By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW
When people keep secrets from their partner they often rationalize their behavior to themselves and others. Usually, they lack confidence in their ability to confront unpleasant topics – such as money troubles, or issues related to past or present errors in judgment or mistakes. They simply don’t trust their partner enough to believe that he or she will be there for them if they’re vulnerable and tell the truth. In reality, keeping secrets from your partner is a form of betrayal and signifies a toxic relationship.
I used to believe that a breach of trust was something that couples could bounce back from quickly but I’ve gained insight about the ways this isn’t usually the case. For instance, most marriages don’t survive big betrayals or even a series of smaller ones. My current view is that finding healthy ways to be vulnerable, express your thoughts and feelings, and be honest with your partner, is the best way to build a trusting relationship. Vulnerability is the glue that holds a relationship together over the long run.
But is lying by omission or keeping a secret the same as lying? First, you want to consider how your partner would view your secret if he or she found out and you failed to tell them about it. Also, if you feel guilty or uneasy about not disclosing information to him or her, it’s a red flag you need to be honest or forthcoming about something you’ve kept a secret.
For instance, Claire neglected to inform her husband Jake that she had an emotional affair with Ryan, a male co-worker, and that it lasted a few years. At times, she would confide in Ryan and fantasize about having sex with him daily. She explains: “I didn’t really see a reason to tell Jake because we just had lunch together but looking back it was bad for my marriage. I see now that I was becoming more emotionally detached from Jake and we stopped having sex and being intimate. But I just didn’t want him to judge me harshly or leave because he is very jealous and possessive.”
When I attempted to explore with Claire the reasons why honesty is essential to a trusting relationship, she put it this way: “I guess I never saw myself as being dishonest but I do feel guilty.” At this point, I asked her to consider that mistrust erodes the quality of any relationship and that keeping crucial information secret from Jake isn’t a way to build trust and intimacy with him. During our sessions, Claire realized that keeping secrets is a form of self-sabotage because she loves Jake and wants to build a future with him and keeping secrets was driving a wedge between them.
Like Claire, many of my clients tell me they keep secrets from their partner because they believe telling the truth will make things worse. Or they’ve convinced themselves that their significant other simply can’t handle the truth and might abandon them. While it is true that some partners will feel angry, hurt, and betrayed when they learn their love interest has done something unacceptable to them, honestly confronting issues is the best way to foster trust and intimacy with a partner.
In fact, recent research shows that one in five people are keeping a major secret, such as infidelity or money troubles, from their spouse in Brittan. Surprisingly, a quarter of respondents in this study said they kept this secret for more than twenty-five years. Further, one in four of those people who kept a secret in this study said that it was so big; they worried that it would destroy their marriage. Common secrets reported include money troubles, viewing pornography, and various forms of betrayal such as infidelity.
When your partner withholds important information from you regardless of their reasons, it’s normal to feel betrayed. Experts agree that trust can be easily broken and hard to repair. For many people any form of deceit can be a deal breaker. For example, Karen, a thirty-nine year old teacher explains: “Trust is a huge issue for me. It takes a lot to rebuild my trust and if it’s broken, there’s a chance it may not be earned back.” Karen is a daughter of divorce who watched both her father and step-father betray her mother – leaving her without crucial financial supports.
According to author Kristen Houghton, relationships are made up of many components and people will put up with many quirks to keep a relationship going. How much will you put up with before throwing in the towel when you feel betrayed? Houghton writes: “But if you are consistently made to feel uncomfortable or uneasy because you feel as if you cannot trust your partner, then making the decision not to take him or her back is the logical one for you. Life needs quality and a sense of security.” In other words, by keeping secrets or lying to your partner, you run the risk that you will lose their trust and put your relationship in jeopardy.
5 reasons why it’s a not a good idea to keep secrets:
- Keeping secrets is the same thing as being dishonest. Honesty is always the best policy and most of us have a moral code which tells us that keeping secrets is akin to lying. For most of us, being dishonest is only acceptable when we are in dire straits – like trying to save someone’s life. Yet some people rationalize that they need to keep secrets or their relationship will end.
- Often keeping secrets creates more problems in a relationship. The more time that passes, the harder it is to fess up. When people keep secrets or tell lies, they often have to tell other lies to cover up the first lie. They dig deeper and deeper into a hole of dishonesty.
- Keeping major secrets is a form of deceit and it breeds mistrust. Further, once a person loses trust, it is hard to regain it – especially for those who have been betrayed by a parent or former romantic partner or spouse.
- Keeping secrets is a hotbed for betrayal. Leaving out important facts can lead to further deception or betrayal, according to author Lisa Firestone. Whereas being open with your partner will promote trust and honest communication.
- People are hurt by secrets and lies and this can destroy a relationship. It’s hard to feel emotionally connected to someone when you catch them in a lie or find out that they’ve kept a secret from you.
Mistrust is a lingering feeling in the back of your mind that your partner does not truly love you, or may abandon you. So much about trust is walking the talk. Your partner may tell you he/she loves you, but do his/her actions support that? All too often, when people aren’t feeling safe enough in a relationship to be honest and open with their partner, it’s because they don’t believe that their partner truly loves them or they are overly protective of their own interests.
Let’s end on the words of Dr. John Gottman: “Despite how dangerous and widespread betrayal is, I can offer couples hope. By analyzing the anatomy of this poison, I have figured out how to defeat it. I now know that there is a fundamental principle for making relationships work that serves as an antidote to unfaithfulness. That principle is trust.”
Follow Terry Gaspard on Twitter, Facebook, and movingpastdivorce.com. Her book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on her website.