We all have secrets—certain aspects of ourselves or our life that we choose not to share with others. Some secrets are totally harmless, like your embarrassing habit of chewing on your knuckles when you were a kid or sticking wads of gum under your nightstand, but others, especially ones that could potentially affect our loved ones, are particularly risky. The truth about secrets, relationship experts agree, is that certain ones are okay to keep for your partner, while others can undermine the foundation of your union.
To better understand what a secret does to your relationship, you have to first understand why you're not telling your partner something in the first place. "People keep secrets for the same reason they lie. Because they don't think the truth will be accepted," explains Claudia Six, Ph.D., sexologist, relationship coach, and author of Erotic Integrity. "It's called being deceitful by omission. People are afraid they'll be rejected, shamed, or made wrong, so they keep things secret. When we don't feel good about something, we don't want others to know, even if it's completely harmless."
Randy Z., who's now divorced, kept his spa habit a secret from his former wife for years. Depending on the day, he was spending up to four hours at a bathhouse, enjoying hot tubs, cold pools, and saunas while chatting with other patrons. While the trips to the spa were entirely harmless, he didn't think his wife would understand the draw, which is why he chose to keep it from her to avoid having her make jokes at his expense. "I never told her and only did it when she thought I was golfing, she was out with friends for a long time, or she was working late," he explains. "It was harmless and I felt great after the spa experience, but it amuses me now that she never knew."
The experts say that Randy's decision to lie is caused by a feeling many people have towards their significant others at some point in the relationship—that he or she simply won't understand or accept us for the realities of who we truly are. While most couples really do want to be honest with each other, almost everyone ends up lying to their partner at one point or another. And, more often than not, we lie about sex and/or money, says Tammy Nelson, Ph.D., certified sex therapist and author of Getting the Sex You Want. "Sex and money are personal. They are intimate and private topics and, to some people, they can be the most embarrassing things to talk about," she explains. "When they're going well, it can feel great, but when they aren't, it can trigger shame and even self-loathing."
This was the case for Eric S., who chose not to tell his now-wife about his sexual history before their wedding. "I did my best to give her this impression that I was a virgin on our wedding night, which worked pretty well," he says, adding that he feared she wouldn't marry him if she knew the truth. "I kept it from her because sex before marriage was a religious no-no for her, and I knew she wanted to marry a virgin." Even though they've been now been happily married for 11 years and have three children together, he still conceals his secret out of fear that she would wonder what else he might be hiding from her.
Some secrets are kept with the best intentions, as one partner is trying to protect his or her significant other from a hurtful truth. In Veronica M.'s case, she lied about how her best friend felt about her boyfriend. "My boyfriend had said something that really upset my friend, and it was all downhill from there," she describes. "Since she lives 300 miles away, I chose not to tell him the truth because it would only cause a rift in our relationship and we hardly see her anyway." Paulette Sherman, Psy.D., a psychologist and author of Dating from the Inside Out, explains that withholding such information from a significant other, albeit harmless initially, can become problematic. "It can become an issue of trust and they may feel you are siding against them, living a double life, or having secret alliances, which can definitely affect the quality of your relationship," she says. "They may want to discuss their feelings openly about this and get your support in navigating it."
While most experts agree that certain secrets in a relationship can be destructive, many are acceptable. "The most obvious one is that if a friend confides in you something about them and as a good friend you want to respect their confidentiality, boundaries, and honor your word to respect their privacy, since this is generally about them and it's unlikely to affect your partner," explains Dr. Sherman.
Additionally, Dr. Nelson points out that there is a difference between privacy and secrecy. "Your personal grooming habits or what you watch on television when they're not home are examples of things that may be private and not necessary to talk about. But if you find that you're withholding important information, micro-cheating behaviors, or things that could lead to emotional affairs, then you could be putting your relationship at risk," she adds.