Secrets in Relationships- Good or Bad?
Most of us can remember the delight and hushed tones with which we told (or were told) our very first secrets, and perhaps the pain of exclusion at the secrets we were not told in our earliest friendships as well. Secrets become their own kind of emotional currency early on in the relational world, often signalling the status of a given person’s specialness by virtue of the “Secret’s” quality of selectivity. Being “in the know” versus “not in the know” can painfully or excitedly (depending on which side of the deal you sit) mark the difference between those who have the power versus those who don’t. And, in fact, secrets can be thought of in many ways as a type of developmental achievement, being as they require at least a rudimentary sense of triangular dynamics in relationships (i.e. that two people can share something to the exclusion of a third party), often thought of as the precursor to one’s ability to develop an observing ego with which to step outside of oneself and observe one’s subjective experience objectively. “Getting” the concept of secrets also requires the understanding that one can keep something private in his own mind, which in some sense assumes a grasp of the aspect of “mentalization” that one’s mind is invisible to others.
Developmental experiences aside though, are secrets actually a good thing or a bad thing when it comes to intimate relationships?
Those who have suffered the trauma of a betrayal by a partner can certainly attest to the painful and damaging aspects of being on the excluded end of another’s secrets, lies, or hidden affairs. Believing that we are special and exclusive to another, as well as that our secrets are safe with them and theirs’ with us, only to find out that someone else’s presence was intruding on that exclusivity all along, is certainly traumatic and deeply disturbing to one’s sense of safety and trust in relationships. That being said, once the initial sense of betrayal cools off, it often becomes clear that one partner’s infidelity or cover-ups were in fact a signal of a need by both partners to bring hidden wishes and desires for closeness out into the open with each other. In fact, perhaps we might also say that it is the secrets that one keeps from oneself that do the most damage to a relationship. Only once we own our own secrets can we choose to share them with our significant others. Of course, sharing our secrets- whether after a betrayal or in the context of safety in a relationship- puts us on the line emotionally and can make us feel vulnerable; it is the sense of safety and mutuality in a secure relationship that allows us to take that risk and to trust that the risk is worth it. Relationships that are marked by insecurity and lack of safety may not be the best places to reveal our innermost selves.
Past traumas and betrayals can also affect one’s judgment about whether sharing secrets in a given relationship is a smart idea or an unwise one. A history of trauma, betrayal of trust, or indiscriminate inter-generational sharing (such as when a parent burdens a child with keeping secrets from the other parent, or when a parent repeatedly exposes too much vulnerability to allow for healthy idealization by the child) can lead to a general sense of ambivalence about whether and how to disclose private thoughts, feelings, and experiences in relationships- even in relationships with trustworthy people who seem to have our best interests in mind. Such developmental experiences can alternatively lead to indiscriminate sharing with others who may not be safe but who rather shame us for our secrets or respond in otherwise unhelpful ways. Learning how and when to share a secret (even vis-a-vis one’s therapist, for example) becomes a part of the therapeutic learning process.
And then of course comes the question of when it might be better to keep a secret inside because it will hurt the relationship or the other to know. Some feel that a really close relationship means that there should be no need for any secrets at all; others feel that some things are best left unsaid. Each of us has to establish our own relationship to the concept of privacy. Questions to ask oneself might be, “Will this disclosure cause unnecessary pain to my partner?”, and “Can the relationship at this point tolerate the knowledge of this secret?”. Past mistakes, previous romantic relationships, and deep traumas might be secrets worth thinking about before sharing.
Another good question to ask oneself is whether a secret feels like it can be kept inside- containable inside oneself- or whether there is a compulsion to tell the other/confess in a way that does not feel like a choice but rather like an urge. Holding this urge and exploring it further can be important when it comes to making a good decision about who and when to tell- as well as how to tell. Sometimes we feel so ashamed of our secrets that we share them in a way that invites the opposite response of the one we need. Working through one’s own shame may be a good first step before deciding to share or not to share. Of course, holding private secrets out of fear can also come at a big cost. We might feel guilty for hiding, burdened by the need to keep things inside, and afraid of the effect that exposure might have on our relationships and sense of self. Feeling like a fraud often accompanies an inability to share the things we are most ashamed of. It can indeed be hard to tease out whether secrets are helpful or harmful to a relationship; secrets can be a glue that bonds us to those we are closest to, or a dangerous weapon of betrayal and hurt.
So, are secrets good or bad? I guess, like most things in life, it depends on the context. What do you think about the secrets that you hold?