Coming Clean

When should you reveal your skeletons to a potential love match?’s dating expert explores the consequences of full disclosure.

By Sherry Amatenstein, LMSW

a) Breast implantsb) Bourbon addictc) Brother in the hoosegowLet’s say the above, um, life situations are part of your bio. How soon — if ever — must these three items be disclosed to a new lover?The answers to this flash quiz:a) When hell freezes overb) In a New York minutec) Later, alligatorAt 40-plus, who among us is a blank slate? We’ve seen it, done it, been there: For better or for worse, we are products of our history. Our nearest and dearest know many of our dirty little secrets because they were there — holding our hand, gossiping behind our back, and/or offering up sage (and not-so-sage) advice.When we make new acquaintances, such personal information is doled out on a need-to-know basis. Our private stuff is not automatic public domain. But when that new acquaintance has the potential to become a serious romantic partner, which skeletons are we morally required to trot out — and how soon? Psychotherapist Toni Coleman states emphatically, "Rule of thumb is it’s essential to have the ‘sexual disease’ talk before becoming physically intimate." The founder of adds, "If the secret involves a potential deal breaker — such as your being a parent — it is also important to be upfront, and the sooner the better." Andrea Melli discovered the validity of Coleman’s decree the hard way. The 44-year-old Maine realtor confided to Jim on their first date that she’d been divorced four years earlier. What Jim didn’t learn until three months into their marriage was that he wasn’t her second bridegroom but her third. By chance, he found a copy of Andrea’s divorce decree from her childhood sweetheart in a box tucked into their closet. What angered Jim was not that his wife was a little more familiar with Mendelssohn’s wedding march than he’d realized, but that she’d deceived him for over a year. Andrea says sadly, "He forgave me, but his trust in me was badly rocked. I’ll regret to the end of time that I’d had so little faith in Jim’s ability to accept the real, flawed me that I’d hidden an important facet of my past."Her error wasn’t in initially keeping mum about her marital detritus, but in continuing to withhold this 180-pound piece of pertinent information, even as the two planned their own trip down the aisle. She explains, "I just could never find the right time, and the longer I waited, the harder it was to come clean. Keeping this secret marred our wedding day. Saying the vows, I was wracked with guilt."When to Come CleanOkay, there’s something delicate from your past that your new guy has a right to know. How do you determine when to lift that particular heavy bag from the closet? Paul F. Davis, author of Are You Ready for True Love? advises against carting anything to the candle-lit dinner table that might be hard to swallow. "Don’t dump excessively on a new guy. Hit the headlines and spare him the gory details." Instead, give the "secret shame" a positive spin, concentrating on lessons learned from your trials rather than the gritty particulars. A blow-by-blow account of your horrific choices in men is unnecessary. Stresses Davis, "Frame yourself as one who overcomes, and end the story on a high note of victory."Paul F. Davis Twice-divorced Andrea waited too long to disclose, but other women, in their hunger to emotionally bond, sabotage themselves by disclosing sensitive secrets too soon. Yes, it’s pertinent he learn your mother is in a psych ward or that you are bipolar. But it’s not first- or even second-date fodder. These "factoids" don’t directly concern him (i.e., he can’t "catch" mental illness from you), but they do fall into the realm of eventual full-disclosure. Says Amy Sherman, LMHC, a specialist in the 40-plus population, "At this age, women are done playing games, especially if they’re looking for a solid relationship." The author of Distress-Free Aging: A Boomer’s Guide to Creating a Fulfilled and Purposeful Life adds, "In the early stages when both partners are getting to know each other, it’s not necessary to reveal things that might scare someone off. Best to wait until there is a good sense of commitment and trust."Amy Sherman’s Bummed Out Boomer Dr. Patricia Covalt, author of What Smart Couples Know: The Secret to a Happy Relationship, elaborates, "It is important to know how strong the foundation is going to be before you tell all your secrets. Give things time. You cannot know each other on a deep level within a few weeks." What Smart Couples Know Cynthia Swanson waits until the third date to tell a man that the reason she always refuses wine is that she’s a recovering alcoholic of 10 years. The 48-year-old New York investment banker says, "I’ll only go on a third date if there’s a real connection and I want him to know about me."Which secrets can accompany you to the grave? A key yardstick: Is it something that still affects your life, or does it have absolutely no impact on the present? Debra Anthony, a 49-year-old Los Angeles casting director, has not now and will not ever disclose to her boyfriend of 10 months that her 36DDs aren’t natural. "Only my doctor and best girlfriend will ever know." She’s comfortable with her choice. And why not? Along with the right to keep a clandestine rainy day fund, every woman is entitled to having a few "harmless" secrets to call her own. Viva la difference!Do you have a tough question about dating or relationships?E-mail Sherry at and your question might be featured in an upcoming column.E-mail Sherry About Sherry AmatensteinSherry Amatenstein, LMSW, is the author of Love Lessons from Bad Breakups and Q&A Dating Book. She runs dating seminars around the country and does private coaching — not to help singles marry in 60 days, but to uncover their blocks. She has given relationship advice on the Early Show, Regis, Inside Edition, CBS News, VH1, BBC, and many other programs. Her philosophy is that the most important relationship you’ll ever have is with yourself.Schedule a one-on-one coaching session with Sherry Buy Love Lessons from Bad Breakups Buy The Q&A Dating Book Originally published on, February 2008

First Published Mon, 2009-04-06 18:02

Find this story at: