How Do Sexual Secrets Cause Distress?

New research on secrets explains what really causes our suffering.

Posted Dec 21, 2018

Years ago, a client whom I’ll call Dominic (his name and all the following details are changed to protect confidentiality) came in for therapy, because he had recently discovered that he was drawn to a particular fantasy when he was surfing porn sites. His goal for treatment was that he wanted to stop his use of porn entirely and to shut down what he felt was the addictive nature of his masturbation. He felt he could never tell his wife, because years earlier, she had already expressed disgust for a mildly kinky behavior they had seen in a movie. This fantasy kept him trapped in a cycle of erotic elation while masturbating to online photos and videos What followed was the experience he had of extreme shame and self-degradation leading him to further withdraw emotionally and sexually from his wife.

This story leads to several questions about secrets and sexuality:

Deposit Photos
Source: Deposit Photos

Was holding this secret actually unhealthy for Dominic, and if so, why? 

Was he suffering from impulsive, compulsive sexual behavior?

What can actually help a secret holder feel better? 

Does telling someone else your secret cause you to feel less or more distress?

As an AASECT-Certified Sex Therapist and the Director of Center for Love and Sex in NYC, I have heard many sexual secrets over the 20 years I have been in practice. I have found clinically that when a client can relate their secret in therapy, their sense of isolation and anxiety decreases. 

What are the reasons for this? And what are the elements of holding a secret that actually cause the distress? 

Michael Slepian is an Assistant Professor in the Management Division of Columbia Business School and has focused much of his work on secrecy and its effects on well-being. In the most recent journal article he co-publishes with Edythe Moulton-Tetlock in Social Psychological and Personality Science, the results are more nuanced than previously thought. In the past, psychologists thought that the act of concealing a secret caused lower well-being due to the energy required to continually keep the secret hidden. What they discovered instead in their most recent research was that it was actually the mind repetitively wandering to the secret, which was more predictive of lower rates of well-being.

When clients come in to discuss a past or current infidelity, which their partner has not yet discovered, or a secret sexual fantasy they pursue either in porn or online chat rooms, they are seeking relief from the anguish they are feeling, to be sure.

Deposit Photos
Source: Deposit Photos

In addition, they are looking for empathy, support, and guidance to resolve the compartmentalized lives they’ve created. Many times, they are also looking for a therapist to normalize some of their secret fantasies, so that the sense of sexual shame is lowered. At others, they’re hoping a therapist can help them end an affair or find a way to finally safely reveal their secret desire to their partner.

Therapists know that ruminating or continually worrying can rob people of their energy, focus, and sense of well-being. When one is solely responsible for holding a secret with which one has negative emotions, it causes the mind to continue to return to it, even when one is not engaged in the activity. Dominic had discovered he had a foot fetish that led him to engage sexually with strangers online. He would get distracted at work and at home by the fantasy and go down a rabbit hole of imagining all the ways his secret could be discovered by his wife. The longer he kept the secret, the more frequently he thought about it, the more he felt powerless and critical of himself. It began affecting his performance at work.

In sex therapy sessions, he would call himself perverted and expressed a certainty that if his wife ever found out, she would divorce him. The worry and shame he carried each day, even when he wasn’t engaged in the online activity, involved imagining his wife’s discovery, his belief that he’d lose custody of his children, and the possible public shaming if his wife shared the secret with those in their community or even more broadly online. This worst-case scenario ruminating was partly why Dominic felt he had developed an addiction. After a full bio-psychosocial assessment, it became clear that the behavior itself was not compulsive, but rather had become part of his sexual script. What was compulsive was his constant worrying.  

So what helps to lower the effect of the mind wandering to the secret being held?

One of the techniques I teach clients to lower their anxiety and to improve control over their focus is mindful-based stress reduction (MBSR), a type of meditation introduced by Jon Kabat Zinn. One begins to train the mind to focus on something simple, like their breath or the flame of a candle burning. Each time an interfering thought intrudes and distracts the mind from the focal point, one is supposed to re-direct the focus back to the breath or the flame. The repetition of this re-direction helps a person gain a sense of calm and more control over what they want to truly focus on.

Is it always a good thing to tell someone your secret? 

In Slepian’s research, when a person confided their secret to a person or group that provided support, the confiding increased their perception of their own coping skills and their increased mental health.  

The therapy with Dominic included supportive education about the wide variety of fantasies that people had, thus normalizing his interests. He learned that foot fetishes are a common fetish among men, and that this interest goes back centuries and across cultures. 

Deposit Photos
Source: Deposit Photos

This began to lower the shame he felt.  Therapy also included help in his communication skills, so that he could confidently discuss his sexual interests. He attended a few educational groups for people who had curiosity about specific fetishes that were legal and consensually enacted. 

His obsessional thoughts decreased as he practiced MBSR each day and realized that his fantasies didn’t mean he was an awful person. He created an ethical contract with himself to stop engaging with others online, because he felt this was cheating. He kept the erotic fantasies in his imagination only. Once his anxiety had decreased, the therapy focused on whether he wanted to share these fantasies with his wife, or if he wanted to keep these fantasies privately to himself. I normalized the fact that partners may keep fantasies to themselves, and that is their choice. I also helped him walk through steps he might take in educating his wife on the erotic interest through books or educational videos, so that her own fear and judgment might decrease.

His energy and vitality returned, and his anxiety and shame decreased immensely. Eventually he made the decision to invite his wife to see another therapist for couples sex therapy so he could share his fantasy in a supportive, therapeutic manner. 

References

Slepian, M.L. & Moulton-Tetlock, E. (2018). Confiding secrets and well-being. Social Psychological and Personality Science.

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