How Couples Cope With Secrets

Everyone's got a little dirty laundry, but when should you air yours with a new love interest? Stay on the path to relationship success by using the timeline and strategies we've outlined below.

By Theo Pauline Nestor

hen a big secret comes out and breaks a couple it up, it makes news — either nationally or in our neighborhoods. But the truth is that dealing with secrets, mistakes, and skeletons in the closet is just another hurdle many couples do get over, and dealing with such things is often just an inevitable part of any relationship. Even if no major transgressions have occurred, couples often
We'd both been through the dating and even marriage scene before.
have to share with each other some smaller (but still scary) "secrets" — such as feeling an attraction to a coworker, unpaid debt, or a youthful indiscretion that resurfaces. As two people get to know each other, it's a matter of course that times will arise when a secret must come to the surface — and if it's handled well, this actually draws a couple closer together.

While there are no guarantees in relationships, there are some preventative steps couples can take to safeguard against the potential destruction secrets could cause throughout the life of a relationship — from the giddy early days to the comfortable routine of a long-term commitment.

Sharing your past in the early days of a brand-new relationship…
Sharing "secrets" — whether that means information that we don't share with the general public or something we've never shared with anyone — is an essential part of any couple's early stages of getting to know each other intimately. "Part of the process of getting close is sharing the intimate details of who you are and where you have been emotionally, intellectually and spiritually," says Dr. Debra Castaldo, a marriage and family therapist and the author of Gifts of Love: Solutions for All Seasons. "If you want to get your relationship off to a good start and build a strong foundation," Castaldo says, "start sharing right away. You are who you are, and the sooner the two of you can know each other, the sooner you can decide if you are right for each other. If your partner can accept your secrets and support you, then chances are, it will bring you closer. If he or she can't, chances are you weren't right for each other, anyway."

Wife and mother Elise Adams of Walla Walla, WA, who blogs at, agrees. When Adams met her future husband Andre online, they began sharing very intimate information about themselves right away. "We talked for hours and hours," Adams recalls. "From our very first conversation (after we'd chatted via Facebook for a few hours first), we began dragging our skeletons out of our closets. We'd both been through the dating and even marriage scene before, and were focused on honesty from the first moment."

Castaldo points out importance of discerning the difference between "a secret that is harmful if kept from someone" and "private information that someone is not entitled to know." Castaldo defines a harmful secret as "one that would have a destructive impact on another person if it is kept." Often, our motivation for sharing these potentially harmful secrets with someone is fueled by our desire to form a lasting relationship with this new person. "A secret my husband didn't share until our third day of talking [was that] he was still legally married to his ex, who had left him over five years before and moved to another state with his kids," says Adams. "He was very nervous because he was already falling for me, and while other secrets hadn't scared me away, he was sure this one would. He says that I was very clear that we'd have no secrets and we were both interested in, he knew he had to tell me sooner rather than later!"

…and knowing what not to share too soon
Building a relationship doesn't necessarily entail sharing everything — and certainly not sharing everything right away. ("You may want to wait until you are beginning to get close and trust each other [before sharing your] more painful, emotional life experiences and private family history," Castaldo advises.) Setting healthy boundaries is also an important aspect of any strong relationship. "Not all secrets should be revealed," Castaldo says, "and it is important to differentiate between secrets and private information that should stay private. You should share information about the issues in your past relationships, as it gives clues to how your current relationship may fare. Secrets about your past life experience in relationships, however, is not necessarily information that needs to be shared between partners. Another person really is not entitled to know the details of your past sexual experiences and relationships you've had. We all make mistakes — and, hopefully, grow from these experiences along the way."

In fact, Kate Figes, author of Couples: The Truth (which examines the minefield of contemporary relationships using sociological, psychological and historical research as well as interviews with 120 men and women), points out that couples who are more likely to be able to endure their secrets coming to light later on in a relationship are those who demonstrate "tolerance" and a "respect for each other as autonomous individuals and an understanding that they cannot know everything about their partner. In fact, it is that unknown [element] which keeps them interesting."

Keeping the lines of communication open once you've committed to each other
Many couples view sharing secrets in terms of "what doesn't tear us apart makes us stronger." "I believe it's become the foundation for our very strong relationship,"
All of the tension I felt about keeping the secret evaporated.
Adams says. "From the beginning, we shared our histories — past relationships, struggles with addiction (we are both recovering addicts/alcoholics) and various successes and failures. By making a habit of forgiving each other and because we had balanced secrets (we'd both been to some very dark places), we found a camaraderie in sharing, commiserating and supporting each other on our new path toward a happy, healthy family and marriage."

Sometimes, the revelation of a secret precipitates a crisis that eventually pulls the couple closer and makes them more secure in their commitment, such as in Adams' case. "Right before we got married in July of 2009, the full extent of my husband's debt came to light," she explains. "This hadn't been discussed in detail, and I actually called off our first wedding date until I was doubly sure that no other secrets were hiding anywhere. Having made it through that crisis, we've had a solid relationship ever since."

Dealing with secrets within the context of a long-term relationship
Most relationship experts tend to agree that sharing smaller secrets and intimacies with each other is one way to safeguard against those troubles snowballing into big (and perhaps insurmountable) secrets over time. Shirley P. Glass, therapist and author of Not "Just Friends": Rebuilding Trust and Recovering Your Sanity after Infidelity, has used the analogy of "walls and windows" to "to symbolize the level of emotional intimacy within the marriage and within the affair." Glass, who was once called "the godmother of infidelity research," explained the impact even small secrets in a relationship can have by using the image of walls and windows: "When you withhold information and keep secrets, you create walls that act as barriers to the free flow of thoughts and feelings that invigorate your relationship. But when you open up to each other, the window between you allows you to know each other in unfiltered, intimate ways." Glass continued to say that, in the case of an affair, "the unfaithful partner has built a wall to shut out the marriage partner and has opened a window to let in the affair partner."

"We all have secrets," Figes says, "but it's the big ones that tend to do the most damage." What secrets tend to most frequently trigger a breakup, then? "Infidelity and money issues," Figes asserts, citing the most destructive financial issues couples face: "Spending more than they have and not revealing the extent of their financial or professional difficulties, which undermines the relationship in two ways: first, something important has been withheld; and second, they have undermined the importance of their partner in helping them to get through that stuff."

It was a financial secret that created some distance between Alisa Bowman, the author of Project: Happily Ever After, and her husband. Although Bowman's husband thought that life insurance policies were a "waste of money," Bowman was concerned about what would happen to her husband and their daughter if she were to die and leave him to cope with their mortgage singlehandedly, so she decided to buy a policy without his knowledge: "I kept it a secret. It wasn't hard to keep it a secret; it's not like he was going around the house in search of a secret insurance policy," she recalls. "The hard part was figuring out how to ensure he found out about the policy after I died." But eventually, Bowman decided to tell her husband, even though she was very worried about his reaction. "Oh, did I worry! I damn near took two years off my life with worrying, but I finally told him," she explains. Fortunately, he took the news pretty well — and the distance the secret had created between them closed shortly afterward. "It was like a weight lifted off of us," Bowman says. "All of the tension I felt about keeping the secret evaporated. At the same time, we did grow closer. He understood how important it was to me, and I understood that sometimes, I just need to stand my ground… but I don't have to be secretive about it."

Figes agrees that revealing a secret in your relationship can be a positive move "if that means you also talk about the things that matter to you and share intimacies. That then builds trust and means that the other can reveal [his or her] own flaws, secrets, or weaknesses." Blogger Adams concurs: "If you want a real marriage — the kind that you work on together, in harmony and cooperation for the rest of your lives — then I recommend getting all your secrets out as soon as possible. Build a completely transparent life and relationship, and nothing will be able to separate you!"

Theo Pauline Nestor is the author of How to Sleep Alone in King-Size Bed: A Memoir of Starting Over and a regular contributor to Happen magazine.
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