And is it bad -- or necessary to keep harmony in your relationship? Well, not all secrets are equal, as we found out.
Are Secrets Okay?
Some time ago, my husband -- then my boyfriend -- asked me never to look at his old datebook. I said that I wouldn't. Then he went away for a weekend, and I couldn't stop thinking about that datebook. What didn't he want me to read? I tried to stop myself, but curiosity overpowered my best intentions. I searched and found several datebooks, photos, letters -- all sorts of things that were none of my business.
I studied all of it as if I were studying for an exam. He used his datebook as a diary -- I learned about past girlfriends and unrequited crushes, and discovered that he thought our first kiss was "magical"! Then I carefully put it all back where I'd found it.
"In an ideal world and marriage, no secrets are okay," says Carole Lieberman, MD, a psychiatrist who hosts the Internet radio show Dr. Carole's Couch. "Even the tiniest of secrets closes off a part of a spouse's heart. You're always aware that you're being dishonest, and this creates distance."
Yes, but we don't live in an ideal world, right? And really, is it dishonest to not point out that the pediatrician is kinda hot? Aren't some things better left unsaid?
To find out, I turned to more experts, such as Tina Tessina, PhD, psychotherapist and the author of Money, Sex, and Kids. She and others confirmed for me that, in fact, you needn't share every single feeling or deed. No, you don't have to tell your man that you think the kid's doctor is cute. Other secrets, such as a dent that you put in the car's back bumper, do need airing. Still not sure where to personally draw the line, I looked at some other real-life examples.
She caught her husband cheating on their budget!
Cara Cilione, a stay-at-home mom in Lewisville, Texas, was trying to rein in the family spending. "We cut out fast food, sodas, and other junky things, and now I cook nearly all our meals," she says. But she discovered fast food wrappers in her husband Angelo's car and, later, discovered fast food charges on their credit card bill.
Fess up? Yes, but "no reason to treat him like a criminal," Tessina says. "Perhaps the two of them could make an agreement to have one fast food night a week, or some other deal that makes it easy to keep everyone honest."
What she did: Cara decided to let it go because Angelo's splurges were so small. "But eventually, she should tell him that she sees the charges and is okay with them," Tessina urges. It will lift his guilt and keep them partners in spending.
She went back on a parenting promise!
Jessica Fuqua and her husband, Jason, who live in central Illinois, said they'd never use pacifiers with their twins. Ah, how easy it is to make that decision before you're listening to nonstop crying! By the time the babies were 3 months and teething, Jessica, who runs momfuse.com, was desperate. "I put pacifiers in the freezer and used them to soothe their gums," she says. It worked -- but she'd broken their parenting pact.
Fess up? Yes, says Dr. Lieberman, who also wrote Bad Boys. "Make sure you know why you broke the agreement," she says. In this case, Mom needed help.
What she did: Jessica fessed up, but by accident. For a few weeks, she used pacifiers only when her husband wasn't home. One day, however, she walked into the kitchen and found Jason with his hands literally full of screaming babies. She opened the freezer and popped the pacifiers into the babies' mouths without thinking about it. Oops. "I thought, Oh no!" she says.
"And Jason was disappointed. But after a few days he saw how well the pacifiers worked and came around."
Mum on Money
She borrowed money --- and didn't tell him!
When Greta Gunselman, a mother of two in Lacey, Washington, borrowed money from a friend to help cover expenses, she said nothing to her husband, Ken. "It wasn't a lot, and I knew I could pay it back in a few weeks," she says.
Fess up? "Ken could be humiliated that people know about the family financial problems," Tessina says. "Greta should tell only if it's in the context of better managing finances."
What she did: Greta kept the secret. Then her friend forgave the debt, saying that it was the least she could do to repay the Gunselmans for housing her family after Hurricane Ike. "I told Ken that they sent us a gift, since times are tight," Greta says, and that white lie -- which protects Ken's feelings but opens up the money discussion -- is okay, Tessina says.
She tried to pass herself off as a nonsmoker!
When Teresa Rose of Sarasota, Florida, met the man who would later become her husband, he said he couldn't date a smoker. Guess what? She smoked. She really liked him, though, so she didn't tell him. "I used aromatherapy spray for my hair, Altoids for my breath, hand sanitizer for my fingers, and Febreze for my clothes and car interior," she remembers.
Fess up? "She should quit first, and then fess up," Tessina says. "As long as she's no longer smoking, it would be good for her to tell. They can laugh together. He probably knows anyway. Smoking is tough to hide."
What she did: She kicked her addiction, then told him about it. "After I lost my mother to lung cancer, I quit smoking. I wrote about it in my book (Opening the Kimono) and asked him to read the chapter. I was petrified! But he just smiled and nodded knowingly. I guess my efforts to cloak my habit weren't as successful as I'd thought."
She had a crush -- and it was mutual!
When Tricia Goyer's high school boyfriend e-mailed her out of the blue, the Kalispell, Montana, mother of three didn't know what to do at first. "I was suddenly struggling with renewed feelings for him," she says.
Fess up? A one-way crush (as in, your movie-star fantasy or secret giddiness about a dad you see at the playground) needn't come out of the vault. But if there's two-way flirting that turns to real romantic conversation (or action), that's a whole other ballgame. "Just because two people love each other doesn't mean they never fantasize about someone else," says Vee Alexander, a marital and family therapist in Sherman Oaks, California. "But it becomes a problem when you act on the fantasy."
What she did: Tricia told her husband, but it wasn't easy. She cried. He cried too. Then they hugged and prayed together. "When I confessed everything and realized my husband still loved me, I realized that I had never loved him more," Tricia says. "We worked through this together, and our marriage is stronger because of it."
Fess Up or Shut Up?
Use these clues.
Fess up if...
- You want your spouse to do something differently. He doesn't have ESP.
- You broke a parenting agreement.
- Your spouse might find out anyway. Are you writing your secret in a magazine (might only apply to me)? Is there a paper trail (phone bills, credit card bills)?
- You're only keeping mum because you're embarrassed. Talking about it usually makes you feel better.
- The secret affects the family (for example, you lost your job or were diagnosed with a medical condition).
- Just thinking about the secret makes your heart pound and your stomach ache. "Such secrets are damaging to your mind and body," warns Debbie Mandel, author of Addicted to Stress.
Shut up if...
- The secret will hurt your partner's feelings and sharing it won't accomplish anything.
- It's about someone in his family. If your husband's brother may be cheating on his wife, let someone else bring it up.
- It would really upset your partner, and you've reformed. For instance, you had a fling years ago but have been monogamous since.
As for me and my datebook snooping, I eventually did confess. As I came clean, I found my hands shaking, my face hot with embarrassment. "Most couples keep secrets because they don't know how to divulge them," says Alyce Barry, author of Practically Shameless. "One of the most painful experiences is revealing something you're not proud of and being met with rejection."
Yet in the majority of situations, we have little to fear. "Once a secret is discovered, what's most upsetting is the secrecy itself. Many times in therapy, what a partner agonizes over is, 'Why couldn't he tell me?'" says Alexander.
When I told my husband about the datebook, he asked two questions: "Why did you do it?" and "Is there anything else you'd like to know about me?"
We talked, hugged, and grew closer.
Alisa Bowman and her husband live with their 4-year-old daughter in Emmaus, Pennsylvania. See Alisa's blog at projecthappilyeverafter.com.
Originally published in the June issue of American Baby magazine.