When you’re in love, there are fewer people you’re closer to than your partner.
Because relationships are so important to people, it’s natural to tell your significant other things you wouldn’t tell your best friends, your parents or even a therapist.
But many people continue to keep secrets in relationships—sometimes, secrets so big they can lead to the relationship’s ultimate end.
Often, a romantic partner sees you more fully than anyone else does. While that can mean you’re comfortable sharing almost anything with them, it can also make it extra scary to reveal a secret that may change your partner’s perception of you.
Think about it. It’s one thing to hide a small thing, like having a sweet snack when you and your partner both promised to diet together. But it’s another thing entirely to engage in an extramarital affair that lasts for many years and leaves you with a secret second family.
For most people, the difference between the intensity of those two secrets is clear. But it’s also worth wondering, what happens to all the secrets in between? Ones that are sort of serious, somewhat serious, a little bit serious? Where does the line between no-big-deal and life-changing get drawn?
Secrecy vs. privacy
Having secrets in relationships is only natural.
Whether you’re keeping the lid on something minor and day-to-day (like your bathroom habits) or something serious and current (a desire to quit your job and start a whole new career), telling your significant other every single thing is neither possible nor a great idea.
But while forgetting or deciding not to share some of the above might be fine, some secrets are too serious to hold onto indefinitely, and creating a pattern of silence can lead to problems.
So how do you tell the difference between keeping secrets and retaining some of your personal privacy?
“Privacy in relationships is related to those items that do not need to be shared because they have no negative impact on the relationship, while secrets do,” said Michael Aaron, a sex and relationship therapist based in New York City.
That distinction, he says, can even mark the difference between two secrets that arouse similar types of shame or guilt—such as sexual secrets.
“For example, an erotic dream about an ex would be private,” Aaron explained, “but an actual covert affair would be a secret.”
In short, the question to ask yourself is: “Am I hiding this because it’s not necessary to share? Or am I hiding it because it would hurt my partner and damage the trust in the relationship?”
If it’s the former, you’re probably good to keep it quiet. But if it’s the latter, the longer you remain silent, the worse the outcome may be.
Good secrets vs. bad secrets
In some cases, keeping secrets in a relationship is actually quite romantic.
Think of romantic gestures like planning your significant other a surprise party or buying them a big gift. These often entail keeping many different secrets, and in some cases outright lying to help maintain the surprise.
What makes those more palatable is that, for most people, the happiness of the surprise itself will justify any potential negativity related to keeping secrets. Your partner will be happy to know you were putting in effort to impress them, even if it required some subterfuge.
However, when the secrets aren’t in service of the other person’s happiness, but more about hiding something you’re afraid might affect how your partner sees you, that’s when secrets may start to become unhealthy.
How to try and stop keeping secrets in a relationship
Have you ever tossed something down a snow-covered hill? Even if you haven’t, you might be familiar with the term “snowballing”—the idea of something getting bigger and bigger, out of your control.
Keeping a secret can be a little bit like that. Even if it’s not especially big or harmful at the beginning, over time it becomes more and more serious. That’s because, with every opportunity you have to open up about it, your choice not to tell your partner becomes part of the secret.
If you tell someone something after hiding it for a few months, their reaction might be very different than if you tell them the same thing after five years. It means you’ve been holding something back from them for all of that time, every day deciding to keep that secret between you.
That’s why Aaron advocates for opening up about your secrets sooner rather than later.
“I think secrets can be very damaging if they involve something nonconsensual [in the context of the relationship], such as an affair,” he said. “Best policy is just to come clean as soon as possible, or better yet, try to avoid going down this rabbit hole in the first place.”
Of course, if you already have the secret to begin with, it’s too late to avoid going down that rabbit hole, as Aaron put it. But it might be instructive for you in the future if you’re ever in a similar situation.
Regardless, if you’re in the uncomfortable situation of opening up to a partner about something you’ve been keeping from them, don’t try to hustle through the conversation as quickly or painlessly as possible.
Tell them in person, when you both have the time and wherewithal to discuss it. Ask that they listen to you while you explain yourself, and apologize as sincerely as you can for having hurt them. Tell them you plan to do better, with their help, going forward.
Just as important is providing them with the respect and space to react to and process the news. Put yourself in their shoes, and remember that not everyone reacts to life-altering revelations the same. It may be possible to rebuild trust or even start over in the future, but now is not the time.
Secrets, secrets are no fun
Opening up about a difficult secret might put a strain on your relationship—and depending on the secret, it might even threaten to end it. But getting the stress of hiding something off your back will feel good in the long run, and it can be part of a new approach to your relationship. The goal is to be open and honest about what’s really going on.
If you can’t tell something to the person who’s most important to you, your life partner, then are you really living your life? Or are you living a shadow version of it where you try to avoid the negative consequences you fear at all costs? Relationships are founded on honesty.
That doesn’t mean they have to know every little thing, but if there’s something big, you need to share it. Just think—you wouldn’t want them to be hiding something similar from you, would you?