Little Secrets Sustain Your Partnership

“We keep no secrets from each another!” – “In a good relationship one partner tells the other all about him/herself.” Its heart-warming to hear these or similar sentiments from some couples. And at first one may even think: Great! when there is that much openness and honesty present in a relationship! Careful: Psychologists and couple therapists increasingly come to the conclusion that it is not all that wonderful when partners know everything about each other. Everyone should retain some secrecy. However, which secrets are constructive and benefit the relationship and which ones are those that are destructive and jeopardize love?
We develop the ability to keep secrets as we mature. Children until the age of about five years are still incapable to do that. Thus the proverb: “Children tell the truth!” For parents sometimes a potentially embarrassing fact of life. Usually children begin seeing themselves as independent entities as they grow older. They don’t always tell everything that comes into their head and tend to keep the first small secrets from their parents and siblings, like for instance that special hiding place for their favorite toy. For adults secrets they don’t share with anyone else can satisfy several functions at the same time. For one, they provide a certain free space functioning to safeguard one’s personal autonomy and help to experience oneself as an independent person. That makes them an important element of our individuality. Daniel Wegner, Professor for Psychology at Harvard University even thinks: “One doesn’t even truly own one’s self as long as one doesn’t have a secret. All of us are familiar with moments in our life when we have the feeling of loosing ourselves in a social group, work or a marriage. In these situations it is helpful that we can draw on a secret in order to reassert our individuality and independence.”

Obviously there are also things one doesn’t tell others for fear of a lack of understanding or rejection. And sometimes it is important not to unnecessarily hurt someone. For instance the author Michael Mary writes in this context that secrets can also be the manifestation of mutual thoughtfulness and concern. And last but not least keeping secrets from another is the “salt in the soup” of a relationship. “Couples without secrets from each other frequently look for therapy because their relationship has grown boring and dull” says couple therapist Evan Imber-Black. This can manifest itself in the perennially open bathroom door for instance but also in a lack of space for private dreams and wishes, no private lockable drawer or no right to private, unshared memories such as letters, diaries or notes.

Therefore, respect for the partner’s secrets and his/her individuality is a particularly important ingredient of long lasting and close relationships. Nonetheless there are naturally also secrets that can harm the relationship. In this context Michael Mary mentions situations when a secret creates distance and deprives the partner of the opportunity to change something in his/her behavior – like for instance if one complains about one’s lousy sex life only to one’s friends. It is also dangerous to keep bad experiences to oneself and to suppress feelings. If the husband does not know that his wife had been sexually abused as a child and occasionally still, to this day has to deal with the consequences – how can he then react emphatically and supportively when it is called for? Often the so-called “total” secrets have a destructive effect – for instance if one partner is totally unaware that the other is keeping a diary. That is often a signal of mistrust between the partners. On the other hand, if I can trust the other to respect my free space and never read my notes, then he/she is entitled to be aware of my diary. In that case this represents a “relative” secret and those generally tend to be benefit a relationship.