that I’d had a partial mastectomy,” she reveals. “But he was a total prince — and we’re closer than ever now.” Sometimes, sharing tough stuff can have an upside (if it’s the right guy at the right time who can handle it, of course).
When should you avoid having a conversation about your problems? Here are a few clues:
1. Don’t tell him out of a sense of obligation, especially during the first few dates (assuming it’s not a health issue that could also jeopardize him). Remember: you should want to share with him before doing so. “I was having a spell of serious money troubles that was preoccupying me,” says 34-year-old Sharon from North Carolina. “At one point I was about to blurt it out during my date, but then I just decided I didn’t need to share this with my new beau. I didn’t owe him that. I knew I’d get through it. I didn’t want to put it on the table for discussion.”
2. Spilling every detail based on the current “confessional talk show” climate might feel empowering to you — but is it really necessary? Perhaps edged on by talk shows in which people air out their dirty laundry to the world, we think it’s our duty to be walking, talking confessionals. “I’m part of the Oprah generation,” says Washingtonian Donna, 37. “We talk because we can, and that’s not always good. While it can be empowering to share sensitive information if you think it will help him understand you, it can also be a fatal blow to a budding relationship if you share too much, too soon for no good reason.”
3. Proceed with caution if you’re unclear on what you expect from him. It’s important to understand the implications and expectations associated with what you’re sharing. Are you sharing from a “FYI, thought it’d be good for you to know” mindset? Or do you want him to know what’s going on in your life so he’ll understand why you might not act like your typical self in the near future? Making sure a date understands that your personality changes aren’t his fault is a very legitimate reason to share sensitive information. Are you asking for comfort or support for what you’re going through? If so, you may need to make it clear that you have some expectations about how your date will behave after sharing your story. If you don’t, you might end up resenting him for not delivering what you never asked him for in the first place, behavior-wise. It’s hard for people to read your mind and know what you need during your time of crisis, so set clear expectations for both of you going forward (if possible).
Borrowing from Hamlet: If “to share or not to share” is still a burning question in your mind, talk to a friend. Get a reality check to make sure your expectations are reasonable before speaking with your date. During stressful periods, you might not be thinking as clearly as usual.
Finally, ask yourself: if the shoe were on the other foot, how would you feel if your date told you early on that he was going through a rough patch in his life? Considering upfront what kind of boundaries you’d place on a new date in a challenging situation might help you decide whether to share this information with him and anticipate what kind of reaction to expect on his behalf.
Bottom line: As you think about sharing your personal challenges with someone, remember that you are not alone. The guy you’re dating has concerns and challenges of his own, even if they aren’t readily apparent to you. There’s something to be said for inviting your date into your world, especially if you allow him the opportunity to share his issues with you, too. While timing and how you feel about your revelation are critical (and no one wants to be Debbie Downer on a date), don’t cheat both parties out of an opportunity to grow.
In the end, even if you don’t say it, wouldn’t you at least like to know that you could unburden yourself? “It’s a really good sign if you feel that you could share something sensitive with your date, no matter whether you actually share it or not,” explains Page.
Dave Singleton, an award-winning writer and columnist for Match.com since 2003, is the author of two books on dating and relationships. Send your dating questions and comments to him firstname.lastname@example.org.