A friend recently posed the question to me, “Do people in relationships really have to tell their partner everything?” I hesitated in answering this because no two situations are the same. Different cultures, experiences, and values can play into how a couple approaches secrets/disclosure of information and, therefore, every couple’s expectations is different. However, my first instinct was to say, “Yes, of course you tell them everything!” Obviously some secrets are going to exist (you are planning a surprise birthday party for your spouse, your friend confided in you about her health issues) but, in general, secrets can be extremely damaging, hurtful, and hard to recover from.
When I meet with a couple where there has been an infidelity and they want to work on saving their marriage, one of the first thing I will tell the unfaithful spouse is, if you want this relationship to heal, you need: transparency, transparency, transparency. I want that spouse to tell their partner where they were before they are asked, open up the phone statement to show who they have been calling, and perhaps even document the mileage on their car! Disclosing this much information may seem ridiculous, but complete transparency is the best way to start regaining trust and, ultimately, heal. Being transparent to this extreme is not necessary in the long term once the trust is reestablished and, of course, this would never be the norm in a relationship where trust has not been broken.
In a relationship where trust has not been breached, generally people do not detail every moment of their day to their partner. Who has the time to try to recall every detail of the day? However, in every relationship, there will come a time when someone forgets to tell their partner something or they do not mention something because they do not think it is important, and their partner will find out and get frustrated. “I can’t believe he/she didn’t tell me that!!” Situations, such as these, may cause some friction but are generally worked out through a dialogue over the miscommunication. I do not categorize this as secret keeping because secret keeping is deliberate.
Secret keeping is when one party purposely omits information even if the reason to not tell the other party seems fairly innocent. If you find yourself omitting information, it is important to look closely as to why you are not sharing something with your partner. For example, some people say they omit information or tell lies to protect their partner. Could the reality be that you are omitting information because you are making a poor choice that you don’t want them to know about, ie an “innocent” flirtation, overuse of alcohol? In those situations, look at whether you are really protecting yourself or the other person. Not to say that the solution to this is to run and tell your partner you flirted with someone, but perhaps this is the time to “check” your behavior and take a deeper look at why you are behaving how you are. Another reason that people report that they omit information from their partners is because their partners tend to overreact and are particularly sensitive to their partners choices. However, if this is the case, dishonesty will only make things more difficult and perhaps, instead of dishonesty, you should consider reaching out for help.
When you are contemplating omitting information, always weigh the consequences of you telling your partner versus them finding out that you didn’t tell them. He or she will most likely handle the information much better coming from you rather than a friend, coworker, or the internet! Moreover, secrets and lies can snowball and get out of control leading to a situation bigger than you can recover from. If you haven’t already, a sure-fire way to reduce conflict over secrets is to establish as a couple what is acceptable level of disclosure for each of you. At the end of the day, what is most important is that you have a mutual understanding of what is acceptable in order to keep your relationship healthy and thriving.