We keep secrets because we fear our partner will love us less or break up with us if we tell them the truth. We weigh up the pros and cons, and decide that unearthing the secret simply isn’t worth the emotional recrimination from our partner—while failing to see that the recrimination has already occurred within ourselves. It’s already damaging our ability to connect with our partner by restricting our ability to communicate emotionally with them.
According to a fascinating piece of research published in 2018, the average person keeps 13 secrets at any given moment—including five they’ve never revealed to another soul. This can become especially tricky when you’re in a relationship, because keeping a secret means you risk breaking down trust with your partner—especially if it actually affects them personally. And even the smallest of secrets can have unintended consequences in a relationship. The researchers found that keeping secrets is correlated with a negative sense of wellbeing, which in turn harms how partners interact with one another.
The most destructive secrets that couples keep involve financial problems, substance abuse, and infidelity. 13 million Americans have hidden a bank or credit card account from their partner. Infidelity is responsible for up to 40% of divorces in the US.
Identifying and understanding how keeping secrets under lock and key can backfire on you and your relationship is the first step toward disrupting this negative behavioral pattern.
1. You create a barrier to connection
It becomes increasingly difficult to share a life with your partner in a meaningful way when you’re being dishonest. In the 2018 research mentioned above, the scientists noted that secret keepers experience lower life satisfaction, feel more fatigued, and are lonelier, sadder, and more hostile.
2. You fuel an atmosphere of mistrust
When trust is severed, rebuilding it is challenging to say the least. Resentment and suspicion are hard to overcome, and the deceived partner may well find it hard to believe you’re not holding back other secrets, too, or that the pattern won’t just continue in the future. This constant need for reassurance doesn’t build trust, it only placates fear.
3. You hamper your ability to communicate naturally
When you keep a secret, you damage the dynamic with your partner. This leads to conversations that are stilted and unnatural because you’re overthinking to ensure the secret isn’t inadvertently revealed. Overwhelmed by this fear, you may become less available, receptive, or involved, which drives a wedge between the two of you.
4. You risk creating more lies to cover up the original secret
If you don’t address deceit early, either the original secret deepens, spreading its pernicious roots into the ground underlying your relationship, or else it incurs further lies. Successfully keeping a secret may also embolden you to continue your secretive behavior, even if you don’t do so with any bad intent.
5. You can actually become sick
Internalizing deception can be a heavy burden—so much so that it has real consequences on your health. Guilt, shame, and stress can cause headaches, digestive issues, and sleep problems. In more extreme cases, people may turn to substances to numb themselves from these discomforts, which in turn leads only to further alienation of their partner.
Breaking the pattern
If you’ve been a hoarder of secrets in your relationship for a long time, the prospect of breaking the protective veneer may be ominous, making you feel like you’re about to needlessly destroy the relationship. But as we’ve seen, there are far-reaching consequences to secret keeping, and in the long run you’re not only damaging yourself, but also not wholly committing to your partner and the relationship you’ve built together.
So be compassionate but straightforward when opening up. Carefully evaluate the situation: the timing, location, and mood, as well as your partner’s emotional state. And if the information will lead to particularly heightened distress, such as the revealing of infidelity or bankruptcy, you might want to consider having a third party present for moral support, such as a couple’s counselor, therapist, or even a mutual friend. Alternatively, you could have the dialogue in the presence of an accountant or lawyer, so the two of you can go over the financial and logistical implications of your secret in the here and now, before taking all the time and space you need to deal with its emotional repercussions later, in private.
Even though revealing a secret is daunting, even terrifying, the researchers in the 2018 study found that it has positive effects in the long term: People who unburden themselves of deceit feel happier, more authentic, and closer to their partners. Honesty and transparency—as well as forgiveness—are essential for sustaining your relationship. And even if your partner can’t forgive, you will at the very least set yourself free on a personal path toward redemption, which will hopefully encourage you to be more truthful in the future—both in your relationships and with yourself.
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