How Secrets and Lies Destroy Relationships

These are the costs of deception that partners rarely consider.

Posted Jan 31, 2018

Dean Drobot/Shutterstock
Source: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

Trust is fragile. Secrets and lies jeopardize trust and can damage us and our relationships — sometimes irreparably.

We all tell “white lies.” We say, “I’m fine,” when we’re not, compliment unwanted gifts, or even fib that “The check is in the mail.” But in an intimate relationship, emotional honesty includes allowing our partner to know who we are. Honesty is more than simply not lying. Deception includes making ambiguous or vague statements, telling half-truths, manipulating information through emphasis, exaggeration, or minimization, and withholding feelings or information that is important to someone who has a right to know, because it affects the relationship and deprives that person of freedom of choice and informed action. Although we may consider ourselves honest, few of us reveal all our negative thoughts and feelings about the people we are close to. It requires courage to be vulnerable and authentic.

The Cost of Secrets and Lies

Most people who lie worry about the risks of being honest, but give little thought to the risks of dishonesty. Some of the ways in which lies and secrets cause harm are:

1. They block real intimacy with a partner. Intimacy is based on trust and authenticity — the ability to be vulnerable or “naked,” not only physically, but also emotionally.

2. They lead to cover-up lies and omissions that can be hard to remember. These mount up, and if the truth comes out, it may be more hurtful than the original secret. The longer the truth is hidden, the greater becomes the hurdle of revelation, for it would bring into question every instance of cover-up and all times the innocent partner relied upon and trusted the betrayer.

3. The secret holder feels guilty, or at least uncomfortable, during intimate moments with the deceived person. Closeness and certain topics tend to be avoided. Avoidance may not even be conscious and can include things like being preoccupied with work, friends, hobbies, or addictive behavior, and doing activities that leave little opportunity for private conversations. The deceiver might even provoke an argument to create distance.

4. Honesty is valued as a moral norm, although the context and specifics may differ among cultures. When we violate religious or cultural norms by hiding the truth, we experience anxiety generated by guilt. Despite our best efforts at hiding, our physiological reaction is the basis for electronic lie detectors.

5. This violation of our values not only leads to guilt; it also affects our self-concept. Over a long period, deception can eat away at our self-esteem. Ordinary guilt that could be reversed with honesty now becomes shame and undermines our fundamental sense of dignity and worthiness as a person. The gap between the self we show others and how we feel inside widens.

6. Our ways of managing guilt and shame create more problems. We hide not only the secret, but more of who we are. We might build resentments to justify our actions, withdraw, or become critical, irritable, or aggressive. We rationalize our lie or secret to avoid the inner conflict and the danger we imagine awaits us if we come clean. Some people become obsessed with their lie, to the point that they have difficulty concentrating on anything else. Other people are able to compartmentalize their feelings or rationalize their actions to better manage dishonesty. Compartmentalization and denying, rationalizing (“What my partner doesn’t know won’t hurt him/her”), or minimizing (“I only did it once”) are psychological defenses that help us deal with inner conflict and an undesirable reality. They can be so effective that the liar is convinced that lying supports the relationship. He or she may not want to face the hurt or choices that the truth could precipitate.

7. Not surprisingly, beyond mental distress, research reveals that lying leads to health complaints.

8. The victim of deception may begin to react to the avoidant behavior by feeling confused, anxious, angry, suspicious, abandoned, or needy. They may begin to doubt themselves, and their self-esteem may suffer. Often, victims of betrayal need counseling to recover from the loss of trust and to raise their self-esteem.

What to Reveal

Opinions vary on how much “truth” others need to know. In some cultures, there’s a tacit understanding that infidelity is almost expected — as long as the adulterer is discreet. Mores change over time: Homosexuality and transsexuality, once taboos, are now more openly accepted and discussed. Similarly, having unmarried parents or being adopted were once kept secret or only revealed when the child was older. Such jarring revelations could be traumatic, yet also explained confusing anomalies in a child’s mind. Today, many families opt for open adoptions instead.

We have a right to information about our heritage, particularly for medical reasons. Secrets about things such as addiction, criminality, and mental illness can lead to real risks, along with chronic shame and family dysfunction. Children already “know” something’s wrong, but denial undermines their self-trust and reality testing.

In a sexual relationship, we have a right to know our partner’s intentions and fidelity for emotional as well as medical reasons. Often, faithful partners rationalize or deny this need and their vulnerability to their emotional detriment. By not asking questions or expressing their needs, they enable and collude in deception for the same reason that the betrayer is dishonest or secretive — to not rock the boat and jeopardize the relationship. When there’s been betrayal, even if the couple stays together, seeds of distrust linger and sometimes poison the relationship.

On the other hand, we also have a right to privacy. Even in the most intimate relationship, disclosure of conversations with our therapist, close friends, and relatives should be discretionary.

When and How to Reveal

What, when, why, and how we disclose are all essential factors. The timing, impact, and our motives should be carefully considered. Full disclosure may be necessary to rebuild a broken marriage. Studies also show that people who have good self-esteem and a high opinion of their partner are more likely to forgive him or her. However, what are the compelling reasons to reveal an affair that’s long over or a current one that we have no intention of ending? In the first case, is it to deepen mutual intimacy? In the latter, is it to avoid it or provoke a divorce that we’re afraid to initiate? Disclosing our dissatisfaction in the relationship might be the necessary conversation that, if communicated earlier, would have prevented the affair.

For everyone involved, the pain of the secrecy compounds the pain over the initial event, and the longer the deception continues, the more damaging it is to self-esteem. Ideally, before revealing the truth to the person we’ve lied to, it’s helpful to have accepted our mistakes; otherwise, our shame and guilt can be obstacles to genuine empathy for the person we’ve harmed. First, talk to someone nonjudgmental whom you trust, or seek counseling. If we’ve forgiven ourselves, we’re in a better position to answer questions and face the anger and hurt feelings that we’ve caused.

Each case of betrayal is unique. The potential damage and complications that surround lying, as well as disclosure, are things to consider when telling lies and keeping secrets. Contemplation in advance about the consequences of our actions to ourselves, our loved ones, and our relationships requires a degree of self-awareness, but can prevent unnecessary suffering. 

Victims of Betrayal

When the truth comes out, often it's enlightening. It can help the other person make sense of previously unexplained or confusing behavior. At the same time, it can be devastating and traumatic to discover that the one we loved and trust has betrayed us. It can shatter the image we have of our partner, as well as our confidence in ourselves and even reality itself. Unfortunately, victims of betrayal frequently blame themselves. If the relationship wasn’t working, both partners have a responsibility to speak up and address problems. Although it may be fruitful to examine our behavior in order to learn from it, we’re never responsible for someone else’s actions or omissions. 

There’s a natural desire to seek explanations and to know more facts. Aggrieved partners begin to review details of prior events and conversations, seeking overlooked clues and evidence of lies. They may painfully conclude that they and their partner have been living in two very different realities, which they once believed were shared. If the relationship ends, both partners may suffer from shame and blame, compounding grief

Even if the relationship survives, there’s loss when trust is broken. As with all losses, our first reaction is denial, if not of the facts, then of the severity of the impact. It may take time to accept the truth. Each of us will attribute a different meaning to the facts in order to heal and make peace with ourselves, our loved ones, and a disordered reality we once thought was safe and predictable.

©Darlene Lancer 2016

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