What Kind of Partner Keeps Secrets in Their Relationship?

Infidelity, substance abuse, pornography use, and considering leaving one’s partner—these are the types of secrets that frequently arise in sex therapy and couples counseling.  Secret-keeping by its very nature requires partners to lie to their spouse or partner—and hence secrets and lying are themselves married or fused.

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Partners keep a variety of secrets from their partners for many expected and at times surprising reasons. They may feel something is too taboo to discuss—like marital problems, financial issues, sexual preferences, or their own or their partner’s mental health and addiction issues. They may have broken their sexual exclusivity or monogamy agreement in a long-term committed relationship or marriage. And they may omit information or outright lie about topics like their physical health, their previous sexual partners, or beliefs on death or religion.

How does a secret affect a family?

In the context of a family, secrets can be kept by whole families from outsiders, between only certain members of the family, or by an individual from their family. According to researchers Vangelisti and Caughlin, these types of secrets are extremely common—with 96.7, 99.1, and 95.8 percent of people reporting them, respectively.

Maintaining secrets in the context of a family can be done for practical or functional motives. People keep secrets to protect members of their family, bond with certain family members, and even alter the power within the family’s dynamics. Secrets have the potential to change family dynamics because family members tend to organize their relationships around who knows and does not know their secret.

In my practice, I often see major changes in family dynamics because some family members know only a part of a secret—without knowing it is only part of the secret—which makes those who know the full secret cautious and distant for fear that the rest of the secret may accidentally come tumbling out. For example, I have worked with men whose secret of seeing sex workers get discovered by their female partners. A wife who discovered her husband’s past secret sexual alliances with sex workers disclosed this secret only to one of her siblings while her parents, her other siblings, and her partner’s entire family were kept in the dark. She did this so that she didn’t feel so lonely with the betrayal, which naturally devastated her emotionally.

The brother to whom she shared this secret lived in another country and would only see the whole family once a year at holiday time, making the odds of the secret coming out less likely. However, at a Christmas gathering, the brother felt so uncomfortable holding onto the secret that he avoided spending extended time chatting not only with his sister’s in-laws, but with his own parents and his siblings that didn’t know as well.

How does one’s attachment style affect secret-keeping?

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The reasons one partner keeps a secret from their spouse or partner and how they feel about doing so differs from person to person. For instance, a person’s attachment style plays a major role in their decision to keep a secret and their feelings about doing so. According to a 2015 study, people who scored higher in anxious attachment styles and avoidant-attachment styles are more likely than securely attached people to keep secrets from their partner. The reasons an anxious person keeps a secret differs from the reasons an avoidant person keeps a secret—anxious people are often avoiding the disapproval of their partner, while avoidant people use secrecy as a way of maintaining a comfortable emotional distance from their partner.

Anxious people ruminate and feel higher levels of anxiety about keeping secrets in addition to feelings of guilt—even though they may have felt justified in their need to keep some information secret—especially if it’s negative information closeted to avoid their partner’s disapproval. Somewhat surprisingly, avoidantly attached subjects were more likely to ruminate (but not to experience feelings of guilt), than those with low avoidance.

In my clinical practice. I have seen avoidantly-attached partners ruminate about being discovered for fears of the secrets causing him to lose his reputation as a family man. That is, the concern of how he would appear, and the potential loss of outsiders’ respect was experienced as more anxiety-provoking than how their partner would feel if their secret sexual behavior were to be discovered.

Differentiating between secrecy and privacy in a couple’s sex life

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If the secret keeper is not experiencing anxiety, rumination, or guilt—is it really a secret? There is a difference between keeping secrets and maintaining privacy. Some couples therapists have written that the difference is in how it makes the secret-keeper feel.

According to Evan Imber-Black, privacy is not bad for a person’s physical or emotional health, while secrets can impact a person’s well-being and decision-making. And privacy, rather than secrecy, can be healthy not only for the emotional but also the erotic intimacy of a relationship or marriage. Mystery can add a touch of spark and elusive power in the realm of the erotic.

The development of intimacy may actually be enhanced by keeping some privacy and sharing some secrets between partners in a couple while maintaining secrets from those outside of the relationship. My view is that privacy is some freedom each person is entitled to as long it doesn’t directly impact or hurt another person.

Many partners have sexual fantasies which they decide not to share with their mate. Many of them wonder in individual therapy sessions whether they’re being unfaithful by not sharing all their fantasies.

While some mates feel that a sense of true intimacy means there are absolutely no thoughts, events, or decisions that aren’t completely shared, I align myself with therapists Esther Perel’s and Stephen Levine’s theoretical stance that maintaining one’s own private space within a couple or relationship and sharing some thoughts and ideas with close friends outside the relationship—or keeping them to oneself—is all a healthy part of what family therapy pioneer Murray Bowen called “differentiation” in a couple. It’s also part of my Sex Esteem model.

Can we truly know our partners?

An existential anxiety provoking many people is that they’ll never fully know everything about their partner and alternatively, they won’t ever be fully known by them either. This dilemma of unknowingness and the fact that we change continually throughout our lifetime is the fear that many partners try to conquer through demanding full disclosure in their relationships, and this quest for knowing all can cause suffering and disappointment.

As Michel Foucault wrote:

“Sexuality is a part of our behavior. It’s part of our world freedom. Sexuality is something that we ourselves create. It is our own creation, and much more than the discovery of a secret side of our desire. We have to understand that with our desires go new forms of relationships, new forms of love, new forms of creation. Sex is not a fatality; it’s a possibility for creative life.”

I would add that sexual mystery and curiosity, if left to breathe and expand in a consensually aligned relationship, contributes to a more creatively erotic connection with a partner or spouse, whether they be new or long-term.