My partner accuses me of keeping him in the dark, of not telling him everything. I, on the other hand, believe we should respect one another’s privacy on some matters. What do you think? Should we never keep a secret from each other?
Most of us were raised to believe that in good marriages, there are no secrets — that couples should tell each other everything. We believe that in a good marriage spouses are totally transparent with each other, revealing all of what they think, feel and do so that absolutely nothing is hidden. But while this ideal may seem to make sense on the surface, the truth is that your marriage can only take so much honesty. Some things are better left unsaid. Without a healthy sense of privacy and censored self-disclosure, your marriage will become more like a battlefield than a safe haven.
The trick is to find a balance of openness and privacy that works best for you as a couple. That’s why we recommend that you begin this process by exploring your different expectations about privacy and openness. Most couples have tacit ideas about what their spouse should tell them, but discussing them explicitly can be very revealing.
After you take time to understand each other’s expectations, you might want to agree upon some guidelines to keep you connected while still respecting your privacy. For example, our rule of thumb is that if something’s going to affect the two of us, we talk about it (e.g., a change at work that will affect the stress level in our home). We don’t want any disconcerting surprises. However, we don’t believe there’s any reason to go into tremendous detail about something that doesn’t have a direct impact on our marriage (e.g., the particulars of personnel restructuring at work).
When it comes to revealing details about every feeling one experiences, we have also learned to think before we speak. Why? Because some thoughts and feelings are only transitory. They last for a few moments and are gone. So if you have a fleeting feeling about quitting your job, for example, you don’t have to tell your spouse about it if you know it would cause unnecessary anxiety. Along these same lines, total transparency can lead to saying hurtful things. We need to consider whether what we say is the product of an “unbridled tongue” or of “speaking the truth in love.” In the New Testament, James suggests the tongue should be a monitor, rather than an open channel of our thoughts (James 1:26).
Of course some things that must be told, no matter how painful. We have counseled some people who have kept significant information from their partner because they didn’t want to hurt them. They have gotten fired and invested joint funds in race horses, for example, and never said a word about it because it seemed easier not to have to contend with a partner’s reaction. We have known of a situation where the wife didn’t find out that her husband had high blood pressure until she found an empty medication vial in the bathroom wastebasket, months after his initial diagnosis. In the long term, keeping these kind of secrets will damage any trust between two dedicated people.
A common pattern of secrecy that can undermine your marriage is routinely sneaking around buying things and hiding them from the other person. Afraid of being scolded, the buyer feeds into outmoded roles in which the other spouse serves as the “parent” controlling the purse strings.
To maintain a balance between openness and privacy, you have to steer clear of deception. While you aren’t obligated to tell your spouse everything, you will build a stronger marriage by speaking the truth in love.