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Ignore or Confront? How to Handle a Partner Keeping Secrets

How you deal with your secretive paramour depends on why they are private

Your partner has been uncharacteristically quiet the last few days. When you ask if everything is ok, your partner insists nothing is wrong. But obviously, there is. Do you push the issue, or let it go? Research gives us some guidance.

Secrets Are Relationship Saboteurs

In general, unless your significant other is planning your surprise party, secrets erode relational trust. Most of the time, secrets breed suspicion and insecurity, and create conflict.

But not always. Not all secrets involve topics that are threatening to relational security. We can all agree that there are legitimate reasons people want to keep certain things private. Some people are reluctant to discuss certain topics out of embarrassment, or fear of how their partner will react. Trauma, victimization, medical conditions, or past indiscretions are some common examples.

Whatever the reason happens to be, the challenge is determining when a secret is worth pursuing when your partner is clearly not interested in sharing. This question often arises during relationship development, where certain areas appear to be off limits.

Access Denied

You are just beginning to spend time with someone you really like, and are enjoying getting to know more about them every time you get together. But even though the two of you generally enjoy great conversation, there are certain areas that seem to be off limits. Every time you ask about a particular topic, your new paramour is evasive, or changes the subject. The question you have, is why? Are they still in a relationship with someone else? Do they have a mental or physical condition they do not want you to know about? A criminal past? Are they insecure, or just private?

In deciding what to do, research indicates your decision will likely be different if you have a partner who simply avoids certain topic areas, versus one who is keeping a secret that you know about.

Topic Avoidance and Relational Uncertainty

Many people who feel insecure in their relationships are unlikely to share deep, dark secrets with their partners. To the contrary, relational insecurity often prompts couples to confine discussion to topics that are “safe” or superficial. They figure they can´t go wrong discussing inspirational or uplifting subjects, or even the weather.

In some cases, however, research shows that topic avoidance is not just tied to relational uncertainty; it can also be tied to mental health issues.

Leanne K. Knobloch et al. examined the relationship between relational uncertainty, topic avoidance, and depression (2016).[i] In reviewing existing research, they note that in both romantic and platonic relationships, people who are experiencing relational uncertainty are likely to avoid discussing certain topics. Within romantic relationships, this occurs among military spouses as well as dating partners.

Knobloch et al. added to existing research by demonstrating that both relational uncertainty and depressive symptoms predicted topic avoidance, and that relational uncertainty mediated the link between depressive symptoms and avoiding sensitive topics.

To Confront or To Ignore?

Now contrast the situation where a partner´s evasiveness makes you suspicious, with one where your suspicions are confirmed: you find out about the secret. Now what? Do you come out and ask your partner why they are keeping the secret, do you wait until they decide to tell you, or do you try to forget the entire thing?

Obviously, your answer will depend on what the secret is. There is a big difference between concealing an affair, an embarrassing medical condition, or a criminal conviction. Regardless of what it is, however, research shows that relational secrets create conflict.

What You Do Know Can Hurt Your Relationship

Desiree Aldeis and Tamara D. Afifi, in “Putative Secrets and Conflict in Romantic Relationships over Time,” (2015) investigated this issue.[ii] They adopt the definition of a “putative secret” to address the scenario where you discover your partner is keeping a secret but lead them to believe you really don´t know. The authors note that putative secrets can make individuals feel deceived and socially excluded, and make them question their relationship.

Researching the impact of putative secret-keeping within romantic relationships, they found that couples managing this type of secret experienced more conflict and more changes in the level of conflict over time than couples not currently managing a secret.

They found the link between conflict and putative secrets was moderated by relationship satisfaction, such that individuals who reported both putative secrets and relational dissatisfaction were experiencing more conflict and greater changes in conflict over time.

Transparency Breeds Trust

In any relationship, sharing creates security, and transparency produces trust. Maintaining a non-judgmental relational safe space will both increase the likelihood your partner will open up and share his or her secrets, or ensure a comfortable dynamic if you decide to ask.

References

[i]Knobloch, Leanne K., Liesel L. Sharabi, Amy L. Delaney, and Samantha M. Suranne. “The Role of Relational Uncertainty in Topic Avoidance among Couples with Depression.” Communication Monographs 83, no. 1 (January 2016): 25–48. doi:10.1080/03637751.2014.998691.

[ii]Aldeis, Desiree, and Tamara D. Afifi. “Putative Secrets and Conflict in Romantic Relationships over Time.” Communication Monographs 82, no. 2 (April 2015): 224–51. doi:10.1080/03637751.2014.986747.

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