Secrets! They are so much with us. Every day they take up some portion of our minds. We harbor, savor, reveal and revile them. Sometimes they are quiet, sometimes they rumble around demanding too much attention.
There are little secrets like the fact that you weren’t really sick when you canceled a meeting you didn’t want to attend. There are big secrets having to do with infidelity, incest, sexual and physical abuse, or cheating at school and work. Like the fact that you have children or siblings that your family doesn’t know about. There are even shared secrets, things two people know but can’t share. I have known many couples who each believe the relationship is boring or ending but they have never uttered those words. And I know people who love one another deeply and keep just as silent.
It’s rare that we know exactly what to do with secrets. The other evening at dinner, a friend revealed a secret—not his own but someone else’s. The two women at the table were upset. It wasn’t his story to tell, they argued. I wasn’t so upset because it didn’t denigrate and was unlikely to harm anyone. But here’s the question: are there any rules about secrets? None that are universal as far as I can tell. And as a marital and family therapist for thirty years, I was asked for my advice all the time.
There are many ways that people have tried to puzzle out the value and the deficits of keeping secrets. In general, we think that they are toxic and should find a way into the light of day, but some believe that they protect our feelings and our privacy in very comforting ways. They are safe harbors.
Let’s start with reasons to bring secrets into the light. Here’s some typical advice from a family therapist, Evan Imber-Black. She tells us that “secrets can divide family members, permanently estranging them. They can discourage individuals from sharing information with anyone outside the family, inhibiting formation of intimate relationships. They can freeze development at crucial points in life, preventing the growth of self and identity. They can lead to painful miscommunication within a family, causing unnecessary guilt and doubt.” She goes on to say that “A person who seeks to undo the damage caused by family secrets must accept that revealing a secret is not a betrayal but a necessity.”
That’s a damning indictment and a powerful injunction but contemporary culture has for decades had a powerful bias towards revealing secrets.
Like most of you, there are experiences in my life that validate that bias. Here’s one. It was 1968. My father was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. Though it was a common choice in those days, I have never been able to discern why my mother did not want to tell him that he was dying. She said that he would do better believing that he could fight it. There was some truth to her observation. My father was a fighter; he believed that a concentrated mind could overcome almost any obstacle. But he wasn’t the only person involved in his dying. My brother and sister, his friends and family—all were sworn to silence, which means none of us got to talk with my father about the dying and about our relationships over the years. We couldn’t reminisce or mourn together. Somehow the prohibition even inhibited our ability to talk among ourselves. We lay around the house in a stupor for weeks. It was a very lonely time.
Our cultural preference for sharing of secrets is bolstered by scientific studies. They say that secrets are bad for your health. “People hiding traumatic secrets,” for example, “showed more incidents of hypertension, influenza, even cancer, while those who wrote about their secrets showed, through blood tests, enhanced immune systems.”
The culture of candor has had a number of powerful drivers. Among them was the wave of openness that hit American shores during the sixties and seventies. A second was the feminist movement, which contrasted the (intimate) way that women talked with one another to the (withholding) way that men did. Third, the revelations of incest and sexual abuse, long shrouded in shame, were said to be liberating when brought to light. A fourth driver was the gay and lesbian movement, which insisted that the secret closets they had been forced into were constricting, humiliating, and oppressive. These were extraordinary and liberating movements in our cultural history.
But I don’t think that sharing secrets is always the best idea. Too often, people say the cruelest things in the name of revealing secrets. People also tell secrets without thinking about the consequences: how it will hurt others; how it will damage reputations; how it will spread. Telling secrets is often a test: will you still love me if you know what I’m really like, what happened to me in the past, who I have associated with. What if this isn’t the best test of love. What’s more, once out of the closet, secret are no longer within your control.
Here’s a story about the loss of control. Friends of my Aunts had been happily married for forty years. They did everything together. They were best friends and lovers. One day, the husband, believing that the marriage was so strong that it could tolerate almost any blow—and that, in the end, it would be strengthened by his honesty—revealed that, thirty years in the past, he had had a brief, “meaningless” affair. Still it bothered him and created a slight barrier between them. He wanted to pull it down. She quietly thanked him for sharing, thought about it for a day, and decided to dissolve the marriage. He was stunned but he would be patient. She would recover soon enough from the hurt and anger. Divorce was unimaginable. But no, she was resolved, and that was that.
Secrets are rarely shared for the other. They are meant to relieve us of a burden, an anxiety, a fearful premonition. They put a great, generally unrequested burden on those who receive the secrets. I don’t believe that it is always self serving when people say that they must keep a secret to protect others. There are, after all, many times that secrecy is necessary. Think of the needs of resistance fighters, who do, in fact, protect comrades from vengeful dictators. There are times within families when the potential for revenge for a revealed secret is simply too great. And, of course, there are many lesser reasons to keep things to yourself.
I believe that the culture that fosters the telling of secrets is also a culture that greatly emphasizes individual rights and individual feelings and de-emphasizes the experience of others. Maybe more importantly, it downplays the importance of larger entities: families, communities, work groups. Our desire to feel good ourselves should not, in my mind, always supersede the feelings or stability of others.
There are also positive reasons for keeping secrets. Some think of secrets as a private treasure. “You need to know things the others don’t know. It’s what no one knows about you that allows you to know yourself.” Don DeLillo. For both individuals and whole societies, maintaining secrets provides a more orderly and dignified way of life. “To hide feelings when you are near crying,” wrote Dejan Stojanovic, “ is the secret of dignity.” Wellins Calcott that “Secrecy is the cement of friendship.” For still others, secrets provide a safe place, a private room where you are unobserved, and where you don’t have to maintain your public self. “They do much to make you different. On the inside where it counts.”
Personally, I treasure those moments when I can finally come clear, when I can share a secret and, by so doing, draw closer to the person who is listening. And I treasure the privacy of my many small secrets.
If asked for advice about what to do, I’d say this. Take great care in choosing who to tell your secrets to. Can they handle them. Will they appreciate the moment, the fear that preceded the sharing, the possibility of relief and joy in the telling. Even before that, be clear about your purpose: why do you want to let the secret out; what goal do you have in mind; what negative consequences might arise—and can you handle them. If you prepare in this way, if you make a real decision about whether to share or not, then you are likely to succeed.