“It doesn’t matter what you say. I can’t un-hear everything he told me"
Reuven called me as soon as he dropped Leah off after their fifth date. “I just want you to know,” he said, “that I told Leah a lot of stuff. I wanted to be honest with her.”
I cringed. Reuven had gone through a rough patch during high school — he’d had a tough time with his parents and bounced around between yeshivahs, trying to find his place. It had been many years since then, and he was settled and happy; if you met him now, you’d never know. Which was why he decided to tell her.
“I understand,” I told him. “Of course, you need to tell her.”
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s important to start off with complete honesty. I told her how terrible it was, how my parents didn’t understand me, how the system was killing me. I told her how angry and frustrated I was and how depressed I got. It was like drowning in a black hole of despair.”
I cringed again. “You told her that?”
“Yeah, I told her everything.”
Leah called me a few minutes later.
“This is way too much for me,” she said, a tinge of hysteria in her tone. “I feel terrible that Reuven went through all that, but he really freaked me out. I want to marry someone I can have confidence in, someone who can be there for me. Is Reuven up to that?”
She interrupted me. “It doesn’t matter what you say. I can’t un-hear everything he told me. I don’t know if I can move ahead anymore. I need to think about it for a few days.” She hung up abruptly, upset and confused.
I called her the next evening. She sounded calmer, but just as confused. “What did you tell Reuven?”
“The truth,” I said. “That you want some time and space to think about everything he told you.”
Leah said nothing.
“Leah, I understand how you’re feeling — Reuven’s revelation was pretty intense. You feel shocked and shaken. But can you try to look at him for who he is today? He’s a different person than he was then, he’s developed real inner strength.
“He respects you a lot, and he was trying to be honest with you. Maybe he was too honest. He didn’t have to share all the gory details. But before you heard all about his past, you liked his ‘current self.’ Could you give him another chance to prove himself?”
The truth was, Reuven was pretty hurt by Leah’s reaction. He’d made himself vulnerable and shared some deeply personal experiences, expecting it to draw them closer. When Leah pulled back and asked for time to think, he felt rejected.
“Maybe she isn’t the right one for me, if this is how she reacts,” he told me.
“I know it took a lot of courage for you to share all that with Leah,” I told Reuven. “Most people want to maintain a picture-perfect image. It takes a lot of strength to open up about your struggles.”
“Yeah, well, it’s important to be honest!” he interrupted me. “You can’t go into a relationship like this based on a lie. She needs to know!”
He was right about that. I tried to find a way to explain his mistake.
“You know, I once knew a guy, let’s call him Rafi,” I said. “Rafi was bullied in elementary school. He did better in high school, but even as an adult his self-esteem was poor — he just wasn’t as confident or accomplished as a guy with his talents and gifts should have been.”
“I set him up with Chavi,” I continued, “and after a few dates, he started telling her about his experiences in elementary school. But he didn’t just say, ‘I was bullied and it was really painful for me.’ Instead he gave her a blow-by-blow of different incidents. The time the kids tricked him into going to one pizza store while everyone else met at a different one. The time the kids purposely cut his pants, and he was stuck in his seat all day with no one coming to his assistance. All the name-calling and public humiliation he’d experienced.
“It was overwhelming to Chavi. She felt terrible for him, but her view of him changed, too. Instead of the growing admiration she’d been feeling, now she pitied him. She had so many questions now. Was he normal? Were his parents normal? She asked a lot of questions, and he told her everything. But she lost some of her respect for him in the process.”
“Are you saying he should have kept it a secret?”
“Not at all. But he should have presented it differently. He could have said, ‘When I was younger I went through a very hard time. I was bullied in school and I felt like no one understood me or protected me. It was really bad for a while.
“ ‘Looking back, I realize I learned a lot from what happened to me. I’m more sensitive to others and caring because of those experiences. I know my classmates were wrong, but I worked on letting go and forgiving them. I talked to my parents about everything and although it’s a work in progress, our relationship is stronger now. The main thing is, I’ve moved on. I’m a different person now than I was then, and I don’t let it affect me anymore.’ ”
“A fairy tale,” Reuven said, a little sarcastically. I figured he was feeling bad for messing up.
“But it’s all true,” I pointed out. “And it probably offers a more relevant assessment of the here-and-now than the gory version. That’s what Leah needs to know. Who you are now.”
“Do you think she’d be willing to go out with me again?” Reuven asked in a low voice. “Maybe I can still explain it to her.”
Leah was reluctant, but I reminded her of the positive feelings she’d had toward Reuven before their last date, and she finally agreed to give the relationship one more chance.
I rehearsed the conversation with Reuven before they met, so he’d communicate in a way that accentuated the positive and focused on the growth in his development and how his past experiences shaped the incredible person he’d become. Life is always about balance. Secret-keeping is never healthy (and will destroy a relationship at any stage), but neither is oversharing.
“Share, don’t scare,” I reminded Reuven as he drove to pick her up.
Reuven hoped it would be smooth sailing, but although Leah made an effort to understand, she’d really been rattled. It took four more dates to regain the lost ground, but they made it. I watched with awe and pride as Reuven became even more sensitive, supportive, and thoughtful toward Leah as she worked through her feelings.
When I arrived at their l’chayim, I observed the new couple from a distance. Reuven saw me first and smiled. I noted his confident stride and the ease with which he greeted his guests. There had been a change in those last few weeks. The challenge and difficulty had accentuated Reuven’s determination and resolve. He was a fighter. He lifted his hand in a wave as he mouthed the words thank you, and I knew he and Leah would always bring out the best in each other.
to be continued…
Shani Leiman is a teacher, shadchan, and dating coach. She lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 737)
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