Honesty and Openness (Part 1)

Letter #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 honest.

How can I resolve this situation?


Dear S.C.,

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 predispositions.

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 throughout marriage.

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 of honesty.

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