The Danger Of Keeping Secrets

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“You’re only as sick as your secrets” goes a saying in Alcoholics Anonymous. And they should know: one of the hallmarks of alcoholism—of any addiction, really—is deception. Addicts deceive others to cover up their addiction and themselves to deny they have one. Which may explain why most of the sober alcoholics I know are so rigorously honest. Any return to the habit of deception, they believe, risks reopening the door to drinking.

They may very well be right. Though not all truths need to be shared with everyone—or even anyone—to maintain a healthy and happy life, concealing some truths is like swallowing slow-acting poison: one’s insides gradually rot. How does one tell the difference between the kind of secret one should keep and the kind one shouldn’t? Perhaps a good guide would be this: the kind of secrets that shouldn’t be kept are those that allow us to behave in a way that causes harm to others or to ourselves. All-to-common examples of this include addiction (to alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, and so on) as well as infidelities (to spouses, business partners, friends, and so on). Keeping these kind of secrets allows the detrimental behavior to continue. Confess such secrets to the right people and it becomes much harder for the harm such secrets enable to continue.

But though revealing that we have a problem with alcohol or drug addiction often represents a necessary step toward recovery, the virtue of confessing infidelities—especially if they were one-time occurrences only—is far less clear. If a man cheats on his wife once, regrets it, and resolves never to do it again, will he do more good than harm in confessing or more harm than good?

Though one could imagine several results from such a confession—from the scenario in which his wife forgives him and the relationship ultimately continues intact after a period of healing, to the scenario in which the marriage continues but in a shattered form, to the scenario in which the relationship ends horribly and painfully—there are reasons to think that not confessing might in some instances be worse. Such situations are always nuanced and need to be considered on a case-by-base basis, but if you do decide to confess, it will likely:

  1. Reduce your guilt. Though people who maintain such secrets do so ostensibly to prevent the last two scenarios I listed above, keeping such secrets has its costs. Though confessing by no means guarantees a release from guilt, it’s likely the only way to make such a release possible. Certainly, confessing with even a genuinely contrite heart may not move the person you’ve hurt to forgive you, but it will open up an even more important possibility: that you will be able to forgive yourself. Was Raskolnikov better off for eventually confessing he murdered the old woman in Crime and Punishment even though doing so landed him in prison? A debatable point, but Dostoyevsky seemed to think so.
  2. Prevent the person or persons who would be hurt by learning the secret from finding out about it from someone else. Though revealing the secret yourself will cause pain, having them learn it from someone else will undoubtedly cause even more. You very well may risk the end of the relationship, but depending on how likely you judge it that your secret might be revealed from other sources, you need to decide which path is riskier.
  3. Reduce the number of your offenses. It’s one thing to do something hurtful to someone. It’s another to do so and keep it from them. While the former is often hard to forgive, the latter is even harder.

Deciding not to reveal a hurtful secret is usually easy, while deciding to reveal it is hard. But if it’s a secret you’re withholding from someone with whom you’re intimate—a spouse, a parent, a sibling, a best friend—even if it need never come up, it represents a barrier, a schism, between you and that person. Maybe you can tolerate that schism by simply not thinking about it. But maybe you can’t. Which is why, I suppose, a good rule of thumb by which to live your life is to try not to have any secrets to keep at all—that is, to not do anything you can’t tell the people who matter to you most.

Next Week: Unconditional Positive Regard

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  • That was a thoughtful article. One of the big problems with secrets is that they create a gulf between people. If there is anything you can’t share with someone else, then you are in the position of walking around it all the time to avoid it and it hurts your relationship. Even if you think you can get by without thinking about it—it’s still there!

    For example, my husband was sexually abused as a young boy and for various reasons as a child felt he couldn’t tell his parents; he vowed to keep the secret from them and everyone else. Because he had to keep the secret, he was no longer comfortable around his parents and one of the tragedies of the abuse was not only the loss of his innocence but the sad loss of his formerly close relationship with his parents. It’s taken him over 40 years to realize the impact that secret-keeping had and he was just recently able to talk to his parents about that.

    So I would say that keeping secrets is a huge problem between people and even if one has done something hurtful to someone they love, to keep it from them adds insult to injury. If one is afraid of losing the relationship if you confess, that’s being controlling… and you are creating a huge gulf and depriving both yourself and your spouse of the opportunity to honestly work through something.


  • Confessing doesn’t reduce guilt. What’s done is done. Confessing only helps to reduce the *feelings* of guilt, which in and of itself is a smarmy trail: for whose peace/pleasure do we confess, the offended’s or the offender’s? True contrition needn’t be validated by a confession; only an eradication of the sin or deception or flawed behavior proves to be the only measure of change and personal responsibility. If you have an addict who stops using simply because of practical reasons (no money, no access, illness or hospitalization, immobility) but this addict still manipulates and deceives to assuage feelings of personal guilt or responsibility or projects or deflects to avoid accountability, surely there are still lingering patterns of behavior. Would that the substances were available, the using would continue. True contrition and meaningful change happens or is best illustrated in the realm of the temptation and thereafter. Just saying you’re sorry doesn’t guarantee sincerity. Trust obviously, is essential, and it is earned, not automatic.

  • I cannot disagree more. If my husband were cheating on me:

    1. I would not want him to unload on me so that he feels less guilty. I do not want pain just so that he has relief.

    2. If someone else told me then I would have the option of ignoring the fact and maintaining my dignity in front of my husband (if I chose to continue the marriage). For him to tell me, a choice to continue the marriage would signal that I am prepared to overlook such behavior.

    3. I fail to see how telling me will either necessarily reduce the number of times he cheats or will make it easier for me to forgive him.

  • This is a wonderful article. But I have to relate a funny story. I was once at a synagogue for Sabbath services, and the rabbi invited children to come up to the pulpit for the sermon. He basically gave a sermon which discussed many of the same issues as you discuss here. At one point, he asked the children if they had ever been told a secret, expecting them to raise their hands (or not). Perhaps he should have been more careful in the way he asked the question. One of the kids blurted out, “My mom told me never to tell anyone that she is on Weight Watchers because she wants to lose 75 lbs.!”

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  • I would say strive to live a life such that you have nothing to confess. But then it is almost impossible to achieve such perfection in our conduct. Confessions will definitely lighten the load on my conscience but if it is going to hurt my relationship with someone then I may not confess.

  • One very big reason to confess an infidelity is so the spouse (and the cheater) can take appropriate action to screen for and treat any sexually transmitted diseases.

  • Why would you have to confess to your significant other? Couldn’t you use a trusted confidant, e.g., priest or psychiatrist to achieve the same effects of removing the guilty feelings and dealing with the more appropriate behavioral changes? I’m with Carol on this, but I can understand Amy’s position.

  • Having a secret is not the problem, lies are the problem. Easy fix: don’t lie.

    001mum: I agree.


  • I’ve thought about it many times because something quite terrible happened to me not long ago. Being an extremely shy person as I am I was never good in general in relationships. Eventually I met a girl on the Internet and I fell in love deeply with her. I mean, all my thoughts were about her, days had only meaning when I talked to her and I felt an incredibly strong connection to her; it was like we were only one person, that sense of complete intimacy. This went on for over a year and suddenly one day she told me it was better to part our ways, that it was for the best if we didn’t talk again, just like that. I knew that sometimes she struggled with depression and all kind of weird thoughts came to my mind as you can imagine. It was really scary but she seemed decided to break our relationship without any explanation. She didn’t show up for days and I had no other means to contact her apart from the e-mail or the chat. I was devastated. I sent her lots of e-mails every day, asking her to reconsider it, begging for an explanation that at least allowed me to understand why. I even thought that she might have fallen in a deep depression episode and was thinking about taking her life. You can imagine how I was feeling. Of course nobody in my family or friends knew anything about her so I had to keep it all for myself, pretending nothing has happened. Finally, after 4 days she responded to one of my e-mails and told me it was better just to break up and go on with our lives without any further explanation because it would destroy me. But I needed to know, I had to know why, it just didn’t make sense after that marvelous year. We knew everything about each other. I had told her things I had never thought I would tell anyone, things that I even tried to avoid thinking about; she was the one, my trust was complete.

    After insisting for a long time she told me the truth. She was not the person I thought she was. I had been living a massive lie all that time. She was not even a she. He was a guy. I didn’t know what to feel, the stream of emotions was overwhelming, appalling. On the one hand I was happy, I was relieved “she” wouldn’t commit suicide, I felt some sort of peace. On the other hand I just wanted to disappear, there are no words to describe the feeling of embarrassment, impotence, betrayal in the cruelest possible way. He told me he was addicted to these things, he used to pretend he was a girl, sending fake pics and so on, he even used some voice distortion software to mimic the voice of a girl. He had done it several times with lots of guys, but it was only a one day thing. But when we started to talk he liked me and after a month or so he didn’t know how to tell me the truth. As the time went by the lie was bigger and bigger and he couldn’t find a way of telling me he was not a girl without breaking my heart until eventually he realized it had to stop. He couldn’t bear his conscience anymore. He tried to end the relationship without telling me so I wouldn’t be so hurt, but I wouldn’t accept not knowing so he had to tell me. I know for sure that he really liked me, and that all of this got out of his hands. Once the ball of lies started rolling it got bigger and bigger and it was harder and harder to stop it. The damage was unavoidable. It wasn’t all lies, most of the things he told me were real, things about his life, his expectations, his dreams, but the most important thing was a lie; he was not the person I thought he was. The person I trusted more than myself. I told him I forgave him, I really did, we even talked for a couple of weeks after that day because I had an incredibly strong emotional dependence on that person and even though I knew the girl I loved so much didn’t exist at all he was somehow the closest thing to her. I thought at first that keeping him in my life would ease my pain, forcing myself to talk to him in a friendly way, because I needed it but at the same time I felt a huge repulsion towards him. After a couple of weeks I had made up my mind. I told him I forgave him and that I hope he had learned a lesson and that I only wished him the best in life. It was really hard to do, but I had to, there were no options.

    A couple of years later I still think about it, even though I’ve moved on. I know it’s an extreme example, but it’s a good one on how lies and secrets take only to excruciating pain, humiliation and despair.