It usually happens in the second or third counseling session. One marital partner looks at the other and, with more than a bit of frustration, blurts out: "Why didn't you tell me?"
There are a number of common responses: "I did." Or, "I forgot." Or, "I thought you knew." Or, even, "I didn't think it was that important."
Most of these responses have to do with sloppy communication. They don't point to anything particularly troublesome in the relationship, but they do require attention. For example, it is easy to think we shared something when we didn't, or to just plain forget to tell our partners something that they need to know.
Maybe we actually did tell them, but they forgot. This sort of stuff happens in all relationships and there are some easy things we can do -- like writing things down -- to make sure we are more on top of things.
Assuming our partner is a mind reader ("I thought you knew") is also an easy mistake to make. After a few years of being together, we get to know each other pretty well. We begin to have the same ideas, or even complete each other's sentences. That's good. We want to get to know each other that well. However, it is a bit of a leap to assume our partners always will know what's on our mind, or be able to read a complete explanation into a word or two.
Again, this is fairly easy to deal with. It just involves regular sharing with our partners and never assuming they know it just because we've thought it.
Underestimating the importance of information is also common, and easy to remedy. Often, we can simply ask if our partner wants to know about something. "I had a rough day at work. Nothing out of the ordinary. I can tell you more if you want, but I'd just as soon forget it and watch TV." The offer to share is there. If it's important to our partner that we do say more, they can tell us.
So much for the easy-to-deal-with reasons we don't communicate. There are some not-so-easy-to-deal-with reasons as well. These include things like fear, shame, guilt and selfishness.
A lot of us are afraid of dealing with anger in our relationships. Sometimes we choose to not deal with it by hiding the things we think our partners will be angry about. We hope they won't find out or that things will just blow over.
Of course, when this doesn't happen (and it is amazing how often it doesn't), our partners are angry about both what we were hiding and our attempt to hide it.
Other times, we may feel ashamed about something. We try to hide whatever it is we are ashamed of because we believe our partner also will be ashamed of us, or stop trusting us, or even reject us. Often when we do this, we are underestimating our partners' love for us or their maturity. And if they do find out what we are hiding, we are giving them more reason to think less of us.
Guilt also may limit what we tell our partner. Acknowledging that we are guilty can be humbling (and probably should be). And such confession implies that we probably need to ask for forgiveness and make amends, neither of which comes easily to most of us. However, my experience has been that, in the long run, confessing guilt is a lot easier and a lot healthier than trying to hide it.
Finally, our desire for power also can lead us to limit what we tell our partners. Most of us like to do things our way. And as soon as we let our partners know what we are up to, we risk the chance that they will want (and may deserve) a say over what's happening.
If we are caught up in a power struggle with our partner or just feel insecure about our personal power, we may try to keep them out of the parts of our lives we want the most control over.
It's amazing just how much can be involved in a simple statement like "Why didn't you tell me?" It is also amazing how quickly couples can sort through their problems once they do start to tell each other what they need to know.
• Dr. Ken Potts is on the staff of Samaritan Counseling Center in Naperville and Downers Grove. He is the author of "Mix Don't Blend, A Guide to Dating, Engagement and Remarriage With Children."