"I Just Won't Tell Them:" Keeping Secrets In A Relationship
Sometimes we have secrets from our past that we may not want others to know.
Sometimes we have secrets from our past we may not want others to know. We all have done things or made mistakes that we are not proud of and don’t want to come to light. What do we do with those secrets when we are in a relationship? What is the best way to manage them?
First off, secrets love the dark. They thrive in being tucked away and never being revealed. They are able to exert influence and control when they are not exposed. However, when secrets are shared and brought into the open and into the light, the grip of their power and influence is loosened. When we have a secret that exerts some power or control over us by influencing how we relate and connect in relationships, it is in our own best interest, and in the best interest of our spouse and our relationship, to expose the secret. When we bring it to light, we prevent it from having any control in our relationship. When a secret is shared, all the parts of the relationship can then be known so that we will know exactly what we are working with and how best to grow the relationship and move it forward.
"When a secret is shared, all the parts of the relationship can then be known so that we will know exactly what we are working with..."
Secondly, when we reveal any secrets we might have, we are exposing the vulnerable parts of ourselves. That can be a very intimidating and terrifying situation. However, when we are vulnerable and share our secrets, we also are given the opportunity to be fully known. There is great freedom and joy in being fully known. When we are fully known, we don’t have to endure the stress and worry of being found out, of our secret being revealed. We don’t have to worry about the real us being exposed, because we are already known. To be fully known and still loved and accepted is an incredibly liberating, joyful experience. When we are able to be fully known in our relationship, that experience develops trust and an emotional closeness and intimacy that really deepen and strengthen the relationship.
Thirdly, not being able or willing to reveal our secret to our spouse or close friend could be an indicator of the relationship’s true state of affairs. What is the reason why we don’t want to share our secret? What is the concern or fear? Not wanting to disclose a secret reveals that the relationship could be lacking some measure of emotional safety and trust. We are not confident the other person will love or accept us. Perhaps we have learned through prior experience that when we reveal something difficult to our spouse or friend, that we are not accepted and loved with grace. This realization can show us the work that needs to be done for the relationship to become more healthy, safe and connected.
Of course, there are always caveats to consider. One caveat is that there is a spectrum to secrets, ranging from the inconsequential to the devastating. For example, perhaps you prefer to not share your most embarrassing moment from junior high. That secret most likely has no direct bearing on your relationship, and so its disclosure is not necessary, although it is comforting to share your most embarrassing moment and have someone empathize with you! However, if your secret is about an addiction or an affair, that secret has a direct and profound influence on your relationship and so should be carefully and thoughtfully disclosed, perhaps with the help of a therapist.
A second caveat to secrets is that we must consider safety in the decision to disclose or not. Is the person to whom we want to reveal our secret a safe person? Are they trustworthy? Will they have our back? Will they protect us, or will they start the gossip chain? While it is helpful and healthy for us to be vulnerable and share ourselves with others, that does not mean we reveal ourselves to everyone or just anyone. Revealing a secret to a safe, trustworthy spouse or friend brings healing. Revealing a secret to someone who is not safe or trustworthy brings disaster.
"Is the person to whom we want to reveal our secret a safe person? Are they trustworthy? Will they have our back?"
Another way to consider this caveat is to flip it around. Think about if you are that kind of safe person in your relationships. Are you emotionally safe? Are you trustworthy? Do others know you will have their backs and protect them rather than spread gossip? Being that kind of safe person will also go a long way in strengthening and deepening your relationships.
The sharing of secrets and being vulnerable are ways to really develop and grow a relationship. They are the path to a closer emotional connection. With secrets that are more inconsequential, take a deep breath, disclose and enjoy the laughter and camaraderie! With secrets that are more of the profoundly influential kind, it is extremely helpful to have a therapist walk with us through that process so that the disclosure brings healing and closeness. It might be terrifying, but handled appropriately, it is worth it!
Willa Williams is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She works at the Biola Counseling Center as a therapist and at the Biola Center for Marriage and Relationships as the Consulting Therapist. She has a Master of Arts in Religion from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Deerfield, IL) and a Master of Arts in Counseling in Psychology from Trinity International University (Deerfield, IL). She is Level 3 Trained in the Gottman Method of Couples Therapy and also is a Certified Prepare/Enrich Facilitator. Before coming to Biola, she served overseas at the Spanish Bible Institute in Barcelona, Spain, where she taught a class on counseling skills for pastors and served as the staff therapist for the students. She has been married for more than 30 years and has two teenage children. She has a passion for healthy relationships and enjoys working with couples as well as individuals. She appreciates the immense impact that healthy marriages and relationships have on couples as well as future generations.