THE BLOG
08/07/2014 12:41 pm ET Updated Oct 07, 2014

How Keeping Secrets Can Destroy a Romantic Relationship


Many of my clients tell me they keep secrets from their partner because they think telling the truth will make things worse. Or they believe that their significant other simply couldn't handle the truth and that it might end the relationship.

For instance, Kerry never told Brad that she was married briefly in her early 20s even though they've been dating for over a year. She explains: "I don't really see a reason to tell Brad because it was a brief marriage and we ended on good terms. I just don't want him to judge me harshly because he was raised Catholic."

When I attempted to explore with Kerry the distinct possibility that Brad might find out someday -- especially if they decide to get married -- Kerry said: "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it." At this point, I asked Kerry to consider that mistrust erodes the quality of any relationship and that keeping important secrets isn't a way to build trust with a romantic partner.

Recent research shows that one in five people are keeping a major secret, such as infidelity or money troubles, from their spouse. Surprisingly, a quarter of respondents in this study said they kept this secret for more than 25 years. Further, one in four of those people who kept a secret in this study said that it was so big, they worried that it would destroy their marriage. Common secrets reported include money troubles, pornography and various forms of betrayal such as infidelity.

While trust is an essential element of an intimate relationship, it can be easily broken and hard to repair. When your partner withholds important information from you regardless of their reasons, it's normal to feel betrayed. For many people any form of deceit can be a deal breaker. For example, Leah, a 29-year-old occupational therapist explains: "Trust and communication are major difficulties for me. It takes a lot to build my trust and if it's broken, there's a possibility it may not be earned back."

According to author Kristen Houghton, relationships are made up of many components and people will put up with many quirks to keep a relationship going. She writes: "But if you are consistently made to feel uncomfortable or uneasy because you feel as if you cannot trust your partner, then making the decision not to take him or her back is the logical one for you. Life needs quality and a sense of security." In other words, by keeping secrets or lying to your partner, you run the risk that you will lose their trust and put your relationship in jeopardy.

Five reasons why it's a good idea not to keep secrets:

1. You will feel better about yourself. Honesty is always the best policy and most of us have a moral code which tells us that keeping secrets is akin to lying. For most of us, being dishonest is only acceptable when we are in dire straits -- like trying to save someone's live.

2. Keeping major secrets is a form of deceit and the more time that passes, the harder it is to fess up.

3. Being deceitful breeds mistrust. Further, once a person loses trust, it is hard to regain -- especially for those who have been betrayed by a parent or former romantic partner or spouse.

4. Keeping secrets is a hotbed for betrayal. Leaving out important facts can lead to further deception or betrayal, according to author Dr. Lisa Firestone. Whereas being open with your partner will promote trust and honest communication.

5. People are hurt by lies and grow apart. It's hard to feel emotionally connected to someone when you catch them in a lie or find out that they've kept a secret from you.

But is lying by omission or keeping a secret the same as lying? In my opinion, you might want to consider how your partner would view your secret if they found out and you neglected to tell them about it. For instance, if Brad and Kerry decide to get married, imagine his shock and feelings of betrayal if a clerk issuing their marriage license tells him that Kerry was previously married.

Trust is about so much more than catching your partner in a truth or lie. It is about believing that he or she truly has your best interests at heart. Mistrust is a lingering feeling in the back of your mind that your partner does not truly love you, or may abandon you. So much about trust is walking the talk. Your partner may tell you he/she loves you, but do his/her actions support that? All too often, when people aren't feeling safe enough in a relationship to be honest and open with their partner, it's because they don't believe that their partner truly loves them or they are overly protective of their own interests.

What I've come to realize is that being vulnerable and honest about all aspects of our life is an act of courage. Some people believe that they need to keep secrets or lie to survive in their relationship. They lack confidence in their ability to confront unpleasant topics - such as money troubles, or issues related to past or present mistakes. But finding healthy ways to express yourself to your partner is the best way to build a trusting relationship.

Let's end on the words of Lisa Firestone: "When it comes to truth, think about whether you want people to trust you. Do you value integrity and want your words to be reflected in your actions? If you commit to these attributes on a behavioral level, you'll be better able to gain trust and live your life with honest, open communication. This world may not be perfect, nor the truth always easy to take, but you can find peace and freedom in the security of knowing that the world you've created around you is a real as it gets."

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