It’s not always necessary to tell your partner everything. But when does secrecy become toxic?
Most couples have a few things they keep from each other – the exact amount of money they earn, the back-up savings account they have – there’s nothing wrong with it and it helps maintain some independence, even within your
marriage. Not all secrets are bad. However, Prof Kobus du Plooy, clinical psychologist and associate professor at North West University, encourages people to be open and honest with their partners.
‘Having said that, it also depends on the situation, as people have different reasons for keeping secrets they feel are warranted. Although it may seem controversial, I don’t believe it’s essential to tell your partner absolutely everything
all the time. Would you really like to know every detail about your partner’s previous relationships? If so, how would that information benefit you here and now? In some cases, therefore, ignorance is bliss,’ says Kobus.
The thin line between privacy and secrecy
Although it’s vital and healthy to maintain some independence, there’s a fine line between privacy and keeping secrets from your partner. ‘I know of instances where individuals have shared secrets with their partners because they felt it was the “right” thing to do, or to ease their own feelings of guilt,’ says Kobus. ‘They believed this would deepen the trust and emotional bond in their relationship. Sadly, the opposite occurred and it ended up being harmful to their relationship. In some cases, the damage was irreparable and their partners filed for divorce, as they couldn’t tolerate staying after discovering the truth.
‘Before deciding to share a secret with your partner, carefully consider how doing so will impact your relationship. There’s nothing wrong with secretly planning to surprise them with a weekend away; however, if you’ve invested a large sum of your joint finances somewhere and lost it without telling them, this equates to toxic secrecy. As such, I generally believe that honesty remains the best policy, with the exception of a few instances of “healthy” confidentiality.’
Our expert responds to readers’ dilemmas
Q: I’m a stay-at-home mom who’s been married for 10 years. My husband and I have two daughters. He travels a lot for work, so he’s hardly ever around. I feel lonely and in need of affection. When I’m stressed, I’ve got no one to talk to. A year ago, I started seeing someone who also has problems in his marriage, so we’ve become each other’s support systems. My husband doesn’t know about this, but the guilt is killing me! I don’t want to end our marriage because I still love him deeply, but I’m scared that if I confess to him, he’ll want a divorce.
A: Your need for support and affection in your current situation is perfectly understandable, as is your fear that if you share your secret with your husband, he’ll want a divorce – which might very well be the case. If you’re not honest with him, however, what are your alternatives? If you continue the affair without telling your husband, it could lead to the point where you want to leave him anyway. If he finds out about it some other way (which often happens), he may want a divorce in any case. If you end the affair now, your loneliness and need for affection and companionship
will remain unresolved. I advise you to consult a psychologist who’ll help you put things into perspective and decide what you really want. You’ll then be able to make the best decision possible for everyone involved in this situation.
Q: My husband is strict with money. He’s good at saving and budgeting, which is my weakness. Two years ago I applied for a credit card, but kept it from him. Now I’m struggling to pay it back. How can I tell him?
A: On the one hand, it sounds as if you fear how your husband will react when he finds out about your credit card; on the other, you appear to have a need for more of a say in your financial affairs as a couple, despite your husband’s apparently superior budgeting skills. This makes sense.
However, not telling him is an example of a toxic secret, as this situation also directly affects him. Furthermore, it’s
probably only a matter of time before he finds out about the credit card anyway, especially if you’re unable to repay it. If you decide to tell your partner, expect him to feel (understandably) betrayed and angry. So, after informing him in a calm and relaxed environment, step back and allow him the opportunity to express his feelings and process his thoughts properly. Once he’s calmed down and ready to address the situation, you’ll need to work together as a couple to resolve it, instead of individually. It’s also important to express your needs openly in terms of your finances and wanting some autonomy, in order to avoid a similar situation in future. If you’re concerned about doing this alone, I’d recommend consulting a relationship therapist.
Q: I recently discovered that my husband has secretly been using cocaine for several years. I realised this when he became less attentive, started coming home late and missing dinner, stopped attending our children’s sports matches and sometimes disappeared for whole weekends. I recently got a call from the kids’ school informing me that their fees haven’t been paid for five months. I also found out that our house bond is in arrears. When I confronted him
about all of this, he confessed he’d first tried drugs years ago in his 20s and had carried on using them ‘occasionally’ over the years. He promised to go to a rehab, but hasn’t yet done so. I don’t want my kids to be exposed to this situation. What should I do?
A: This is a complicated situation, as your husband appears to be addicted to cocaine. The challenge is that virtually all types of illegal substances, including cocaine, have the ability to ‘hijack’ the so-called ‘reward system’ part of the brain, which rewards behaviours considered to be crucial for survival – such as eating and having sex – so that we’re motivated to repeat them. Sadly, the ‘high’ derived from drug abuse has the ability to impact this reward system with a greater magnitude than other behaviours, which is why it’s so difficult for addicts to stop using substances. Over the past 30-40 years, this better understanding of substance dependence has led researchers to start referring to it as a brain disease, rather than criminal behaviour or an indication of a ‘weak character’. I suggest you make receiving professional assistance for his addiction a condition of your staying in the marriage. This ultimatum may sound harsh, but without such assistance, he’ll probably continue abusing drugs, which may not have a happy e ding. In the meantime, try to shield your children from this as much as possible. If necessary, take them to see a child psychologist.
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