The Secrets We Keep From Our Partners

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I recently did a study that, among other things, looked at the secrets and lies that people keep from their spouse or committed partner. You know, the person who we share vows with, the person who we say "I love you" to, the person we share a bed and a life with -- that person. The national and international study of 80,000 people, part of which appears in The Normal Bar (with Chrisanna Northrup and Jim Witte) indicates that secrets and lies are commonplace in relationships, not only in the United States, but in the world. 43 percent of men and 33 percent of women say they keep major secrets from each other -- in fact, 27 percent of people who said they were in an "extremely happy relationship" also admitted to having major secrets from their partner.( In France and Italy , big secrets seem to be a way of life; approximately 75 percent of men and women there said they had them.) As for lies, 75 percent of our men, and 71 percent of the women said they occasionally lie to their partner-and that was even true for 69 percent of the happiest couples.

We know that the façade we present, not only to the world -- but to each other, does not include the whole truth of who we are, what we think, and what we do or have done. - Dr. Pepper Schwartz

So whats going on here? Where's the highly vaunted open communication and intimacy that American therapists and self-help books urge as the core of every marriage and life-long commitment? The truth is revealed in Frank Warren's postcards and in our own fascination with the backstage lives of celebrities: we know that real relationships are not as one-dimensional as wedding photos or Christmas letters. We know that the façade we present, not only to the world -- but to each other, does not include the whole truth of who we are, what we think, and what we do or have done. We have not only told white lies- we have told some whoppers. There are spouses who do not know their partner never finished college, never really had an orgasm, never really stopped seeing their high school sweetheart. They do not know that their partner was never actually in combat or that their loving mate has had a crush on their best friend for 20 years. To lesser and greater extents, each life is an orchestrated mix of fiction and non-fiction. People cannot face what they believe would be the reaction to the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, even from the person who has professed love, acceptance and devotion to them.

Our knowledge of our own secrets makes us more than a little curious about the secrets of others. If the secret warrants a tabloid or newspaper headline, it may even have the effect of making us feel better. Our secret, compared to the one that made the headlines is not so bad. On the other hand, if we are a candidate for the cover of the National Enquirer, the public's thirst for uncovering secrets is genuinely scary -- but it seems not so scary that we stop behavior that puts us in jeopardy.

What I think is most interesting however, is the drive for absolution, the need that Warren tapped into, of needing to tell one's own secret to someone -- anyone! The Catholic Church figured that out a long time ago. By having little private rooms where a tiny or terrible secret can be told- without public consequence, the church has given its faithful a way to expunge the heavy burden of secret-keeping. Modern therapy can be the secular equivalent.

Secret keeping does weigh on the majority of people, but not always, mind you, because of guilt. No sometimes, an unfaithful partner is just dying to brag about a particularly flattering conquest- and they need someone safe to receive this "guilty pleasure." Other times, the secret does create true angst; either because the guilty party has violated his or her own values, or the possibility of exposure and disgrace mounts up over time. Why else do cellmates tell one another about their true culpability when doing so exposes them to legal vulnerability-even the death penalty?

So there is a need to tell, and a need to hide. We can be in both categories. We may also want to know other people's secrets, even as we guard our own. But guard them, we do. Secrets are secret for a reason. We could lose respect, love, even freedom, if all our secrets were known. But as Frank Warren's Secrets site and The Normal Bar data show, the likelihood that all secrets will be known, is slim. And that is not just true in the workplace or in politics: it also true for even our most intimate, our most trusted relationships.

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