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How Secrets Can Destroy a Relationship

Many people harbor lifelong secrets too painful to confront, let alone disclose. But examining the context in which such secrets develop is key to vanquishing their power.

Photo by Peter Hapak

In the 11th year of her increasingly unfulfilling marriage to Mark*, Nicole began an affair with a coworker. Though she thought Will was funny and worldly, Nicole's initial motivation was simply to see if her marital sex life was terrible because "something was wrong with me." Her tryst with Will answered that question with a definitive no. "I felt happy, and I thought I deserved to be happy for a little bit," she says. "It distracted me from everything else. Then I developed a real dependency on Will. He was always on my mind."

Those obsessive thoughts made it particularly difficult for Nicole to keep her secret from Mark, the person she talked to the most. "I couldn't tell Mark about the biggest thing that was happening to me—that I was forming this strong emotional connection to someone else, that I was feeling attractive and excited." The fact that Nicole is, as she puts it, "the least discreet person on the planet," made it that much harder. "I would mention Will a lot, in the context of work situations. It was my way of sharing without sharing.

"I've always used self-disclosure as a way to bond with others, to get them to empathize with me. Because it's not my nature to keep secrets, I pushed the limits. In the office, part of me wanted my coworkers to know that I was Will's 'favorite.' I dropped a lot of stories about him, even though it could have aroused suspicion."

Several months into the affair, in a scene that seemed straight out of a soap opera, Nicole discovered that she was pregnant with Will's baby. Though she wanted another child, under the circumstances (Will was also married) they decided it wasn't realistic. "After I had an abortion that I didn't want, I had to go right home to Mark and my kids and put on a happy face for the evening. It was horrible. It was the worst moment of my life." Nicole was now holding a painful secret within a secret.

"Nearly every person has a million secrets they're carrying around," says Barry Lubetkin, the founder and director of the Institute for Behavior Therapy. "They can be the silliest things, or they can be very significant, like I cheat constantly on my taxes, or When I was 20 years old I assaulted somebody and hurt them badly." Deep secrets are often traumatic events from the past such as a rape that has made someone feel vulnerable or a compulsion or obsession that feels too shameful to disclose, Lubetkin says. An illness, a stigmatized identity (say, illegal immigrant), an addiction, or a transgression like Nicole's affair are other secrets Lubetkin says his clients keep.

Deep secrets need not hinge on external events. Hopes and dreams that people don't dare speak aloud are also secrets. Many times a self-assessment is someone's deepest secret, says clinical psychologist Nando Pelusi. "The assessment is lower than they let on," he explains, "and their anxieties are higher than they let on. People say to me, 'I seem calm, but I'm constantly upset or freaking out.' It's not fraudulent, but it is a facade."

A maddening duality characterizes deep secrets: Even undisclosed, they can harm us and those around us. We need to internally acknowledge our secrets to be true to ourselves, but they can make us feel inauthentic if they too deeply challenge our identity. We've evolved to learn to keep secrets, as children who must become independent adults and as adults who must navigate a complex society. We've also evolved to keep things from ourselves. The deepest secrets are the ones we don't directly acknowledge—even in our own diaries.

A Necessity and a Burden

Secrets etch an early boundary between self and caregiver. Until we first test out the concept of concealing information from Mom and Dad, around age 4, we assume they are omniscient. Adolescent secrets about budding sexuality, tangled social lives, and emerging identities draw an even thicker line between child and parent.

For teens and adults alike, shame underlies much secret keeping. We're afraid of what people will think if only they knew. (The fact that nearly all of us have shameful secrets doesn't ameliorate the fear.) We keep secrets to avoid hurting others, too, even though withholding can also be hurtful. Sometimes we keep secrets because we want to keep doing something we know others would want us to stop if they knew about it.

Photo by Peter Hapak

Vigilant secret keepers pay a price. "The secret takes up so much mental space that it interferes with work and romance, because there’s always the need to watch that it doesn’t somehow slip out,” Lubetkin says.

The more a secret occupies your mind, the stronger its negative effect. In an experiment by Michael Slepian of Columbia University, subjects were asked to think of a secret that preoccupied them, while others were asked to think of one that didn’t enter into their minds often. Those in the first group then perceived a hill to be much steeper than those in the second group. The first group felt “weighed down,” in a way that colored their judgment.

Elsewhere, Slepian interviewed gay men about whether or not they were out, and then asked them to help him move boxes of books in his office (without mentioning that they were still under observation). Those who weren’t out of the closet moved fewer boxes. Another set of subjects who had kept secret an affair found chores like carrying groceries more physically burdensome than did controls.

Guarding a secret depletes mental resources, Slepian explains. If we feel that we’re depleted, “other things out there in the world seem to require more effort. That lowers our motivation to take on tasks.”

Some people—such as closeted gays—express a particular identity in their personal lives, but not in the wider world. While this might seem preferable to living a complete lie, toggling back and forth between a private and a public self is taxing. The fear of showing up on the wrong stage for the wrong role is omnipresent.

Given all we know about the mind and body, it’s no surprise that a mental burden so heavy takes a toll on physical health, too. Pioneering studies in the 1970s by James Pennebaker, of the University of Texas at Austin, found that people who had a traumatic sexual experience as a child or teen were more likely to have health problems as they got older, particularly if they had hidden the trauma from others.

Since then, a litany of studies has shown a link between secret keeping and health: Secret keepers are more likely to suffer from headaches, nausea, and back pain than others, for instance, and more cases of hypertension, flu, and cancer occur among those hiding trauma.

Pennebaker later discovered the power of writing about, and making some sense of, traumatic events. Students who did so in his lab for about 20 minutes each day, for a few days in a row, visited the health center far fewer times in the following months than students who had written about a general topic or who revealed a secret but didn’t delve into the emotions around it.

Too much writing about a secret, though, can trigger rumination. “If you’re mulling over a secret in an unproductive way,” Pelusi says, “one goal should be to zone it not as an energy-zapping problem but as a practical non-disclosure.” In other words, move it from a hot or emotional fact to more neutral terrain such as the everyday affairs we routinely keep private. “I don’t have to tell people my net worth, nor do I suffer from not disclosing that fact,” he adds.

Here’s the critical question: Why has the secret taken root? A secret becomes an obsession when its context goes unexamined. “Secrets are usually a signal or manifestation of an underlying set of conditions,” Pelusi says. “If someone is experiencing shame or fear, they create an internal marketplace for secrets.”

Secrets often reflect beliefs about oneself. A secret about trauma could reflect the suspicion that you are incompetent, deficient, or unacceptable. “If the premises are self-damning then it’s important to take apart the traumatic event.” says Pelusi. “Someone might always regret what happened, but if he looks at it in a safe environment, like a therapist’s office, the trauma diminishes because it’s been powered by secretiveness, just as gunpowder needs a tight bind to explode.”

In the case of hiding an addiction or compulsive behavior, the underlying premise might be a sense of powerlessness: Since I can’t help this, I can’t share my secret because others will find out how weak I am. Or, I can’t do without this habit. Or, I can’t enjoy my life if others know about it. “These beliefs can delimit you to the point of paralysis,” Pelusi says.

But looking closely and objectively at a secret allows you to reframe it. “You start to see it in a larger context,” Pelusi adds. “You don’t dismiss it. But it’s no longer a source of shame or hurt, or a way to avoid connecting with people.”

Photo by Peter Hapak

The Secrets We Keep From Ourselves

It’s not that Leo* didn’t know that he was in debt. “I knew the ballpark total of what was on my three credit cards, but I didn’t want to know the exact number.” Though his expenses were consistently greater than his earnings, a delusional optimism washed over him each month. “I would assume the next month would work out, thinking that one or another bill would not be as high and putting other expenses out of my mind. It was as if my ability to calculate was clouded.”

Terror was one factor that kept him from facing up to his ballooning debt. Its magnitude seemed so overwhelming that Leo continued to lean on the belief that things were happening in his career and a bigger paycheck was imminent. Then he could wipe it all away without having to make any actual changes or sacrifices.

Shame was another. His girlfriend had inklings, but would surely think less of him if she knew the whole story. “My friends were all moving forward, buying houses. I didn’t want to have to think of myself as different from them, as a loser.” So he tried not to think of it at all. “It did cause a low level of chronic tension, but it was also easy to live life above that level.” One way, of course, was to continue spending. “I studied hard and worked hard, so I figured I needed indulgent breaks.” He lived like a person with money, and therefore, he was a person with money, right?

Years ago Delroy Paulhus, of the University of British Columbia, devised deception scales to identify people who distort their answers on self-reporting questionnaires. Two types of misrepresentation come into play: impression management, or conscious manipulation, whereby people tailor an image of themselves to a target audience; and self-deception, or unconscious manipulation, whereby people believe false claims about themselves. Both are common, Paulhus says.

Unknowingly lying about yourself on a survey might sound strange, but all of us are stubborn self-deceivers in one way or another. Evolutionary psychologist Robert Trivers argues that our ability to self-deceive developed as a way to help us deceive others—it’s easier to lie (and avoid getting caught) when you believe the lie. Consider a key, evolutionarily significant advantage reaped from self-deception: An overconfident man is more likely to get the girl than one who is open about his shortcomings.

Common cognitive tricks for defending ourselves against psychological pain or conflict, all employed by Leo, include denial, minimizing, and rationalizing. “Self-deception is just artful distraction from solving the problem,” Pelusi says. “By not dealing with it, I can sweep it under the rug. That becomes a temporary way to feel better, but it’s not lasting”

Habituation aids self-deception. “If someone has been getting away with something for a long time, it loses its impact,” Lubetkin says. “It’s not taking up much mental space anymore and doesn’t make him feel as guilty or worried as it used to. Self-deception has convinced him that there is no real crime to cover up.”

Occasionally, Lubetkin says, a patient suddenly sees an internal ruse that’s been fooling her for a long time, such as the realization that she wants her family’s love, even though she’s acted for years as if her relatives were not important. “It’s not about one secret per se,” he says, “but secret parts that she simply never allowed herself to be aware of. If you tell her about her self-deception, she’ll reject the idea, but if she discovers it herself, it can be a magnificent moment.”

To Compartmentalize or Dissociate

Compartmentalizing, or being able to shelve a secret, a difficulty, or even a part of our personality while we carry on with life, can be adaptive. It allows us to avoid grappling with contradictions head on: You can be straightforward with person A, but coy and flirtatious with person B, and there’s no cognitive dissonance. Amid the endless exhortations to “be yourself” and “be authentic,” you might wonder if it’s secretive to not let all of your facets show at once. But compartmentalizing accommodates the various sources of motivation we have, says Brian Little, a professor at Cambridge University and the author of Me, Myself, and Us. “When we take action in life, we’re suppressing a whole bunch of other concerns, which you could say is keeping a secret, but it’s really not.” In Little’s conception of personality, one source of motivation is biogenic, or our basic temperament. Another is sociogenic, or social and cultural norms and roles we adhere to. And the third is idiogenic, the distinctive and personal issues, concerns, and projects to which we commit. Because the three sources can be in conflict, compartmentalizing enables us to move forward in different modes.

However, if you constantly repress your basic biogenic personality, as opposed to sometimes acting out of character in service of fulfilling a role or reaching a goal, your mental health will suffer, Little warns. Keeping your basic self on the shelf for too long can make useful compartmentalization slide into secret keeping.

A more potent form of self-deception is dissociation, which occurs on a spectrum, says Charles Raison, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. We’ve all arrived at a location without remembering how we got there. Then there are people whose “experience of the world is like Swiss cheese,” Raison says. “They go in and out, and if their personality isn’t well-glued together, they could even start perceiving themselves as being more than one entity.” Nearly all of these people, Raison says, have experienced a trauma.

Some will remember the event, but forget the impact. “It’s a dissociation of emotions from narrative memory,” Raison says. The facts are not a deep secret in such cases, but the mind has decided that the aftershocks were too much to absorb. Will conjuring the feelings make someone better? “With that kind of secret, you don’t get to live life fully; the trauma comes out in other ways—as evidenced by the association between trauma in childhood and obesity in adulthood. But sometimes it’s preferable to completely falling apart.”

Photo by Peter Hapak

Deciding to Disclose

“Sharing a secret is a blunt way of getting to the heart of the matter, which is how you feel about yourself and the world,” Pelusi says. His clients who come clean are often bursting from the pressure to maintain the secret and the emotions surrounding the hidden circumstance itself. “Keeping a secret discounts others’ ability to understand you and reinforces the idea that you have to go through something alone. It compounds the original dilemma.” That’s why therapists don’t judge clients, period. “Often they're already judging themselves harshly. I look at it as a problem for us to solve collaboratively.”

Lubetkin says that most patients report a sense of relief and gratitude, and a lifting of some sadness or anxiety, when they open up to someone they trust. “You’re not going to face the shame of being exposed without having told people first. But remember, there’s self-deception going on. Once the armor falls away, you have to really own what you’ve done.” You have to admit not only that you’re an addict, say, but that there is a reason you’re an addict—the one you’ve left out of your diary.

Psychologist Anita Kelly of the University of Notre Dame, the author of The Psychology of Secrets, has come up with questions to ask yourself when contemplating disclosure, such as: Does the other person expect you to reveal this information? Has she outright asked you about it? Is the person you’re considering confiding in discreet and nonjudgmental? (Though you can send “trial balloons” by commenting broadly on the topic, it’s difficult to assess who will stay mum. Confidants tell roughly two other people a secret that they’ve been told.) Is the person you’re keeping the secret from likely to discover it? And, finally, is the secret really troubling you, or can you live with it?

It’s difficult to weigh the pain that sharing a secret might cause you or others against the pain of keeping it. If reframing it in your own mind isn’t working, you could open up to a therapist or friend not connected to the secret in any way. They will likely accept your secret, continue to accept you, and possibly provide a fresh perspective on the potential effects of sharing it more widely. If you conclude that the repercussions of disclosure are too unpredictable or deeply negative, one way to cope is to focus on appreciating the life that has sprouted up around your secret and to view the work of maintaining it as a mandatory tax on that life.

If you can’t disclose a secret to even the most trustworthy person in your circle, because it’s not yours to reveal or the fallout would be obviously worse than the relief it would bring, Slepian found that sharing it anonymously online (via the Whisper app, for example) really does help.

The Secondary Secret Keeper

When someone entrusts you with a secret, it can certainly be a burden, particularly if you have to conceal it from mutual friends or relatives, forcing you into the role of deceiver. Once you tell one person, it becomes much easier to tell another, and then another, which is why setting a hard rule against disclosure can help you guard someone’s secret. Pride in your own ability to keep your word can sail you past tempting moments. Yes, the other person has let you in on this dilemma, but in the process she has strengthened the ties between the two of you.

Secrets not based on shame, such as the details of a new business venture, are easier to keep because there is honor in concealing the information which, if let out, could hurt someone else’s prospects or reputation.

Kelly believes that despite the popular injunction to let it all hang out, some secrets can be kept successfully and would in fact cause a lot of harm if shared. Those who disclose might start to see themselves in negative ways. It’s easy to imagine their getting paranoid that others are reacting to them based on their exposed secret, leading them to distorted interpretations of interactions.

As much as deep secrets cause suffering to the ones holding them, they cause collateral damage to those not in the know. Lubetkin says. “I have one patient who was holding back health information from his girlfriend. It wasn’t serious, but she knew he had gone to doctors, and because he was silent, she convinced herself that he had heart failure or some incurable cancer.”

However unintentional, making others question their sanity can be an unnerving consequence of secret keeping. I know something’s going on, and yet he’s denying it, the family member thinks. Am I that dumb or unable to read situations? Have I gone completely crazy? Letting loved ones in on your secret, though, might upset or burden them even more, which is why resolving the underlying matter is often the best strategy for doing right by them.

Getting Discovered

Secrets can come out without our explicit permission, Lubetkin says. “When there is too much pressure on a person to keep it, a secret can look for a release and fall out at the most inopportune times.” If not the secret itself, hints of its nature can leak out in Freudian slips. “A telling word or gesture is the unconscious’s way of exposing it.”

Nicole continued her affair with Will after her pregnancy brought them closer together. “Because I was so emotionally distant from Mark, and he seemed clueless about me in general, I had no anxiety about getting caught,” she says. “And, I took no precautions.”

Photo by Peter Hapak

Finally, the day came when Mark found a long chain of messages between her and Will (open on her unlocked computer) that made it clear that they were in love. Mark’s sadness gave way to relentless waves of anger. “For me, getting caught was part crisis, part relief. I didn’t have to hide anything anymore,” she says. “For Mark, it was a disaster. But if he’d never found out, he would still be in denial about our marriage. No other message about my unhappiness had gotten through to him.” (They are still together and working on their marriage.)

For Leo, after he told his girlfriend the extent of his money issues, he felt as if an elephant had stepped off his chest. “She was taken aback, but also understanding,” he says. She helped him make a plan to pay down the debt, and as he started following through on it, he began to feel good about himself, “which was much better than avoiding the bad feelings.”

Coping with secrets requires the courage to face our biggest fears, question our beliefs, and possibly unleash pain, disruption, or even temporary chaos before crossing through to a new reality. Your secret doesn’t have to define you. If you can come to terms with the events that forged your clandestine behavior, or change whatever it is that you’re hiding, it will recede into a quieter, smaller emblem of who you once were.

*Name has been changed

The Secretive Personality

Secrets aren't always experienced as toxic: In fact, it's thrilling to possess juicy information that no one else has. You've gotten away with something or have power over those who don't know, perhaps even those who normally have power over you. A secret can even provide comfort—a private haven in one's mind.

But some people are consistently secretive, and not to their own advantage. People who score high on a scale that measures how likely they are to consciously harbor secrets tend to have more health and psychological problems to begin with. Dale Larson, of Santa Clara University, did a meta-analysis and found that secretive people are more depressed, shame-prone, anxious, and sensitive to judgment, which makes them both tight-lipped and vulnerable to illness.

These types work hard, often lying and avoiding situations that would bring their secrets to light. They also regulate their emotions in a dysfunctional way by, say, suppressing them. The constant tension between wanting to reveal a secret but not revealing it alters their body's stress response, possibly triggering inflammation and other phenomena that lead to physical problems.

Then there are those who thrive on deceiving, which spares them the physical and emotional fallout of keeping secrets. Machiavellian personality types, for instance, are studied manipulators. "For Machiavellians, information that you can use about other people is valuable and information about yourself should be hidden because people could use it against you," says Delroy Paulhus, who is an expert on the "dark triad" of narcissistic, Machiavellian, and psychopathic traits (he's working to bring in sadists to make it a tetrad). Machiavellians are the Bernie Madoff types who are smart, charming, and, unless the world financial system crumbles, unlikely to get caught, Paulhus says. Madoff hurt a lot of people, but at the same time, "he was beloved by all who knew him."

Can a liar contain multitudes, some of which are sincere? Consider Charles Lindbergh, the upstanding aviator who had three secret families; Paulhus speculates that a mixture of narcissism ("I deserve more!") and Machiavellianism (an ability to manage logistics and people) enabled his behavior. One of his daughters told The New York Times, however, that she came to believe that his relationships with his other wives and kids were "real." The feelings themselves were genuine.

Secrets In Therapy

Barry Farber, a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University's Teachers College, has delved deeply into the topic of patients keeping secrets from their therapists. But isn't therapy the one place people can safely share hidden behaviors and feelings? "A struggle plays out constantly between a wish to be known and helped on one hand and the avoidance of feeling the shame of acknowledging pieces of ourselves we're not pleased with," Farber says. We simply can't help but present ourselves in ways that we think will optimize how others see us—even if that other is a professional whom we're paying.

Farber's research suggests that over 90 percent of patients have lied to or, more often, concealed something significant from their therapist. One big secret held from therapists is distress—patients don't say just how bad they feel. If they have suicidal thoughts in particular, they're afraid their therapist might overreact and hospitalize them. A second top area of concealment is feelings about therapy itself. Patients might pretend therapy is more effective than they really think it is, "which is why so many people terminate therapy suddenly," Farber says.

Though they may allude to it, patients dramatically minimize their use of drugs or alcohol. And the last big topic is, of course, sex. "It's not quite true that patients don't talk about sex," Farber says. "What is true is that patients don't talk about sex as much as they acknowledge that it's important to talk about it."

In Farber's survey, anywhere from 5 percent to 25 percent of patients had left out one or more of these topics: significant information about their sexual history, including past abuse; fantasies or desires; sexual problems; unfaithfulness to a partner; the extent to which they're obsessed with pornography; and sexual feelings they have toward their therapist.

Holding back hinders the therapeutic process. For one thing, Farber says, "It affects how honestly patients can talk about the other pieces of their lives that they're sharing." Fears about coming clean on the couch are largely unwarranted, he adds. "If you make a difficult revelation, it's likely that your therapist is going to react appropriately, effectively, and ethically."

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