07/02/2012 12:32 pm ET | Updated Sep 01, 2012

Complete Honesty and Intimacy Are Not Always the Same

Tom and Katie's divorce may have disappointed some, but most people were not at all surprised. Conjecture about the break-up focused on the frequent failure of manufactured made-in-Hollywood relationships, as well as the ongoing rumors of Tom's hidden bisexuality and the quasi-religious rules he imposed on their family. While no one outside that union will ever really know the source of their marital discord, it raises the larger question about how secrets impact the long-term success -- or failure -- of relationships.

I recently wrote a post about secrets that couples sometimes keep from one another. The article stressed the importance of asking how and when, if ever, secrets are best kept or revealed. An interesting conversation ensued about the pros and cons of being brutally honest with one's mate. Some bloggers felt very strongly about the importance of open communication at all times and believed that secrets inherently imply shame and guilt. Others felt that revealing hidden information really depended upon the content of the secret and the reason behind it. Some felt the most important consideration was the strength or vulnerability of the relationship. For these couples, timing seemed critical.

Below is a list of five other secrets that couples keep from one another and why deciding "to tell or not to tell" might be worthy of careful consideration:

1) Passions Directed Elsewhere: If you are hiding your involvement with an activity or a passion shared with people other than your mate, you might want to question the need for secrecy. Be it spending time with your colleagues after work, teammates on athletic fields or friends at a racetrack, book club, shopping mall or chat room, it's possible you are seeking fulfillment that you might otherwise be able to get from your mate, if you so desired. Having independent hobbies or interests is one thing -- in fact, they are often a positive influence on relationships -- but a compulsive activity or secret fetish is another. Most often, obsessions that are kept out of view ultimately interfere with intimacy. Weaving them into your relationship can bring couples closer. And who knows? Sharing your passion with your mate may make those activities even more enjoyable.

2) Psychiatric Illness, Hospitalizations and Meds: This is a tricky one. And it may surprise you that many people who have a history of mental illness (or even a family member with one) feel the need to keep it a secret. Unlike other chronic physical illnesses, there remains a stigma attached to certain diagnoses -- like schizophrenia, depression and bipolar disorder -- and even more negativity associated with psychiatric hospitalizations. Couples openly talk about struggles with heart disease and diabetes, for example, as well as the doctors and drugs used to treat them. But psychiatric meds and visits to a therapist are often keep hidden from mates for years. Once the secret is out, couples who really care for each other typically feel closer. It seems best to share your vulnerabilities -- physical or otherwise -- with those you know will be sensitive and caring. And be prepared to educate them about your psychiatric diagnosis, since you'd be surprised at how the stigma around them is often based on lack of understanding and information.

3) Wanting Children Or Not: Men and women are sometimes hesitant to share this important piece of information. Some couples only reveal their thoughts in either direction after years of being together. Many people just assume women want children. Others think that not wanting them is a shameful secret. One of my patients hid an abortion she had years ago from her current husband. He was a religious man with two children from a previous marriage and she was convinced he wouldn't understand. She decided to share her secret after they had a child of their own and when she felt confident it would have less impact on their relationship. Some men and women feign interest in the step-children they inherit from their mate's former marriages, but make no secret of distaste for them to everyone other than their partner. Couples often fear their feelings about children will be a deal breaker in a relationship -- which it can be -- but the alternative, keeping it secret, is much more problematic. This is one that needs to be discussed sooner rather than later.

4) Sexual History, Sexual Confusion: Less is more when it comes to stories about sexual escapades. Partners don't necessarily need to know about all you did, with whom, how many times or how great each experience was. Nor do they necessarily need to know how confused you were about your sexual identity and the experimentation that took place to find it. Men and women sometimes mistakenly believe that all stories about their past will bring them closer. One patient told her husband the detailed story of how she had spent a heavenly week with her previous husband at the same resort where they were about to vacation. He couldn't get unwanted images out of his head and it ruined their time. While ongoing sexual confusion is important to discuss with your partner, most of us are quite happy to assume there was a sexual history before we came into the picture, and it's best left that way.

5) Cosmetic Surgery: This is a relatively new and complicated secret some people keep. As more men and women have cosmetic work before meeting their life partners, many don't feel it necessary to share the fact their body and face are not naturally the ones they came into this life with. Teens now request cosmetic surgery before going off to college just for that reason -- they want their new looks to be kept secret from those who knew them "back when." Liposuction, tummy tucks and other body sculpting procedures are the ones most often kept hidden. They're not as obvious. Many women with breast implants stay silent about them, only telling their mates when they start nursing their babies. Men tend to stay quiet about most procedures, since cosmetic surgery continues to be viewed by many as unmanly. When patients ask if it's necessary to reveal this truth, I talk about the burden of keeping a secret, rather than whether it's right or wrong. If the altered look is dramatic, I suggest they share it -- old pictures will reveal your secret, anyway. The more complicated situation is when men and women find ways to avoid telling their current mate about their surgery. Some leave town to have work done, telling their mates they're off to a spa or work retreat. You'd be surprised how often partners don't even notice. If it's subtle, only you may ever know and it's your choice to tell. It all depends on how comfortable you are about your new body and face -- and how you feel about keeping the secret from your partner.

In Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin's new HBO series, Will, the anchorman, and MacKenzie, his ex (and now executive producer) argue about how a secret ended their relationship -- and whether their crew should learn the real truth behind the rumored extra-marital affair. MacKenzie, the one who was, in fact, the cheater, apologizes to Will, saying she didn't really consider her affair a true betrayal. She chose to tell Will about it, she says, because she learned how much she loved him as a result. Will feels, in retrospect, had MacKenzie really loved him, she wouldn't have told him -- as he now has to live with the burden of knowing. And there it is.

Intimacy and complete openness are not one and the same. A successful long-term relationship means being willing to share your vulnerabilities and strengths, but requires sensitivity to the consequences that sharing brings. If keeping information from a partner is based less on shame and guilt and more on the desire to keep the bond healthy and vital -- it's really your choice.

Do you have a secret you keep from your mate? Do you think it would be helpful or detrimental to your relationship if you shared it?


Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She serves as a media expert on various psychological topics and as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. Her book, "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances.

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