Dating after 50: Which secrets do you tell . . . and when?

Do not tell secrets to those whose faith and silence you have not already tested.
- Elizabeth I
Here''s a very common scenario -- and dilemma -- for many men and women in midlife: Let''s say you were married for a few years, or even decades. Then, came the divorce (or the death of your partner). After a period of time you start dating again, and one person in particular has grabbed a share of your heart more than the others. You see each other more frequently. You might even meet the kids and the best friend. You''re getting the distinct impression that things are moving along very nicely indeed.
But, before you met this new love, you had a life, complete with friends, lovers, spouses, jobs, good decisions, bad choices and ... secrets.
And then comes the inevitable question: Do you tell ... everything? And if so, when?
A friend tried stripping at a "gentleman''s club" when she was just out of college to earn some quick money before starting law school. It was 30 years ago, but she still cringes (she''s since become a women''s rights attorney) at the memory and isn''t eager to reveal this little blip in her career path to her new boyfriend.
Is she wrong?
A man I know had his "eyes done" but doesn''t want the woman he''s dating to know, worried that she might think he''s too vain and be turned off. Crazy?
Then there is the question posed by a reader to the "Ethicist" columnist in the New York Times recently:
As a very broke and self-supporting 20-year-old college senior, I donated my eggs in exchange for money. It was a horrendous experience, and I rarely speak about it. Although I assume that some children resulted, I regret my participation and do not wish to know the results. I am now 35, engaged and planning to start a family. Must I tell my fiancé that there may be teenagers walking around with my genetic material?
Where do you draw the line? What is considered "need to know" and what''s "too much information"? Will how much you reveal now create a pattern for how much you tell going forward?
When I interviewed relationship therapist Esther Perel for my book, she told me that Americans simply share too much information, which she believes causes all kinds of problems for couples, including sexual. She said:
Americans don''t believe in secrets. Popular marital advice tells us that lack of intimacy means lack of closeness therefore you need more talk, more communication, and more transparency with your partner. On the contrary, excess information and over-sharing can lead to nothing but trouble.
Is a "no tell" policy the best way to go?
Looking for more clarity on the topic, I turned to a new book "Love For Grown-ups," which is a guide to forging a lasting love relationship when you''ve already had a full life (with secrets to spare). In the section called "There''s Something I Need to Tell You . . . " the authors (there are three) offer some suggestions on sussing out what you should tell, and when, and propose asking yourself these questions when trying to decide:
  • Is it something your new love should know if he''s going to be around permanently, but not something that will have a day-to-day effect on our time together?
  • Is it something that can''t be taken care of without disrupting our life together?
  • Is he or she discreet? Can I trust this person with this information?
  • If we end our relationship, will I regret his knowing this information?
They add that if you''ve decided to tell your new love a few of your secrets, the timing is important. Don''t wait until you''re in so deep the he or she will wonder why you waited so long to let him or her know. That alone could set the wrong tone.
Everyone has a past, and by the time we reach midlife, we''ve had pretty full lives. Very few secrets are considered "need to know, " but there are some which are pretty obvious, such as history of mental illness, addiction or crime.
As the authors of "Love for Grown-ups" pointed out,
Hard as these conversations can be, these days there are few things people find truly shocking. The problem may feel bigger to you than it does to him. Remember his life, too, has had its ups and downs. In a mature relationship there''s history on both sides.
The "Ethicist" columnist, by the way, offered this advice to the woman who sold her eggs in college:
You should tell your fiancé what happened -- not because of the potential disposition of your genetic material, but because of the psychic real estate the experience still occupies. To withhold something that still has such a painful claim on you, while allowing your fiancé'' to think he knows you well, would tread too close to lying.
We will always have secrets -- big and small -- and not all are essential parts of our "for public consumption" life story, even for someone you love. Many are for our eyes only, discreetly entered into journals. By the time we''ve reached midlife, maybe we should consider this simple guideline: enjoy the present, look forward to the future, and leave the past behind. Maybe it''s time to write a new story, with a new beginning.
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