Are secrets in marriage ever okay?

Couple or marriage in his new home

Have you ever watched a spy show and then spent a moment wondering whether your spouse is a CIA operative? Or maybe you start to wonder what YOU’d do if you were recruited as a secret agent. Would you tell your spouse?

Most of us don’t have to worry about keeping state secrets from our spouse, but we all have to confront the issue of honesty in marriage. We all come to the relationship with a history, and as much as we strive to be a team, we each have separate lives and thoughts. There are a lot of things the other person just doesn’t need to know, especially if it leads to more tension and conflict in your home. However, other secrets are the poison that rots a relationship from within. How do you know which of your secrets are harmful and which ones aren’t?

Well-Intended Secrets

The way I see it, there are four reasons that people keep secrets.

1: Shame, or a fear of truly revealing ourselves

2: Protection, or wanting to guard our partner from the effects of the truth

3: Denial that it’s actually an issue

4: Respecting someone else’s confidence (it’s not your secret to tell)

Which ones do you think are justified? Do you think that any of the above are a good reason to keep something from your spouse? Shame might be seen as an excuse. After all, it’s not hurting anyone but ourselves, right? I believe it’s actually one of the most harmful, because it undermines the intimacy of marriage. The whole point is for someone to know you completely and still stick with you! Well, how about protection, then? This kind of lie happens all the time in money matters between husband and wife. Although finances are tight, the husband might want to guard his wife from worry, and take care of the problem himself. Protection might seem like a noble motivation, but the danger here is in discounting the respect that you have for your partner. The urge to protect might undermine your view of their responsibility and your ability to work things out as a team better than you do as individuals.

Sure-Fire Signs that the Secret is Harmful

So, are ANY lies okay? Sometimes it’s important to check your own behavior about the secret in order to determine whether or not it’s something that is dangerous for the marriage. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Do you hide the evidence, or leave it out there for the partner to explore if they really want? For example, if you spent more than you should have on clothes, are you hiding receipts and covering your tracks? If so, it’s a sign that you’re feeling guilty or you’re worried that your partner will actually care a lot about the truth.
  • Does it directly concern you, your partner, or your children? If the secret is outside of that circle, it’s probably not vital to your marriage. For example, it’s a drama that’s concerning your mother, or one of your friend’s indiscretions.
  • Are you afraid of how your partner will react? If so, it could be that you know the other person is justified in reacting dramatically to the truth, or your partner actually does react out of proportion to things, and it’s something that you need to work out together.

So, here’s my personal guide to secrets that are and aren’t okay in a marriage. However, at the risk of ruining other peoples’ relationships, I’d like to put out a disclaimer: every person and every relationship is different, so carefully take this advice with a grain of salt. You know the needs of your relationship better than I do. Just make sure you’re being honest with yourself!
Secrets that Are Okay

  1. Professional Secrets: Sometimes work requires a certain amount of discretion. As long as your partner knows that there are some things you can’t talk about, these kind of secrets shouldn’t get between the two of you.
    • Lawyer-client confidentiality
    • Doctor-patient confidentiality
    • Work nondisclosure agreements
  2. Others’ Secrets: Your partner doesn’t need to know about your friend’s embarrassing health worry, unless it directly affects him or her.
  3. White Lies: There are some things that hurt more to bring up than to keep quiet. As long as they don’t actually affect your relationship and connection, feel free to leave them unsaid. For example:
    • You notice your partner put on weight.
    • You think the barista in the cafe is attractive.
    • His or her friend drives you a little crazy.

Secrets that Are Never Okay

Remember this hard and fast rule: if it affects your partner, or has a direct effect on your relationship, it’s something you need to talk about. Therefore, your health concerns, especially if they’ll affect your performance at home or work, or if there’s a risk of a chronic condition, must be shared. Any monetary troubles have to come out, because it directly affects BOTH parties in the relationship, not just one. Not all histories have to come out, but if it has a direct effect on your relationship, it must. For example, emotional or sexual abuse from the past has a tendency to crop up in a relationship years and years later. Addictions like pornography might seem like just one person’s problem, but it can directly affect the relationship  and the future.

Embracing the Intimacy of Secrets Shared

One more thing that’s important to remember when you’re considering a secret is whether by keeping that secret, you’re robbing your relationship of the opportunity to grow closer together through sharing that confidence. Secrets can isolate us from each other more and more, especially when they have a base in shame. However, most solid relationships turn that personal challenge, or that little piece of self-consciousness, into an amazing opportunity for bonding and growth. Early in the relationship, intimacy is created by sharing more and more of ourselves. That process can continue throughout a marriage if you’re willing to truly open yourselves to the other person.

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