COMMENTARY 984.5: Do I Have to Tell Everything?

Should a job applicant properly withhold information about a criminal record or termination from a previous job? Should a woman starting a new relationship say nothing about a previous marriage or abortion? These are problems of candor: When does an ethical person have a duty to reveal negative information about his or her past?

First, let’s reinforce a basic premise: All dimensions of honesty — truthfulness, nondeception, and candor — are important to establishing and sustaining relationships of trust. Intimacy flourishes in an atmosphere of openness and vulnerability. While knowledge of negative information can damage a relationship, secrets discovered later can be fatal.

Second, there’s a much higher expectation of full disclosure in personal relationships than in business relationships.

But, to paraphrase Jack Nicholson’s character in A Few Good Men, not everyone can handle the truth. So why sabotage ourselves by telling a new boss, friend, or potential life partner things that could impede the relationship?

As tempting as it is, keeping such matters secret is like burying landmines within the relationship. Undisclosed truths build fault lines under the foundation of important relationships. In a person of conscience, they can create guilt, fear, and insecurity.

Trust is a state of mind, but maintaining trust is about meeting the expectations of people who trust us. So here’s an easy test: Upon finding out the whole truth, will the person to whom you denied knowledge feel betrayed? If so, the honorable thing is to fess up.

This is Michael Josephson reminding you that character counts.

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Comments 3

  1. People need a chance to get to know you before they might accept your darkest secrets. I reveal the truth to women I encounter in romantic relationships, but not on the first date. I am a recovering alcoholic and don’t immediately mention my membership in AA. Of course, if she suggests wine at dinner I always tell her I don’t drink, and if she asks why I tell her I used to drink too much.

    I would say a woman need not mention the abortion or perhaps a previous infidelity until the proper time. After all, we might not ever get to that point.

    1. I agree with A.M. My then-teenage niece once sought my advice about whether to tell a boyfriend about sexual abuse she had experienced when she was younger. I told her that if it was a casual boyfriend, she didn’t need to share that experience – but if this was a serious relationship which might lead to intimacy, she should make a full disclosure. He had a right to know. I still stand by that advice. It served her well.

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