The Honesty Dilemma in the Early Stages of Dating


Not all thoughts need to be shared. This is a good boundary to keep in mind when you are just getting to know someone. However, many singles believe that immediate honesty about personal information will win people over they want to impress. This leads to introducing yourself in the ‘I am an open book” style of communicating. This is not a good idea. Yet many people seeking approval, connection and intimacy will convince themselves that the sooner they are viewed as an honest person, the sooner they will be respected. Examples of this “too much too soon” kind of disclosure are: 1) sharing personal traits or prior behaviors that out of context can make you sound like an undesirable person to get involved with (such as “I have cheated on prior partners, I have been told I am selfish”; 2) sharing personal relationship history, disasters and all; 3) disclosing sensitive family matters; 4) sensitive details about childhood; or 5) sensitive medical or psychological information.

Defenders of this kind of disclosure in the early stages of dating will say they have nothing to hide, have no shame, and want someone to know the good and the bad, so that no time is wasted. Also, overdisclosing is another way to deal with anxious thoughts about what to talk about. Concerns such as “am I interesting, am I smart enough, am I funny enough,” may cause people to default to telling their life story.

The truth is, this approach of unbridled honesty with a stranger (yes, even people who feel like immediate soulmates are actually more stranger than friend) usually leads to failure. Healthy relationships grow over time, through shared experiences, consistent behaviors and appropriate boundary setting. The spewing of information is not a quick road to intimacy. It is just a heap of information that might be lies, exaggerations, manipulations or neutral information that could be misunderstood and create premature rejection. Time and experience lead to getting to know someone, not a personal, verbal resume.

What Issues Drive this Kind of Inappropriate Disclosure?

It is undeniable that we all want to be loved, validated, trusted and admired. It is a fact that such needs are met through the experience of a romantic relationship. Dating is the main avenue for pursuing a person who might fulfill these needs. If a person feels urgent about getting their needs met, they will try to move fast with someone whom they have just met and are attracted to. The idea of being honest about information seems to be a sure way of speeding up someone getting to know and like you. People who believe that honesty is the kind of virtue that will make someone see them as brave, confident, trustworthy and attractive, will impulsively start inappropriately disclosing personal information. This personal information out of context can cause false, negative perceptions that can sabotage a relationship before it starts.

What Kind of Information Can Easily Create Negative Perceptions?

Family information: Too often people reveal personal traumas, traits and events related to their families. For example, if addiction runs in your family and you are dating someone who knows very little about addiction, they could easily get scared away. To the contrary, if you meet someone who has addiction in their family, they might conclude, “This will be a disaster, I have already been through that.” In other words, this particular disclosure could cause unnecessary fears or beliefs. However, once a person gets to know you over time, negative, generic suppositions about you, your family and your “worthiness or acceptability” decrease, and accurate perceptions will be increased based on the experience with each other in real time.

Relationship History:

For unsound psychological reasons, many people divulge detailed information about the previous people with whom they have been involved. This line of discussion has many pitfalls, and yet with all that there is to talk about when getting to know someone new, this past relationship talk often comes up early in dating. Even talking about your current dating status or behavior is unnecessary and often negatively affects perception of this new person you have just met. Some common motivation for this kind of disclosing or asking others to disclose their relationship past or patterns can be:

· To create a dramatic atmosphere for immediate intensity

· To gain sympathy

· To create jealousy and admiration

· To avoid other topics

· To determine if someone is “normal”

· To create details in order to make sure there is enough to talk about

· To create a sexual connection

Excessive sharing about the past limits getting to know the person in present time. It can alter moods by stirring up old feelings and memories. It can lead the conversation into an “interview” mode and details about old lovers can spark curiosities, prejudices, fears or sadness. Many people wonder, “What do I say if someone asks me questions about my past partner, or poses questions such as ” why are you single, have you been married, have you ever been abused by a former partner etc… ?” Here are some simple, non-insulting, privacy promoting responses:

· “I am open to talk about those topics after we go out more and get to know each other better.”

· “I find it much more interesting to talk about work, interests, friends, travel, goals etc.”

“I understand that you are just trying to make conversation, but I would be more comfortable if we just tabled those topics for down the road.”

Then just lead the conversation where you want it to go. Think of what you might learn and be interested in about that person by talking about what you are both presently doing in your lives or how the activity of the date is going. Anyone who presses to have their pryings answered in the early stages of dating is being insensitive, inconsiderate, selfish and may have problems with healthy intimacy. There are plenty of things to talk about on a date besides who else you have been with, broken up with, or still might miss. How can any of that talk be light and neutral or revealing of anything relevant to the here and now between two people who have just met and are trying to get to know each other?

What is the Difference Between Healthy Honesty and Unhealthy Honesty?

Unhealthy honesty has either an impulsive, strategic, manipulative or insecure style to it. It is usually coming from a place of low self-esteem, exaggerated ego, or intimacy problems. Despite the conscious belief by some that this kind of honesty is a sign of wanting to get close to someone or a sign that we feel good about ourselves, what is really in play here is a lot of insecurities that can eventually wreck a relationship. In the history of the world, has there ever been an exception to this generalization? Yes, of course there has been. But in the majority of cases, going too fast leads to people losing interest or getting scared away.

Healthy honesty is a disclosure that incorporates good judgment, proper timing, courtesy, respect, healthy boundaries and appropriate risk taking. At some point, we have to be willing to self-disclose in order to get closer to someone. However, it is through the passage of time and experiences that it makes sense to do so. So at some point we should take a risk and open up about ourselves and our histories. Also at some point, we must get honest about what we want, need, like and don’t like. Withholding or lying about authentic parts of who we are does not allow for healthy intimacy to develop. So healthy honesty involves revealing who we are, flaws, feelings and desires. However, in depth honesty too soon robs dating of what it is primarily all about which is, a social opportunity to have fun, meet a variety of people, get needs met, share and expand upon interests and passions, develop social confidence and competence, and of course to possibly find a partner.

Disclosing too much information too soon can create misperceptions, an atmosphere of seriousness, regret and embarrassment. Why not just go out, have fun and let time pass until opening up has some healthy utility to it? Healthy intimacy is only possible when the people involved are secure, patient, and set the kind of healthy boundaries needed to strike the balance between availability to others, privacy, self control and self respect. The inability to strike this balance may indicate the need for counseling in order to get to the source of the difficulty of keeping healthy boundaries. Commitment and effort put into developing these patterns of boundary setting and healthy communication guarantees the development of healthier and more satisfying relationships. It also minimizes the discouragement that can come from years of dating disappointments.

There is no exact time frame by which to start opening up on a more personal level to people you date. But generally, if you have had 6 or more consecutive dates, feel inspired to get to know the person better, and are not in a stage of excessively dating new people, it might be time to discuss each others comfort level with getting more personal and vulnerable.

If done in this manner, opening up will have a goal to it beyond wanting your dating interview questions answered. Also, holding off on having sex will aid in slowing down the premature sharing of sensitive, personal information and make room for something more meaningful to develop. So slowing the process down in general creates more security and comfort and room to learn whether you want to more forward or move on from dating someone. Done in this manner, dating becomes less of the dreaded process that many singles feel it to be, and more of an enjoyable, growth promoting experience.

Rebecca Sperber, MS, MFT

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