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12/15/2014 08:07 am ET Updated Feb 14, 2015

How A Confession Can Make Your Relationship Stronger

One in five of us has kept a major secret from our partner. And many over-40s have secret savings. But sometimes telling the truth can do more harm than good, as High50's Celia Dodd reports.

There's a general assumption that secrets are bad. And it's a pretty reliable rule of thumb that honesty is best with the people you love -- your partner, your children, your best friend -- because secrets get in the way of real intimacy. But there are all sorts of reasons why, sometimes, coming clean may do more harm than good.

I'm not talking about small secrets -- though who's to say what's small when it comes to secrets? One person's minor misdemeanor is someone else's life-changing betrayal. I'm talking about potentially explosive information that's withheld for a reason: because it would hurt someone; because it makes you look bad; because it could destroy a relationship.

Betrayal Of Trust

"When long-held secrets are revealed they can blow a relationship apart, because the person is changed for ever in the other person's eyes," says Relate counsellor Christine Northam. "Everything they thought was true about the relationship is shot to pieces. For some people there's no coming back from that betrayal of trust, however hard they try."

In an ideal world we would avoid doing stuff we'd want to keep secret in the first place. And if we messed up we'd come clean straight away.

But in the real world it's often hard to find the right moment -- even if you want to. A survey earlier this year by the law firm Slater & Gordon found that 20 per cent of couples kept major secrets from their spouse -- some for over 25 years.

And a new report from the Prudential has found that 18 per cent of over-40s kept hefty stashes of cash secret from their partners.

Affairs, Porn And One-Night Stands

The damage a secret can do depends on what it means to you, and what it's likely to mean to the other person. The longer you keep a secret, the more powerful and destructive it becomes, and the harder it is to confess.

A one-night stand back in the day might have been meaningless once, but deception maintained over time gives it added weight.

Secrets about behavior that's still going on -- such as a mounting debt, a porn habit, or an affair -- allow it to continue. Coming clean means you have to change; keeping quiet prevents you from moving on.

There is a powerful TED talk by Kirsty Spraggon, an Australian woman who told no one for more than a decade that she had herpes. In it, she describes how sharing her secret was the beginning of the healing process.

Secrets Can Be Sexy

Of course, the danger is that the truth will get out: a child comes across an old diary, perhaps, or your partner chances on a sexy text. It's this risk that makes some secrets sexy, but also horrible to live with.

The underlying fear of exposure combines with anxiety that if other people discovered the real you their love and trust would be withdrawn. So it's hardly surprising that secrecy can take a toll on psychological and even physical health.

Research by Anita Kelly, professor of psychology at Notre Dame University in Indiana and author of The Psychology of Secrets, found that people who concealed information were more likely to suffer headaches, nausea and back pain.

A study by Michael Slepian at Stanford University found that people were literally physically weighed down by secrets.

Consider The Effect Of Revealing A Secret

It may be a sweet relief to get a secret off your chest. But what about the person who has been kept in the dark? There's no way of knowing how they'll react, because secrecy is a kind of cocoon, where you are the only judge of your behavior.

One man who had an affair says, "When I admitted I'd been having an affair it was the best thing that had happened since it started. That sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach was gone at last. But for my partner it was completely the opposite. She was totally devastated."

Christine Northam says coming clean is a test of your relationship: "It's nearly always better not to have secrets, but sometimes it might be better to keep a still tongue in a wise head. You have to think about what you're hoping for by revealing the secret, what benefits it will have.

"Think too about what it means to you to live with it, and how the other person is likely to react. It's risk because it could be very destructive. "But if the relationship is strong it reminds you both how good it is when you can be honest."

Family Secrets

In families there is a fine line between privacy and secrecy. Some couples insist their children don't need to know anything about what goes on between them. But, increasingly, parents regard their adult kids as friends, and in that case it's easy to be a bit too frank -- especially when you're upset or you've had a few drinks.

Honesty is best. But that doesn't mean revealing all the grubby details of a break-up, or your bad behavior at university. It's generally advisable to count to 100 (at least!) and think carefully about your motives before you give away too much about your life. Often the kids don't want too much information anyway, although it's good practice to answer their questions.

Ultimately, it's up to individual families to decide what's appropriate for them. But never underestimate the impact of revealing secrets to your kids -- however cool and preoccupied with their own lives they seem to be.

"I've worked with people who have never told their children they were adopted," says Northam. "Or that they'd been married before. It means children think they know their parents but they don't. And that's what real closeness is about: knowing and trusting someone."

How To Confess A Secret

-- Think about how the other person might feel. Put yourself in his or her shoes.

-- It's a huge bonus if you've decided to come clean yourself. It's much harder if you've been caught out.

-- Be prepared to work together on the inevitable loss of trust.

-- Prepare your script carefully beforehand.

-- Make it clear that you believe honesty is a risk worth taking because you value the relationship so highly.

-- Remember: if your relationship is strong, and you're prepared to work at it, coming clean can lead to a new honesty and closeness.

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