Thinking of leaving out a mistake from your past or a few current dreams? Don’t.
When I met Jodi, we were both in relationships with other people. She had been married for 14 years and I was living with my girlfriend. We met at work, where we helped students produce a college newspaper, so there was lots of down time for us when they were frantically editing stories and designing pages. During those long hours, we would sit and talk, in either my office or hers. Because neither of us was looking for a new relationship—and because she was clearly heterosexual and I was not—there was a rare kind of freedom to tell the truth. We weren’t crafting our life stories to make them sound attractive to the other person. We were simply sharing what had happened in our lives, not just the positive events, but the disasters, the things we’d lost, the mistakes we’d made, the people we still missed.
We talked about our pasts, our fears, our goals. She told me about the struggles of raising adolescent children and I talked about the frustration of needing to make a career change but not being sure how to do it. We shared dreams, regrets, stories about past lovers, embarrassing situations we’d survived, and what made us feel most alive. This wasn’t all at once, of course, because it wasn’t a “relationship” in the making. We were friends getting to know each other. We had nothing to lose and we weren’t carefully choosing our every word because we wanted to look good in the other’s eyes. By the end of the semester, we each felt we’d made a great friend.
Our friendship continued in the months ahead, through her divorce and my break-up. As we each slowly recovered from those situations, we shared more stories—about our own bad behavior, about why it might be hard to be married to each of us, about what we wished we had in a relationship. Somewhere in there, around the time we realized we knew more about each other than we knew about the people from whom we’d just split, we started to fall in love.
I was reluctant at first because she had never been in a relationship with a woman, but there was also something compelling about her. I couldn’t quite believe that someone like her existed. I had never been with someone who simply told me her whole, true story. I had never had a partner who admitted to her faults, fessed up to her fears, shared the things that scared her most, recounted a few horrible temper tantrums, and described lost loves.
Following this unusual beginning, we spent nearly six years seeing each other only every other week. Her kids were still teenagers and, rather than further disrupt their lives after their parents’ divorce, Jodi and I saw each other only during the weeks they were with their dad. They certainly knew about our relationship—because if you’re not already clear here, their mother tells the truth—but we had lots of time to continue getting acquainted. By the time we bought a house together, had a commitment ceremony, and later a “legal” wedding, I knew about all the people she had loved and why, the things she wished she hadn’t done and said, the triumphs and mistakes she was experiencing raising her children, and the people on whom she still had a little bit of a crush. She knew the embarrassing things I did to get girls’ attention in high school, the things I hated about my body, and the fact that I might have to leave her if Michelle Pfeiffer ever decided she wanted to date me.
In short, without really planning to do it, we created a foundation based on truth, which wasn’t always easy and fun, but allowed us to build a road with very few secret landmines. And in the process, we learned much more than the other person’s greatest fear or scariest moment. We also realized the following:
- Although we associate romance with keeping the other person guessing, it’s actually much more alluring to know everything about your partner. When you tell your whole story, there are no barriers between you and your mate, which makes you much closer and certainly more intimate.
- Once you know your person’s story and they know yours, the possibilities for your relationship are that much greater. It’s like the difference between putting gas in your car every week and actually knowing how your car functions. If you understand what you’re working with, you can build something so much more substantial than if you only have part of the story.
- Telling the truth early on in a relationship makes things so much simpler. It completely eliminates those hours we’ve all spent trying to guess why our partner is doing what he or she is doing. Granted, for some people, what Jodi and I have involves way too much talking and communicating and they see no reason to have this much information about their mates. For us, though, it’s a blessing to know that we have total transparency with this lovely person sitting across from us.
Mark Twain once said, “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything,” and in many ways this sums up one of the lessons Jodi and I learned. Telling the truth really has set us both free. It has given us the liberty to simply be who we are. There is no more wondering if this is the thing that will make her leave me or whether one of her stories about her marriage will make me think she’s crazy. There’s no speculating, no wishing and hoping for someone else, and no wondering what the other person really thinks. We trust each other to tell the truth and we realize that this knowledge has moved us about 2 million steps ahead of where we would be if we’d only told a portion of the truth here and there along the way.
Probably the greatest benefit to us each telling the other our whole, true story is that it allows us to be this way with more people—all the people we know, if they can take it. Once you’ve actually opened up and told someone everything that’s happened in your life, it removes shame, it allows you to see that other people have had many of these same experiences, and it normalizes your life. Both Jodi and I realize that we have little tolerance these days for people who pretend that certain things haven’t happened, or for falsehood of any kind.
In short, telling Jodi my story and really hearing hers has been a huge relief. We’re both humans; we’ve both made mistakes; we both dream of big things and lament small things. After 14 years together, we are definitely on our road as partners. Knowing what we know about each other is like having the same map and the same itinerary and the same level of trust in the journey we’re creating.
Writer Ginny McReynolds is a retired community college English instructor in Northern California. She blogs at Finally Time for This: A Beginner’s Guide to the Second Half of Life.