Given the Tiger Woods situation, there is really no place to go where you don’t hear some version of “She knew, he knew, he knew she knew….” It would seem that whether people are identifying, judging, condemning or condoning, people are interested- maybe even made anxious- by the presence of secrets and lies in relationships. What’s wrong with secrets? Does everyone lie to their partner? How does it happen?
Most marriages and sustaining relationships are characterized by a quality of trust, caring, emotional and physical sharing that is reserved for the partner. Yes, people have treasured friends, family and buddies with whom they share a great deal, but the physical intimacy, the status of confidante, the one with whom they share in a certain “ insider way” is their partner.
Dictionary .com defines a secret as something done, made or conducted without the knowledge of others. Something kept from the knowledge of another person. When that person is your spouse or partner – it is important to wonder why.
Secrets after Trauma
Sometimes the secrets that become a wall in a relationship are the sequel to trauma. Whether the result of combat stress, rape, critical incidents for uniformed service members, or childhood abuse, keeping the secret locks one partner in with pain and keeps one partner out. Often associated with feelings of being damaged, guilty, undesirable, burdensome or contaminating, a partner avoids contact and intimacy with the other to hide the secret. The result is a feeling of disconnection and loss by both. As one spouse complained, “There is nothing I could hear that would make me feel worse than the feeling of being left out.”
Separate vs. Secret
One definite way to destroy a relationship and dilute passion and intimacy is to demand constant connection, disclosure and no space away from your partner. Strong couples are usually are made up of independent people who are comfortable being dependent on each other but retain a clear sense of self and identity. In the book Healing Together, we make the point that psychological separation – the capacity to be alone and to understand the partner’s capacity to be alone – actually fosters intimacy and improves sexual connection. It is the difference between needing to have the other at your side and wanting to be with your partner.
There is a difference between psychological separation and knowingly keeping a secret from your partner. Realistically, no relationship involves full disclosure at all times. Whether you have a hamburger at work or get a pedicure at lunchtime is not necessarily shared by partners. The fact that you thought the woman on the coffee line looked great or you secretly hate the holidays may or may not matter. The fact that you have stopped talking about a man at work because you can’t wait to email or have lunch with him is different. A measure of whether you are doing something that will jeopardize your relationship is whether or not you need to keep it secret from your partner.
When Carol mentioned to Mike that she could tell one of the new bosses was “very friendly” to her, she and Mike actually had a laugh over it. She seemed eager to fill him in on the office politics and compliments and he often matched the stories with the “looks” he got on the job – they both seemed to get off a little on the other’s desirability. A few months later things changed. They had been struggling to get pregnant with no success. Carol was upset a lot and Mike felt pressured and blamed. Carol started depending on the attention of her boss in a different way with emails, coffee and calls outside of work. Somewhere along the line she stopped sharing anything about her boss with Mike. At first he was suspicious but ruled it out when she rolled her eyes and minimized the attention when he asked teasingly “so what happened to your boyfriend?” It was her increased coolness and decision to hold off getting pregnant that made Mike check her phone. The constant calls to Cathy, her old school friend, just didn’t make sense – especially when he called and her boss answered.
Was Mike really unaware? Was he in denial? Probably yes.
In intimate relationships, like marriages, people develop a truth bias such that they are more likely when suspicious to judge their partner as truthful than to detect deception (Glass, 2003). Essentially it is emotionally and cognitively dissonant to believe anyone you love could be betraying you. Consciously you can’t quite take it in.
What about Carol – did she really believe Mike would not find out?
Most likely she wasn’t thinking about it. Shirley Glass (2003) in her book, Not Just Friends tells us that secret relationships tend to be obsessively preoccupying. Keeping a relationship secret intensifies arousal and makes the person appear more attractive and exciting than she or he might have otherwise have been. The person is overvalued because the secrecy creates an irrational perspective. Often becoming like an addiction, the pressure to be with or see the forbidden other becomes like a fix that compromises judgment (Phillips, 2003).
When people are involved in secrets, they must engage in lying to maintain the secrecy. A lie involves making a false statement to another person with the intention of having them believe that it is true. Lying to a partner makes intimacy and trust impossible.
“The Cover-up” – If you ask partners how they feel after they find that their partner has been lying, they will tell you that the cover-up was worse that the behavior being hidden. Most lying is driven by fear and presumption, not a rationale perspective of how the partner would really react if he/she knew about the fender-bender, the money loaned to a relative, the use of porn. As a result couples get caught in vicious cycles of “Lying- Exposure –Explosion.” The partner being deceived blows up because of the cover-up and the lying partner misses the point, “See, I knew you would react that way!” The real issues or even authentic arguments about the pros and cons about loaning money or the reason for watching pornography – never get addressed or resolved. The opportunity for trust and working it out together is lost.
“Don’t Ask- Don’t Tell”- Sometimes there is collusion between partners that what they don’t know about each other – won’t hurt. While the parameters of couples’ relationships vary, intimacy for most requires safety, exclusivity and trust. Too often the agreed upon “don’t ask- don’t tell” reflects a fear of or difficulty with commitment by one or both. Sometimes it reflects the fear that “If I find out, I will have to leave him/her.” If “ not knowing” is the criteria for staying, it is an emotionally expensive one. While it may seem to offer conflict–free connection for a while, it rarely enhances the confidence of partners or sustains a loving bond.
Can Relationships Survive in the Aftermath of Secrets and Lies?
Yes – If both partners are willing to take on the emotional fallout together – they can find a way back to a new commitment.
Here Are Some Important Steps:
Mutual Goal: When they say “love can conquer all” – sometimes it is true. I have worked with couples standing in the emotional debris of an uncovered affair find a way back. They both have to want to recommit to an exclusive relationship with each other. At the beginning no one is sure of anything but the wish to make the pain “go away.” Emotionally, the feelings of devastation, anger, betrayal, guilt and blame, don’t just go away. The couple has to be willing to deal with them to find a place for them.
Handling the Feelings
In the aftermath of an affair, the betrayed partner has to be able to express their feelings (anger, hurt, rejection loss) so they are heard by the other. This means the betraying partner needs to validate his/her partner’s experience without excuses or counterattack. At the same time, there is a limit. The worst that happens is an endless scene of “crime and punishment” toward the betraying partner. To move on, there has to be the recognition of the apology and the willingness to forgive.
Re-setting the Trust Point
In the aftermath of an affair the greatest symptom is mistrust. Because verbal exchange has been compromised by lying – the truth now has to be expressed. Often the betrayed partner needs to know the story of the affair. They need to make sense of reality and their perception of what has happened, who their partner is, who this “other person was,” and who they are now to their partner. Although the request for information may come at different times, the clarification is important. HOWEVER, clarification is different then endless ruminating, obsessing or interrogating the partner. I have told partners who continue to interrogate and berate the betraying partner that without realizing it – they are keeping “the other person” between them.
It takes a lot of sharing of not only what happened but what the couple wants with each other in the recovery to re-set the trust point. You want to spend time together doing things, having new experiences, becoming confidantes again. Both need to be patient to the flashes of fear and doubt. Both usually are haunted for a time with whether they can trust the other, their own judgment and the possibility of reconnection.
One of the most effective steps in recovery is the non-blameful examination of what the state of the relationship was before the affair. This does not equate to condoning betrayal. It is an honest self-reflection and mutual exchange of what each was giving and getting in the relationship and what each wants and needs now. “I need to be with someone who wants to be with me more than a few evenings a week.” “I need to recognize that I stopped having fun or caring for myself.” “I need someone who doesn’t depend on me to be his whole world.”
The New Secret
It is time to use the power of secrets to your advantage. Given that most of your friends and family have too much to say, draw a heart around your names and for a while – don’t let the world in. Beyond reassuring people that you are working on it – keep it to yourselves. Make plans no one knows about. Do things together you never did before and DON’T TELL ANYONE. (See blog, “Reclaiming the Sexual Intimacy in Your Relationship” and chapter “Dancing in the Dark” in Healing Together).
Help Along the Way While it is the couple that really makes the recovery possible, help along the way is often very valuable. Given that verbal intimacy has been compromised, it is not easy for partners to just start talking without an overload of anger and blame. Often the partner who has had the affair is feeling so guilty and embarrassed he/she has no words, the betrayed partner often has so much rage and pain, he/she can’t stop expressing it.
A professional counselor by reason of being the “neutral” third serves as a safety point that expands the field enough to contain and consider feelings, examine causes and support resiliency.
If it is a relationship of mutual love and respect – it is worth saving.
If the secret that you share is the fact that you can handle anything together – then it is a secret worth keeping!!
For Further Reading:
Glass, S. P., 2003, Not Just Friends:Rebuilding Trust and Recovering Your Sanity after Infidelity. Free Press: New York
Phillips, S. B. (2002) Desperately Keeping Someone: Relationships as Addiction. Analytic Insights, Vol.1, 64-74.
article available at wwwcouplesaftertrauma.com