Dear Rosie & Sherry,
I am 29 years old, in the first healthy relationship of my life with a Jewish man. This man is caring and giving, very intelligent and circumspect, honest and communicative on a level unparalleled by any man I know. We have been dating for almost a year and are talking about the future. He has changed how I think about marriage; rather than pining for an unrealistic Prince Charming, I feel like I have found someone steady who would be a good husband and father and life partner, and who I love very much.
The problem is that I have made significant omissions in telling him about my past dating experiences, going so far as to lie to him about the extent of my involvement.
Everyone I talk to, including my parents, assures me that my past is my own, and since I recognized and corrected my behavior, he does not need to know all the details. He is particularly interested in my past and has questioned me about it on several occasions, and I feel terribly guilty for lying to him.
On one hand I feel I should come clean, because if he loves me enough he should be able to work through what happened before we met, and if we are headed toward marriage, there should be no secrets. On the other hand, I think he would be devastated, not only by what I would tell him but by the fact that I lied to him, and I can't bear the thought of hurting him like that.
Please help me. I am in a small town in the middle of nowhere with no rabbi, no close friends, and no family nearby, and I could use some guidance.
Your parents and friends are absolutely right. Certain aspects of everyone's lives should remain private, even in marriage. Even in the most honest marriage, we don't need to tell our spouse every deep dark secret.
We're not encouraging people to lie, or to hide really important information from someone they are becoming serious about. Certain information must be shared, although there is a time and place for such revelations. For example, we would expect a person to disclose a previous marriage, children (even if they were born out of wedlock and given up for adoption), a mental or physical health issue (including a disease transmitted by physical contact), serious indebtedness or financial complications, a serious criminal record, and significant details about their lives.
Some of these facts should be discussed earlier in a courtship, while others can wait until the couple is more comfortable with each other. A rabbi can give you proper guidance as to when to make a disclosure and whether you have an obligation under Jewish law to reveal something.
What do we think can remain private? The details of brief indiscretions you committed when you were younger and that you now feel bad about. Disclosing these details is not cathartic, even though you may think so, and it certainly will not help a relationship. What we would recommend saying is that when you were very young and immature you did a few things you are embarrassed about and have put it behind you a long time ago. You can tell the man you are dating that it is not helpful to talk about this subject because it has been some time since you moved beyond it and have evolved into a very different person.
Both of you have to keep in mind that people make mistakes in life, and they may always remember them with some amount of personal shame. Hopefully, each of us can grow past our mistakes by being able to compartmentalize the regret, decide we will not do this in the future, and move on to a more productive way of life. This follows the Jewish concept of teshuva, literally “return,” in which a person acknowledges they have made a mistake, resolves to improve their behavior, asks God to forgive them, and moves forward.
If the man you are dating cannot accept this explanation, we do not believe that giving him more information will not help your courtship. In fact, it will probably make it worse. We hope he is the type of person who can accept this explanation and can continue to grow with you toward a wonderful life together.
Rosie & Sherry