There have been many times over the years, when someone shares with me something new, sometimes even when we’ve known each other for many years. This comes up not only in my work with clients, but also with people with whom I have had longstanding friendships. I usually don’t think twice when I’m learning something new at the beginning of a relationship. But something feels different when I get new information after knowing someone for a good amount of time.
With friends, I think I used to feel offended when I learned something I hadn’t known before. It felt like somehow I wasn’t trustworthy enough to have this information. Or maybe my friends though I might judge them if they shared something more personal or something perhaps they felt ashamed of.
In some ways, it was no different with clients. I wondered why I hadn’t gotten information sooner, especially since they were coming to therapy to make changes in their lives. And while I don’t like to admit it now, I might have attributed the sharing of information later in our work as something “telling” about my clients rather than about me or our relationship.
When No One Knows
Roger and Jackie had come to see me, hoping their 13-year-old daughter would join them in family therapy. Unfortunately, their daughter refused to come, so instead, our therapy revolved around parenting issues and, on some days, their relationship with one another. When Connie entered middle school, her acting out escalated. She was having more problems in school and Roger and Jackie were concerned that she was also using marijuana and potentially other drugs.
For the first two years we worked together, we discussed general parenting issues. When Connie was in elementary school, she had been diagnosed with ADHD, so we talked about how to best parent a child with ADHD. We focused on consistency, positive reinforcement, immediate rewards, and everything you might typically think was helpful in parenting a child with attention problems and some impulsivity.
It was hard for Roger and Jackie to be consistent. They had very different parenting styles. Roger tended to be more strict and Jackie tended to be more permissive. And when Roger experienced Jackie as too permissive he became more punitive. When Jackie experienced Roger as more punitive, she became more permissive. We identified this cycle of polarized parenting and, over time, they were able to reduce their stylistic gaps and be more consistent around limit setting. Still, Connie’s acting out escalated. She was arrested on several occasions and Roger found drugs in her bedroom.
After two years of working together weekly, both Roger and Jackie were exhausted. They didn’t know what else to do for Connie, and they were afraid she would be arrested for something serious. After telling me about one interaction between Connie and Roger that almost became physical, after a long silence Jackie whispered, “We never dreamed this would happen when we adopted her. We thought we were offering her a better life, and now we wonder if we’ve made things worse for her.”
They had never shared with me that Connie was adopted. She had three older brothers and one younger sister. When Roger and Jackie initially shared their family composition and we did a modified version of a genogram, Connie’s adoption never came up. I’m sure my surprise was evident on my face as both Roger and Jackie looked down.
Asking But Still Not Being Told
When I was facilitating groups for adult male survivors of childhood sexual abuse, involvement in the group included several initial interviews with prospective group members. The purpose of the interviews was to provide information about the group, learn information about the potential group members, and then jointly make a decision about whether the group seemed like a good next step.
I asked many questions about each man’s history and also about his desire to join this kind of group. In addition to asking the typical questions about readiness for a group of this nature, I also asked about whether or not a potential group member had hurt any children himself.
I explained that sometimes people who have been hurt are vulnerable to hurting others. I also shared that having hurt a child in the past would not preclude someone’s involvement in the group, but that hurting a child in the present would be a reason for exclusion. When someone denied ever having hurt a child, I’d go on to ask “What might it be like to be in a group for survivors when someone, at some point, discloses that he has hurt a child?”
When I’ve talked about this with colleagues, I’ve had mixed reactions. “How can you allow someone who has perpetrated into a group with survivors,” is a typical question I’ve been asked. “I’m not ‘allowing’ it,” I’ll usually respond. “It’s already something that is most likely happening. I’m just opening the possibility of it being discussed, rather than keeping it a secret.”
With over 100 men participating in these groups over the years, I’ve had a few share in the initial interview, that as a teenager they’d hurt a child—a neighbor, a cousin, a younger sibling. More frequently, however, this hasn’t been shared in the initial interviews but has been shared during a group meeting, usually at least 20 weeks into a 35-week group.
Almost always, when the first person shares this piece of his history, there is at least one other person who shares the same information. Others may then disclose a fear of hurting a child, or a fantasy that he will, at some point, hurt a child. Initially I used to wonder why it took 20 weeks to share this information, when I’d asked about it directly in the initial interviews.
New Information or Manipulation?
Over 20 years ago, when I was working at Teen Living Programs with runaway and homeless young people, we would often do initial intake interviews in an effort to gain as much information as possible since we also delivered emergency services. Some of the young people only needed food and hygiene supplies. Others made decisions to stay with us longer, receiving housing and case management services.
I remember on many occasions, after we had been working with a young person for several weeks to several months, our case managers would get new information that the young person had not provided during the initial meetings. Frequently, we learned about physical abuse, sexual abuse, or even outstanding warrants for arrest.
Often, our case managers would express frustration when this information was shared after months of knowing a young person. “I feel so manipulated!” was something they often shared with me after a young person shared such information. “This was important for me to know! Why did it take three months before I knew this?”
Sharing Requires Safety
In each of these instances, it’s reasonable to wonder why it took so long to learn about something so important. It’s natural to question such a postponed disclosure: “What took you so long to share this information? Why didn’t you share it a long time ago? Why didn’t you tell me about it when I asked you directly?”
On the surface, all of these questions seem reasonable to ask. If we slow ourselves down from verbalizing our initial emotional reactions though, it makes sense that this information was disclosed when it was. We share when we feel safe. None of us shares everything about ourselves immediately. The parts of ourselves we struggle with the most or that have the most charge require that we, on some level, feel like the reward or relief from sharing is greater than the risk.
In each of the examples I’ve described, there were potentially huge negative consequences related to disclosure. Some possible negative consequences were tangible (exclusion from group, denial of services, or in extreme instances—legal consequences). Other negative consequences were less tangible (judgment, shame, or ostracism—to name just a few).
Normalizing New Information
Even knowing that we don’t share everything at once, even when we are asked, I am sometimes still surprised when I learn something new after many years of knowing someone. One thing I’ve experimented with is trying to normalize withholding some information. When I have initial meetings with people now, I’ll often say something like: “It’s ok not to tell me everything now. Maybe you can share what you think is most important for me to know at this point.” Such statements, I hope, create more space for later disclosures without too much fear of judgment.
There’s something else I’ve learned to do when I’m told what feels like important information after I’ve known someone for quite awhile. I’ve stopped myself from asking “Why are you telling me this now?” and instead will say something like: “What do you think has stopped you from telling me this in the past?” or “What’s held you back from sharing this?” And I try to be sure to follow up with “What’s allowed you to share this with me now?”
I’ve been with my partner for 23 years. I almost always think I know everything there is to know about him. And then we’re at dinner with friends or family, and he’ll tell me something about his growing up that I didn’t know. Other times, he’ll share how he felt about something I said weeks ago that I thought we’d completely resolved. In those instances, I’ve come to understand the reason he’s just telling me has more to do with me than it does with him. Maybe that’s not so different than our relationships with our clients.
I’m learning something new living on this side of you.
Written by Jeff Levy, LCSW, CTRS