An old line from the AA crowd comes to mind, “You’re only as sick as your secrets.” Twice in the last week in my work, people asked for advice on what to do with significant information they have not told their partners. In one, a young woman is getting married to a Mormon man who has not had a sexual life. She’s had multiple partners and wants to know whether or not she should tell him about her past relationships. In the other, the man asked if he should tell the woman he is dating that he has been in prison in the past.
The problem in withholding significant information is that by doing so, a person starts a wall between themself and the other which ultimately will block off intimacy. Chris and I started off early in our relationship trying to tear down possible walls. We had a talk about our personal sexual history, coughing up old hair balls (for me) of things I wasn’t particularly proud of. Difficult though it was, I think it started us off with a core of honesty. (Chris didn’t have too many hair balls.) Later I was pulled over for speeding on my motorcycle on a winding road behind our house. Chris’ first husband died of cancer and I felt initially justified in not telling her about this because I didn’t want to upset her and raise her possible fears about my early death. Thinking through this I realized that my reason was that I didn’t want to be criticized or chastised about my behavior. Not telling her would have been the equivalent of laying down the first brick to build a wall that would block being honest with each other. So, I told her. I was not admonished.
I’m guessing that the biggest secrets in marriage are probably related to sex or money. One of my clients, who managed the family finances, used to get her husband’s paycheck and send about $500 a month to her family in the Philippines without telling her husband. Every time she did this she put a brick down into the wall blocking an intimate conversation with her husband. She did not want to have a truly honest conversation with her husband for fear this would come up. Unfortunately, many men have an internet pornography habit which will literally destroy their marriage. Once the women find out (and they do), the men will swear they will never do it again, only to be caught again by their partners. Once this occurs, the level of trust goes even further down. Other obvious examples come from addictions—compulsive gambling, overeating, drugs or alcohol, or many others.
So what are big secrets and what are little secrets? With little secrets, I think you know if the little things would really affect the relationship. Big secrets are those that you know will put up a very big wall between you and your partner. It’s easier to start with the little bricks instead taking down a big wall of secrets. If you’ve got the big wall, go talk to someone about how to take it down. If you don’t, you’ll find yourself ‘walled’ off from intimacy.
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