How Secrets Can Strengthen or Destroy Your Relationship
Trust is a powerful bond, until it breaks.
Posted October 13, 2015
Are you keeping a secret from your partner? Perhaps you flirted with a neighbor or colleague, spent too much on an online purchase, or broke a favorite glass and quickly swept away the evidence. We know that secrets such as these, though perhaps only small in the grand scheme of things, can eat away at the quality of relationships.
There are also so-called putative secrets where you have a secret that you think your partner doesn’t know, but in fact he or she does know. In these cases, according to U.C. Irvine’s Desiree Aldeis and University of Iowa’s Tamara Afifi (2015), your relationship can slowly spiral downward in quality—and it’s especially toxic when you’re not all that satisfied in the first place. The couples that Aldeis and Afifi followed for three weeks via an online diary showed more conflict if they were keeping putative secrets, especially if the partners were initially low in relationship satisfaction. If you’re unhappy with your partner, you may be inclined to keep more secrets anyhow. If your partner suspects the truth about your secret, the more likely it is that you and your partner will pick fights.
The moral of the story is that it’s not a good idea to keep secrets from your partner, especially if (unknown to you), your partner actually knows what you’re trying to hide. After all, for example, it’s just not that difficult to check a partner’s online spending—if not by the packages that show up at the door, then by the hit your joint bank account seems to be taking. And a broken glass can easily be discovered as absent from the kitchen.
You might as well confess before that hidden secret festers into a real problem.
But what about the secrets that couples keep together? One giant area of couple secrets has to do with sex. You’re probably not going to announce to all and sundry that you and your partner enjoy a little porn together, or that your partner knows exactly what obscure technique gets you turned on. A second area of secrets may be more mundane: Perhaps your partner inadvertently locked the family pooch out for the whole night. He or she definitely feels embarrassed about having done this and would prefer that no one else knows about the slipup.
Apart from sex and embarrassing moments, partners may also have knowledge about each other that belongs only to the couple. In a good relationship, partners confide in each other truths about themselves that they’d rather other people didn’t know. Telling tales on your partner would amount to a serious betrayal of that trust. Let’s say you blurt out that little story about the dog at a family gathering. As soon as you do, you instantly regret it, because it’s obvious you’ve portrayed your partner in a negative light.
You've also chipped away at your relationship trust.
As this example shows, revealing one of your secrets as a couple also exposes your partner to the experience of shame. Illinois State University’s Leslie DeLong and Jeffrey Kahn (2014) studied shameful secrets in the context of couple’s therapy. In therapy, you should be able to talk about anything at all without feeling embarrassed or self-conscious; that’s the whole point. However, not everybody is that comfortable revealing truths about themselves that may lead them to feel ashamed.
People high on measures of shame-proneness may have gotten that way because someone made them feel ashamed earlier in their life. Imagine a 2-year old child caught by her mother in the act of knocking over her older brother’s carefully-constructed block tower. The mother might chide the toddler a bit, but chalk it off to typical sibling behavior. However, the shame-evoking parent would react very differently—not just chiding but calling the little girl out for being so bad. If this experience gets repeated enough, the little girl will start to think of herself as bad, and be on the way to being high in shame-proneness.
If you're a person high in shame-proneness , it may take some time for you to reveal your potentially shameful personal secrets to a partner. Eventually, though, when you feel comfortable enough, those long-buried truths will likely come out—and you and your partner should become that much closer. It is true, though, that your partner now holds power over you to let those secrets be known to the outside world. But that's the risk you take in a truly intimate relationship.
Couples can also have secrets that they share—also based on fear of exposing truths about themselves—as a couple rather than as individuals. Secrets involving deception are perhaps the most concerning. Both you and your partner might conspire in making up an excuse to get out of going to a family gathering. Or you might agree not to reveal the gender of the child you’re expecting. These shared secrets can bring you closer together as they unite you against the world, as it were. Revealing one of these secrets without your partner’s approval, though, again chips away at their trust in you.
Trust and shame, then, become two underlying themes of couple secrets. When your partner violates the sanctity of the secrets you have as an individual or as a duo, your relationship is placed in jeopardy.
Once such a secret is out, what can you do to repair the damage?
- First and foremost, apologize. It won’t undo what’s been done, but you at least will show sensitivity toward your partner’s bruised feelings.
- Recognize that it will take time to heal—and the more the damage, the more time.
- Don’t avoid the situation or become defensive about your breach of trust.
Once a secret is out, there’s no putting it back. However, understanding why your revelation brings pain to your partner can help you learn from the experience and be more careful the next time.
The best secrets couples keep bolster your communication and intimacy. At a more basic level, just knowing the fact that you and your partner know things about each other that others don’t can help you recognize just how special a relationship you have.
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- Aldeis, D., & Afifi, T. D. (2015). Putative secrets and conflict in romantic relationships over time. Communication Monographs, 82(2), 224-251. doi:10.1080/03637751.2014.986747
- DeLong, L. B., & Kahn, J. H. (2014). Shameful secrets and shame-prone dispositions: How outcome expectations mediate the relation between shame and disclosure. Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 27(3), 290-307. doi:10.1080/09515070.2014.908272
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015