Honesty and Openness (Part 1)
Dear Dr. Harley,
Ever since day one of our relationship, I have been honest with my spouse. Recently,
however, I found out that he has not been honest with me and I'm going out of my mind.
To give you a short background, when I met my husband (then boyfriend) he was dating
someone we both knew. I asked him then and since whether or not they had a sexual
relationship. He has always told me no, but for some reason I have always doubted the
truth of his answer.
This past weekend, I was cleaning out some boxes, and I found a letter that told me
otherwise. I read the letter out loud to him, and he finally fessed up and told me the truth.
I am not angry at the fact that he had a relationship with her (its not like I did not expect
him to have a "life" before me), but I can't get over the fact that he
lied to me over this.
He claims that he lied to me, because he was afraid of losing me at the beginning of our
relationship. However, since I have asked him periodically over the years, I feel as if he
should have told me a long time ago rather than me discovering the truth in this letter.
I am really bitter about this and can not seem to get over the hurt of being lied to. I keep
grilling him with questions because that lie makes me think of other things he could have
lied about. He says my grilling him is torturing him, but his lie feels like a stab in the back,
especially because I have always been honest with him. I have also told him things about
my past which were very painful to tell him, and at the risk of losing him, but I was
How can I resolve this situation?
You have introduced a problem that has baffled many professional marriage counselors:
Honesty. For years I have maintained an unpopular opinion on the subject -- honesty at
all costs. I have recommended to my clients that they be honest about everything,
especially instances of sex with others, before or after marriage. Why? So a husband and
wife can come to understand each other better, and protect each other from their
The argument made by most marriage counselors is that discussion of past sexual affairs
or sexual experiences before marriage is cruel to the other spouse. I've heard it explained
that the only reason one spouse would reveal their indiscretion to the other is to make
themselves feel better, to get it off their chest. The caring thing to do is to lie about
it, rather than cause their spouse all that pain.
I'm horrified whenever I hear such nonsense. While it's true that honesty releases a great
burden of guilt, it's not true that the only reason to be honest is to gain emotional relief.
Honesty is the door to understanding, and it's what each of us deserves from our spouses.
But I've never heard that position expressed when counselors discuss the issue. It's as if
honesty is one of those values which we should follow only when no one would feel bad
when confronted with truth.
So it's no wonder that your husband has kept you in the dark about his previous
relationship: It's what's often suggested by counselors these days. But I, like you, feel that
it is more important to know the truth than it is to avoid emotional pain. I feel that honesty
is essential to a marriage's safety and success. Almost every week I am asked by husbands
and wives whether they should confess to an earlier affair, or, as in your husband's case,
sex before he was married. People who call or write already know my answer from what
I've written, but they want to hear my reasoning once more before they go ahead and
reveal their secret.
I don't guarantee that their spouses will not be terribly upset, in fact, I predict it. I don't
even guarantee that their spouses will not leave them once they hear about it, although no
couple I've ever known has been divorced or has even had a worse marriage after the
revelation had a chance to sink in. Honesty does not make up for the harmful act that has
been hidden, but it does prevent another harmful act, dishonesty, from being repeated
In your case, instead of your husband confessing his lie, you discovered that he'd lied.
That is much harder to take than if he had just simply told you the truth at any point
before you found the incriminating letter. You are not convinced that he is any more
honest now than he was before you found his letter. But regardless of how it happened,
you now have convincing information that he lied to you. You can now let him know that what you want in your marriage
is truth at all costs.
There may be other areas where he has been dishonest with you. He should tell you
about those too. You may not have been completely open with him about all of your
feelings either. From now on you have an opportunity to create a relationship that places
honesty above all other values, and if you do, you will have joined my wife and I in the
minority of couples who place a high value on honesty.
I've always felt that the solution to crime, and thoughtlessness itself, is for all of us to
sacrifice our privacy. If all our acts were videotaped for anyone to see, most crime would
be a thing of the past -- we would be much more thoughtful and caring. It's when we
think that people will not know what we do that we tend to hurt others.
Self-imposed honesty is the next best thing to videotape. If you know that you will reveal
to your spouse whatever you do, you are far less likely to do things that are likely to hurt him.
It essentially eliminates the risk of most affairs. If you go one step further and follow my
Policy of Joint Agreement (never do anything without an enthusiastic agreement between
you and your spouse), affairs are utterly impossible.
Within a few weeks you will be feeling better about this, regardless of what I say to you.
But be sure that this experience is an encouragement to your husband to be honest with
you in the future. Most people do the opposite. When confronted with a lie, they make
their spouses pay for it. They cry, they scream, they hit, they make threats -- they do all
sorts of things that convince the lying spouse to cover their crimes more carefully in the
future. Don't put him through hell because he failed to tell you the truth. That would
simply encourage him to be dishonest with you next time. Instead, let him know that his
honesty means a great deal to you -- that you will work with him to try to achieve a more
honest marriage. Use your discovery as evidence that you both need to rise to a new level