Not everyone feels completely comfortable engaging in self-disclosure, even to the people we hold most dear. Early in a relationship, it seems particularly difficult to know just how much to reveal to the other person. However, you would think that by the time a couple gets really close, they’d be unlikely to hold back.
Intrigued by the question of who keeps secrets, and why, University of Tennessee psychologist Beth Easterling teamed up with colleagues from East Carolina University (2012) to find out specifically whether sexual orientation might influence the level of disclosure in close relationships. They reasoned that people in same-sex relationships, who may have spent more of their lives keeping their sexual orientations a secret, may carry this tendency to hide things even into relationships in which they felt comfortable with their partners.
There’s surprisingly little research on secret-keeping in relationships, so in addition to informing us about the role of sexual orientation in this phenomenon, Easterling, et al.’s study sheds light on the issue in general. In essence, their data confirm the notion that secret-keeping becomes a basic way of relating to others among people who have kept to themselves about their sexual orientation. Years of living in the closet appeared to make people naturally reticent to share openly with others, even their relationship partners.
However, other revealing facts about who keeps their partners in the dark also emerged from this study.
Of course, there are secrets and then there are secrets. You might not admit to even your closest friend, much less your relationship partner, how much time you waste playing online games, scouring the racks of local outlet stores, or reading pulp fiction. You might even hide the fact that you don't cook your partner's favorite brownie recipe from scratch but instead use a mix. These may seem like innocent enough little lapses—if you don’t allow them to interfere with your time together, such relatively minor foibles wouldn’t be considered secrets. According to Easterling and her colleagues, a secret is a secret in a relationship if it “directly affects or concerns the individual but is withheld from the partner” (p. 198).
An obvious example might be not telling your partner that you were once married (or, worse, that you still are). Others would include secrets about your family or your past (a sibling who committed suicide, or abuse committed against you). Secrets about finances would also qualify as relationship secrets if, for example, you have a huge hidden debt or a secret bank account you use to pay for things you don't want your partner to know about.
The participants in the Easterling, et al. study ranged in age from 16 to 72. Three-quarters were female, about the same percentage was heterosexual, and two-thirds were married or in a serious relationship. In online surveys about themselves, their relationships, and their secrets, a majority of participants (60%) admitted to keeping at least one secret from their partners at some point; about 25% said they were currently keeping such a secret. On a relationship secret scale created by the researchers, based on the number and frequency of secrets and ranging from 0 to 355, the participants' average score was 217.
Apparently, people do keep some important secrets from their partners, though not everyone does so to the same extent.
As I mentioned earlier, Easterling and her team confirmed the basic hypothesis that people in same-sex relationships were more likely to keep secrets from their partners. After accounting for sexual orientation, the participants most likely to be keeping secrets were women, married people, and African-Americans.
Why Do We Keep Secrets?
People in relationships keep secrets for many reasons, according to the researchers. First and foremost, particularly for women, is reluctance to hurt their partner or damage the relationship. For married people, keeping a secret allows them to avoid their partners' disapproval. As Easterling argued, culturally we expect married people to be faithful to their partners' wishes. Anything you do that runs counter to your spouse’s wishes is evidence of disloyalty. If your spouse really doesn’t want you to spend any time playing online games, for example, you may decide you have to keep your gaming habit a secret. Shame is another driver for keeping secrets, as individuals in romantic relationships may feel that what they’re doing would not only lead their partner to disapprove, but to lose faith in them.
This last finding may suggest what’s really going on with secrets in our long-term relationships. As Easterling and her colleagues point out, “Spouses keep more secrets because the cultural script demands a higher level of honesty” (p. 206). To maintain the illusion that you’re being completely open with your spouse, you might have to keep your actual behavior a secret. Your sin is not one of commission, then, but of omission. You may believe it's not actually a lie to not tell your spouse what you’ve been up to, if that behavior would violate his or her expectations of you. Instead, it's just something you don't bring to their attention.
A secret, then, might reflect a barrier that keeps a couple from being truly close with each other. Easterling and her team cite earlier research on secrets in relationships that points to the “chilling” effect they can have on a couple. There are some secrets that, if known, would potentially be stigmatizing, particularly those involving sexuality—unwanted pregnancies, rape, STDs, abortions, or past promiscuity, for example. Other secrets may relate to rule-breaking behavior, such as teenage shoplifting or drug use, or fall into a general “none-of-your-business” category, such as having a parent or sibling with mental illness.
The most damaging type of secret to keep, it seems, is exactly the kind you fear would lead your partner to disapprove of you. But protecting those secrets that may lie in the core of your identity keeps your partner from having a complete picture of you, flaws and all. The longer you keep such secrets, the more difficult they become to keep, and the more they can jeopardize the pathways of communication between you.
On the other hand, as Easterling and her colleagues point out, even the closest partners may need to keep some things secret in order to protect their relationship. It’s because you do value your partner that you’re willing to put up with the burden of hiding a secret that you know would cause him or her pain.
What Should You Do?
Should you admit everything or keep your secrets to yourself? Start by being honest with yourself about the secrets you’re keeping: What is it you’re trying to hide, and why? If letting the secret out would harm your partner or relationship, you may have to live with it. However, the chances are that you’re not the only one in your relationship who’s got a secret or two (or more). You may be surprised to find out not only what your partner is keeping under wraps, but that your most feared outcomes of letting your own cat out of the bag never materialize.
The take-home message from this study seems to be that secrets are common even in the most "open" of relationships. Explore their role in yours, and you may gain true insight into yourself and your partner.
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014
Easterling, B., Knox, D., & Brackett, A. (2012). Secrets in Romantic Relationships: Does Sexual Orientation Matter?. Journal Of GLBT Family Studies, 8(2), 196-208. doi:10.1080/1550428X.2011.623928