I practice family law and deal mostly with divorce cases and administration of estates. In my line of work, I have been a witness to the secrets of people both dead and living and I have seen firsthand the devastation secrets have on loved ones. I know of people (both women and men) who found out about children their spouses have outside the home, some during the spouse’s lifetime and some after their deaths. I have seen children who have found their lives to be a lie because the one they called mother or father was neither that in the biological sense. I have seen the devastation people have when they find out about their loved ones addictions, vices or obsessions.
Everyone has secrets, the psychologists say that learning how to keep secrets is a developmental milestone that we achieve as early as five years old when we become aware of the fact that we are separate entities from others and that they have certain expectations of us. At that age, we learn how to keep secrets mainly to avoid a scolding, discipline or punishment and it helps us to cultivate some sense of privacy and personal space which is important for nurturing a good relationship with ourselves.
As we grow older, keeping secrets becomes more of a defense mechanism that helps to portray us in a good light and find acceptance within the environment in which we operate. I believe that our experiences and especially our temperaments play a factor in how secretive we are.
I am a rather open person and I tend to share a lot about my feelings and thoughts to the consternation of some friends and family members but even I, have some skeletons in my cupboard albeit little they may be. Because of my predisposition, I find it very difficult to be secretive about the events in my life and I have found out that things I will expose without much ado are hidden under layers of wrapping by others who are less extroverted than me.
Apart from the justifiable need for privacy, it is my opinion that people keep secrets for three main reasons. Fear, shame/rejection and cowardice. Fear that the image they project to the public will be sullied, that their loved ones may turn their backs on them, that it will damage the relationship they have cultivated, that things will grow from bad to worse, shame of the lowering of standards to which they have been held to, that an innocent person may suffer if they tell their secrets and the reluctance to stand up to their actions even in the face of regret.
We all go to great lengths to cover our secrets , some of us commit crimes to avoid exposure, however, the irony of life is that secrets most often come to light either immediately or after a length of time. Many times just when we heave a sign of relief that we have finally buried them, they start to smell leading people to them.
Keeping secrets has an effect on all concerned. In fact, studies show that they affect both the person with the secret and the person who is oblivious of the secret. On the part of the holder of the secret, it can lead to physical and mental ailments as it affects their stress level, insulin, sleep, thoughts and physical appearance. Its effect on the person in the dark are mostly unconscious but with the benefit of hindsight most people have admitted having felt a sense of unease which led to periods of self doubt especially if they had no evidence to prove what they felt or if the holder of the secret denied the existence of the secret. An example is that of a wife who suspects her husband is having an affair but can’t prove it and the husband calls her paranoid.
Secrets not only affect persons but the relationships we have. Keeping secrets is an act mostly borne of selfishness, rarely do we keep secrets because of its effect on some other person except if we are being blackmailed or we believe they may suffer some harm in one way or the other. It is also highly manipulative because although we tell ourselves that we are doing it for the good of the other person whom we fear may not recover from the revelation, our choices in keeping things from them is a form of control over their decisions or reactions as we are actually limiting their freedom to choose their reactions to issues and making decisions for them that may be counter active to their desires.
I dare say that keeping secrets is not altogether a terrible thing. There are things about one that no one has to know whether in the past or in the present. They may change people’s perspective of one but they do not harm anyone. In this category are things like one’s body count, what goes on behind our bedrooms, naughty childhood experiences, entertainment preferences etc however, some secrets by their very nature must be told especially when they affect the wellbeing of another or will impact their lives significantly. In this category are infidelity, addictions, criminal records, mental health issues, money problems -especially borrowing, not paying bills or spending excessively, health or infertility issues, sexual disease and orientation issues, having a child outside marriage etc
There is the ongoing debate about whether partners should tell each other all that happened in their past before they met. There are valid reasons for and against full disclosure of one’s past but in my opinion it depends on the people involved and the issues at hand. Some people honestly have no need to know what their partners were up to before they meant them due to lack of interest because they feel it neither adds or subtracts from the person or because they can’t handle the information. For others they have a consuming need to know everything, whether they can handle the information they get is a different matter entirely.
Whatever side of the debate we take, the truth is that keeping secrets which will affect the life, choices and well being of others will do more harm than good and the longer we keep the secrets the more the impact it has on the person and on us. Most times the emotional torture we go through takes a greater negative toll on us than the reactions we get when we reveal our dark parts. The constant torture and fear of being found out is lifted when we share our secrets.
However, we should note that there are risks associated with revealing secrets as our loved ones may be unable to go past the revelation and our fears of what they may do or not do may become our reality. I must say though, that our sincerity, remorse and voluntary revelation of the secret without any pressing external pressure and the fact that we value and respect our partners so much that we were willing to carry the burden of our secrets so we will not cause them pain or heartache goes a long way to rebuild trust and intimacy in the wake of the devastation disclosure brings.
“The real problem with keeping a secret is not that you have to hide it, but that you have to live with it, and think about it .” Michael Slepian