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Keeping Secrets

Just where should couples draw the line between total self-disclosure and a bit of personal privacy?

You've probably got secrets—private, hidden things you do or think when you're alone, or perhaps something that happened a long time ago that you prefer to keep to yourself. But when it comes to the intimacy of your marriage, it's hard to judge whether you need to "tell all" to your mate.

Is it ever okay to keep a secret from your spouse?

For some the answer is an emphatic "no!" They feel that husbands and wives should have no secrets, period. But others wonder, "Why should I share something with my mate that may harm or even destroy our relationship?" They tell themselves that "a secret kept can be better than the consequences of a secret known."

A lot of the couples I see in counseling obviously think keeping secrets is all right. With names changed, here are a few of their secrets.

Bill was afraid to tell his wife that he hated his lucrative job. Knowing she wouldn't support a major career change that would greatly reduce their family's standard of living, he pursued a new job in secret.

Every week Jennifer writes the weekly grocery check for $40 over the total to have extra spending money. Her husband sees the checkbook, not the receipts, and assumes the money is going for groceries.

A woman at Michael's office has been flirting with him. He enjoys the attention and writes it off as innocent fun. He doesn't mention it at home.

Marci doesn't tell her husband that she talks on the phone with her mom every day. He has always considered his mother-in-law overbearing.

Kristin's non-Christian husband gets annoyed when Kristin fills her life with church activities. But she is over at the church two nights a week, when her husband thinks she's visiting her mom.

Belinda has found a lump in her breast and is worried how her husband will accept and support her.

Are these secrets good or bad? How should you determine whether keeping something from your spouse is justifiable? The question of "to tell, or not to tell" can be settled by wrestling with the "why" and "how" reasoning behind keeping a secret.

To Tell or Not to Tell

If you've got a secret, the "why" question is, "Why are you keeping this knowledge from your spouse?" Do you honestly believe what you're doing is best for both of you? Or are you just scared of what might happen if the secret comes out?

Then follow the "why" question with a "how" question: "How is your marriage enhanced and intimacy promoted by keeping this secret?" By keeping the secret are you sincerely seeking the highest and best good of God's great gift of marriage?

It's pretty tough for a secret to survive these two questions. Most of us will find we're keeping the secret because we fear being rejected by the ones we love. We all have a need for relationships in which we are accepted without judgment, relationships in which we matter to someone. In marriage, it's normal to long for acceptance and love—and fear being condemned and left behind.

But if you never risk the truth, you'll never know what level of intimacy you may have shared. As you keep a secret, you are, in effect, lying. Whether it is a secret of "co-mission" (not truthfully answering a direct question) or a secret of "omission" (not offering information that was not asked for), it's still a lie, and it can take huge amounts of energy to keep a secret hidden. That energy would be put to better use in promoting your closeness as a couple.

Below the computer monitor at my office, I have displayed a verse from Proverbs: "The man of integrity walks securely, but he who takes crooked paths will be found out" (10:9). I want to remind myself that if I keep secrets and tell lies, I'll live anxiously today and be discovered tomorrow. Living securely without worry comes from living honestly with integrity.

Keep It to Yourself

Practically, though, being truthful doesn't mean telling your mate everything. Here's the joke: "What do you call somebody who shares all of their deepest secrets on the first date? Single!" Personal revelation must be accompanied by discretion in an atmosphere of mutual trust.

I don't park a huge dump truck in front of my wife and unload everything I've ever done and every sinful thought I've ever had and say, "Hey, I'm being honest; just accept it." At the same time, I don't demand to know in graphic detail everything Amy has ever done or thought. I trust her to tell me the truth—and to judge what needs to be told—and she trusts me not to insist on knowing every little thing.

Telling your partner every thought in your head, every feeling in your body or every detail of your past can only lead to anarchy in your relationship. You don't need to be your spouse's personal police officer.

Is your secret best for both of you? Or are you just scared of what might happen if the secret comes out?

A question I hear frequently is, "What about a mistake I made years ago before I was a Christian? Since God has changed my life, I feel guilty about what I did. Should I tell?" Many therapists will advise, "Never tell;" others will say, "Always tell." Unfortunately, such a question is rarely so black-or-white. I'd say, find someone who can help you—a trusted minister or Christian counselor—and talk it through with him or her. Pray about it too. Your goal should be to deal with your guilt and to seek the highest and best good of your marriage.

Speak Up!

So, bottom line, what specifically needs to be told? A husband and wife have a right to know much of what occurred in the life of their mate prior to their meeting—and that includes the extent of each other's earlier sexual experiences. There should be no attempt to wrangle out of admissions on "technicalities." If you were not a virgin, you should say so. However, we do not need and should not ask to know names and details of those experiences. Those types of amplifications lead to comparisons and mental images that can be harmful to your marriage.

As for what has gone on and is going on during your married life, there are very few things that should be kept secret. All those secrets that I listed as examples were unhealthy for those couples in counseling. They were lies that did not promote trust and intimacy—secrets that didn't allow the couples to enjoy marriage as God designed it to be.

If you're going to love and cherish each other, you'll have to commit yourself not to do anything that would need to be kept secret. You've got a choice—not to lie, flirt, play around or anything else that would hurt your spouse.

At the same time, you can build an atmosphere of trust. When you know your spouse loves you and won't reject you, you won't be afraid to confide things that happen outside your control, such as a disease, childhood abuse, certain financial situations or even being the object of a pass from another person. The best safety net you've got is to let your spouse know when something like that happens.

If you've been feeling that there are certain secrets you need to share with your spouse, probably you should do just that. However, don't just rush out and unload the dump truck. Give it prayer and consideration. Maybe your marriage doesn't yet have an atmosphere of true acceptance and love without judgment that would weather the blow of your revelation. But having that type of marriage should be your goal and your prayer—and you won't completely reach it while you're keeping important secrets from your mate.

Secrets. They may have their place, but that place is rarely a healthy marriage. Even though it may feel risky to open up with the one you love, the rewards of deepened intimacy far exceed the risk and struggle it takes to get there. With a prayer for wisdom and a goal of integrity, you and your spouse may enjoy the security that comes from living a life without the burden of secrets.

Dr. Tim A. Gardner is author of Sacred Sex (WaterBrook) and Director of The Marriage Education and Policy Center at the Indiana Family Institute (an affiliate of Focus on the Family).

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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Communication; Confession; Marriage
Today's Christian Woman, Spring, 1999
Posted September 30, 2008

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