How much should you tell?

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How much should you tell?

as told by Al Turtle
© Al Turtle 2004 
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One time my partner and I were driving around.  I don’t know how the subject came up.  Strange subjects often came up while on the roads above our home.  What I do remember was being asked whether I kept secrets from her.

I took quite a time to answer.  This was in those days when honesty, openness and candour were a kind of new thing to me.  And it was also a time when neither of us were giving shallow answers.   And so I looked inside for my truth.

“I tell you some of my truth.  Some I don’t tell you,” I said.  She asked what I meant. 




I told her that I divided my inner world into two pieces:  those things I would tell her about – am even eager to speak of; and those things that I kept hidden from her, that I hesitated or refused to speak about.   When we arrived home, I drew a picture of this.  I said that all the stuff on the left I would tell, and on the right I would keep hidden. 

Looking at the picture, I told her that if she asked me a question about some things, I would want to answer.  If she asked a question about other things, I would lie or refuse to tell her or change the subject.  And some subjects were along that dividing line.  Questions about those dividing-line topics would trigger great tension in me.   And multiple questions about those subjects would exhaust me.

There was a pause in our conversation, as I both she and I became used to the truth I had just spoken.

Then she said the one word, “Why?” 

I pondered for a while.  Why do I do this?  Do all people?  Why do I keep things hidden?  Am I scared of sharing?  Yes.  But why? 

I answered, “I keep the things hidden which I think will upset you.”  We spoke a little more and I clarified that the subjects to the right were all subjects I thought would upset her.  Those to the left were all the ones I thought “non-upsetting.”  And those along the line I was uncertain about.   I also added that I had come to use the word “upset” to mean angry or sad or both.

I reiterated, “I guess I am protecting you, by holding back information.” And at that point I recall her getting pretty damn upset.

This discussion picked up again, several days later.  

Solving the problem

We started off with this picture of me protecting her from “subjects I thought would hurt her.”  I was being noble, but was deciding for her, ahead of time, what she could or could not stand to listen to.   She didn’t like me doing this.  I had been doing it for years with everyone I came close to.  This was the famous “I don’t want to hurt her/his feelings” subject.  I hear many people saying, “I don’t want to upset so and so.”

One issue that bothered my partner a lot was my making a decision “for her” about what she could handle, without asking her.  This seemed pretty patronizing to her, and a lot like what she experienced as a child.  As I, personally, have lots of training in the tools of arrogance, this came pretty naturally to me.  She didn’t like it.  I also didn’t like it, now that it was exposed. I could still recall my parents speaking about subjects they deemed I didn’t need to hear, while at the time I was very curious.   I could certainly understand her and validated her.

Not sharing is worse than sharing.

We resolved that sharing could be problematical for both of us.  It was hard.  But that it was not as troublesome as keeping things hidden.

And so the question arose, “Why would I protect her from what she wanted to hear?”  And this was followed by the question, “Why would she get upset at hearing things she wanted to hear?”  And the final questions were, “What damage are we doing to each other by ‘acting “the normal way,’ and how do we want to change what we are doing?” 

From the men

I spent some time talking about this with my men friends, and found out that my behavior seemed pretty normal to them, too.  Were we, men, trained to protect women from being upset?  It seemed so.  We were certainly all used to our partner’s upset, and to trying to prevent it.

"Upset" as training 

Some felt we, men, were acting out of fear of our wives’ behavior when they were upset.  And so we looked at the idea that people punish others by “getting upset.”   

The men linked this to the idea of how seeing-eye dogs are trained.  A trainer has the dog by its harness.  In the other hand he carries a paper bag of empty pop cans.  When the dog does not pause at the edge of a sidewalk, where a blind man might fall, the trainer shakes the bag of cans in the dog’s face.   The dog learns to avoid the shaking bag (the upset) by pausing at the sidewalk curb.  And so a man learns to withhold his sharing as his wife gets upset (shakes the bag) when he does share.   That idea seemed good, but not enough.

Some men related that they were using their partner’s “upset” as an excuse to not share.  They were shy or hesitant even in the group meetings.  As we spoke more of this, we realized that men often acted like an over trained seeing-eye dog in retirement – scared of any noise anywhere.

Protecting Little Girls

Some of the men felt they were protecting women.  Then one of the men recalled something he heard at a retreat with Robert Bly.  “The difference between a 10 year-old boy(girl)  and a 14 year-old boy(man) is that the former has no room in his head for ugly thoughts and the older has plenty of room.”  The idea was that a kid would run away from traumatic sights, while an older kid might be curious about the same, gory stuff.   This man suggested that perhaps we, men, were all treating women as being youthful – protecting them from the ugly thougths.  That idea fit, too.

I checked this out with my partner.  She spoke of the cultural imperative to keep women youthful.  She had finished reading Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls by Mary Pipher, about what our culture does to young women – conditioning them to try to look and act “nubile” forever.   She finally added the word that helped me.  Women are trained to appear “fragile” as part of their cultural contract with men.

Together we put the two ideas alongside each other.  Perhaps men are conditioned to be protectors, to keep women as “girls;” and women are conditioned to accept protection as proof of their success at appearing nubile.    The men send the message, “I’ll protect you, little fragile girl, if you let me know what upsets/threatens you.”  The women send the message “I’ll keep appearing like a little fragile girl, if you protect me. When I need protection, I will dramatically appear fragile and get upset.”

The Upset Problem

The formula then had two components:

  1. people inappropriately use “upset” to avoid the unpleasant, (by the way, this is the Master/Slave issue.)
  2. people are trained to give inappropriate protection to those who use “upset” as a signal.  (this is one of the problems of the Power of Passivity.) 

My partner and I became more comfortable with this formula, which our culture had handed us over time.  It even seemed to hold up when we found out that the gender reverse was true – “women protect men from upset also.”  At this point we threw out the idea that this was gender specific – both genders do it.    “I don’t want to upset him.”  “I don’t want to upset her.”   



The solutions became clear to us over time. 

  1. I had to become willing to share anything with my partner.  My caution, my growth challenge, was that when I was going to tell something that I feared might upset her, I had to give her warning and to help her with any reaction she might have. 
  2. My partner had to learn how to “get tough,” and to be ready to listen to anything without “getting upset.”  Her caution, her growth challenge, was to encourage me to share, to work to make it safe for me to share, and for her to take responsibility for reducing her reactivity.  And these challenges were true for me to her and for her to me.

I set about learning how to become a source of safety to my partner, while at the same time sharing everything.   I found that she didn’t like surprises.  I found she didn’t like feeling pushed.  And so I learned to say, “I’ve got something to share that might be difficult for you.  Tell me when you are ready to hear it.”   I learned to use Mirroring whenever I thought sharing might be difficult.  “I’ll tell you, but only if you will mirror me as I do.”  

I learned that her upset was often more a trial to her than it was to me, and that it was not useful for me to take her “upset” as a punishment toward me.   I think that was about the time when we stopped using the phrase “upset at so-and-so” and replaced it by “upset by such-and-such.”   I believe we wanted to increase the chance that only one of us would be “upset” at a time.   I think that the best friend an upset person has is one who is not upset, and who is PreValidating, curious, understanding, and supportive.

My partner read more about women’s paths in life, and she came up with the term “crone.”   This became a very positive image of strong and elder-becoming femininity.  She used powerful concept to contrast with “little fragile girlishness.”  I think she found that some component of her “upset ness” was just drama, and some part was genuine fear.  Discovering the difference and learning what to do about each became one of her projects.

She gave me another thought.  Sometimes she wouldn't share because she was "trying to say it correctly or right" (whatever that was?).  She didn’t know how to say something without fearing saying it “wrong.”  She told me this came from being raised by people who would frequently interrupt her and correct her speaking. 

She and I learned to push through that hesitancy using another phrase.  "I don't know how to say this right! So let me say it wrong and then let's, you and me, clean it up afterwards."


  • It is better to share than to keep hidden, in the long run.
  • It is better to share it crudely than to keep it hidden.
  • Keeping secrets from each other does not make anyone safer.
  • How you share is critical. Do it dialogically.
  • Prepare yourself to listen to anything and remain relaxed.
  • Protecting someone from distress is a way of keeping them from growing up.


How much should you tell? — 12 Comments

  1. Dear Sue,
    This topic seems very difficult for couples in our culture. Lying or keeping secrets seems a norm. With my partner we both work to continually build habits of candour. I've written on it often – target telling it all. The general principle I think is that both parties eventually commit to being willing to share anything that your partner want's to hear. That doesn't mean share everything. Some stuff our partner does we don't feel interested in.

  2. I just read your essay giving your take on affairs from the lizards point of view and found it very interesting. I'm still curious about the level of transparancy you suggest for couples, which of course is related to the subject of affairs, or being in the dark, being in denial, secrets etc. My earlier question above was one example of my confusion of how when or why to share all, or not share all. Any further insight on this topic would be of great value. Thank you! Sue

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