5 Ways Keeping Secrets Can Ruin Relationships Over Time
In a 2018 study1 published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, psychologists Michael Slepian, Nir Halevy, and Adam Galinsky found that people keep an average of 13 secrets at a time, five of which they have never told anyone.
But for those of us in relationships, secret-keeping can have serious and damaging negative consequences.
Why people keep secrets in relationships.
There is a difference between privacy and secrets in a partnership. Individuals do maintain the right to privacy in a relationship if the topic they're keeping to themselves does not negatively affect their partner.
That said, even the smallest of secrets can affect relationships. Slepian, Halevy, and Galinsky's study found carrying secrets is correlated with a negative sense of well-being, and that can affect the way partners interact with each other.
The most significant secrets that affect couples are infidelity, financial problems, and substance abuse—and research suggests this type of secret-keeping is common and destructive.
Studies have found infidelity is responsible for 20 to 40% of divorces in the U.S. An estimated 13 million Americans have hidden a bank or credit card account from a live-in significant other, partner, or spouse. Drug overdose deaths are at a record high2, and reports show that surviving loved ones deal with feelings of anger, guilt, and helplessness over the fact that they never knew the drug abuse was occurring. The secrecy deprives family members of the information that could have enabled them to act.
Keeping secrets within a relationship can be appealing when it's predetermined that revealing the information will create conflict or embarrassment. People keep secrets because of fear that their partners won't be able to love them through the truth. People believe that the anger, shame, humiliation, or recrimination their partner would feel would alienate them and push them away from the relationship.
Yet they fail to realize that personal shame, humiliation, and recrimination have already occurred, and that's what provoked the desire to keep the secret. The relationship has already suffered damage in the form of restricted emotional communication and continuing deceit.
How keeping secrets can ruin your relationship.
Identifying and understanding how keeping secrets can backfire on couples is the first step to disrupting the behavioral pattern. Here are five ways secrets can undermine your relationship:
Creates a barrier to connecting.
It becomes difficult to feel a shared and connected life with someone with whom you know you're being inauthentic. In their study, Slepian, Halevy, and Galinsky noted that there is a dichotomy between secret-keeping behaviors and human beings as social creatures. In addition, they found that secret keepers had felt lower life satisfaction and felt fatigued, lonely, sad, and hostile.
Fuels an atmosphere of mistrust in a relationship.
When a partner severs trust, rebuilding it is challenging. Resentment and suspicion are hard to overcome. The deceived partner often finds it hard to trust that other secrets don't exist or that the pattern won't continue in the future. The constant need for reassurance doesn't help build trust; it just placates fear.
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Impedes the ability to communicate naturally.
When people keep secrets, they impede communication between them and their loved ones. This can create stilted, inorganic conversations because so much overthinking is involved to ensure not revealing the lie. Overwhelmed by the fear of revealing the secret, the deceptive partner may be less available, receptive, or involved. Understandably, this becomes frustrating for the deceived partner, which drives a wedge between them.
Deceit begets deceit.
Once deceit becomes a part of a relationship, it begins to erode the foundation of a partnership. If a partner doesn't address the erosion early on, either the original deceit continues and deepens, or further deceits incur. When a deceiver successfully keeps secrets, it can embolden their self-concept and empower them to continue their secretive behavior.
You can become physically sick.
Internalizing deceptions is a burden that has somatic consequences and can cause guilt, shame, and stress, which can come with co-occurring symptoms such as headaches, digestive issues, and sleep problems. In more extreme cases, people may even turn to substances to numb themselves to the discomfort they experience. The risk of substance dependence or abuse will further alienate the secret keeper from their partner.
Breaking the pattern of keeping secrets.
If you've been a perennial hoarder of secrets in your relationship, it will feel like an ominous challenge to break the protective veneer that has made you feel safe and less vulnerable. Suddenly becoming transparent overnight will feel jarring to you and your partner, so don't be impulsive when revealing a significant secret to your partner.
Be straightforward, but kind and compassionate. Carefully evaluate the circumstances, such as the timing, location, mood, and mental and emotional state of your partner. If the information is something that might create distress between the two of you (such as infidelity or bankruptcy), you may want to consider having a third party present, such as a couple's counselor or therapist (or an accountant or lawyer to go over financial options).
However, even though at the front end exposing a secret may seem daunting, even terrifying, the relief people feel in the end has positive effects for the individual and the couple. The research by Slepian, Halevy, and Galinsky demonstrated that those who unburden a secret feel happier, more authentic, and closer.
Exercising transparency, honesty, and forgiveness are essential for sustaining your personal well-being and the health of your relationship. Even if your partner can't bring themselves to love you through deceit, "owning" your truth will set you free and on a personal path toward better physical and mental health—and not just in your relationship. Hopefully, it will encourage you to be more truthful in your future relationships with loved ones and family as well.
Jennifer Guttman, PsyD, is a leading cognitive behavioral therapist and clinical psychologist with over 20 years of experience in the field of mental health. She has built thriving practices in Manhattan and Westport, Connecticut, that provide weekly services for over 120 clients. Guttman launched her own lifestyle motivational brand platform, Sustainable Life Satisfaction, via her popular YouTube six-episode web series, A Path to Sustainable Life Satisfaction, and her debut workbook of the same title is available in e-book and paperback on Kindle/Amazon.com. Guttman found that many people don’t feel “happy” about some aspect of their lives, and her mission is to motivate and inspire people think about happiness in a realistic way.