Monday, July 17, 2006

Dismaying Story #8: Skeletons in the Marriage Closet

Dear Andrew,

Something happened years ago and I have never told my wife about it. I'm scared it would hurt her feelings for no good reason. Is it ever okay to keep a secret from your spouse?

Signed: Mum's the Word

Dear Mr. Word,

Different people would undoubtedly approach this question from various directions. Those interested in morals and ethics, for instance, might consider what was right or wrong about various ways of handling your dilemma. I take a pragmatic view; I look for solutions that have the best chance of empowering (rather than hurting) both you and your partner. Going along with that, my goal is always to strengthen relationships, avoiding scenarios where the bond between the two of you can be eroded or even shattered.

I do believe there are times when your spouse might be better off without certain information. I can give you an example that happened to me this week. We had some pork chops that smelled funny when we opened the package so, to be safe, we tossed them in our garbage bin outside. A few very warm summer days later I went to toss in more garbage and was greeted by an incredibly bad odor and white creepy crawlies all over the inside of the bin. Knowing my wife is not a big fan of tiny creatures, I warned her to avoid the smell but purposely didn't mention the maggots. There are a few reasons why this "secret" seems okay to me:
  • She had no need to know. The state of the garbage bin posed no risk to her or anyone else. I knew I would clean up the mess on garbage pickup day and that would be that. She would not have done anything with the information even if I had told her.
  • More than that, I knew she would prefer not to know. The mental image would gross her out. (And my apologies if the same has happened to you, faithful reader...)
  • There was no risk to our relationship if she found out later. I was extremely confident she would understand and agree with my reasons for not telling her.

Does your secret match these criteria? Oftentimes this is not the case when one partner is scared to share information. Let's consider a concocted example. Say you used cocaine without her knowledge for a period of time early in your marriage. You realized it was affecting your health and your ability to succeed at life, so you told her you had a business trip, checked into rehab and have now been clean for years. You've always been afraid to tell her.

In this case she has an incredible need to know. Substance abusers can be at risk to fall off the wagon, which then poses a risk to her and to your children. More than that, if she knows your secret, then she can watch for signs of trouble and potentially help limit the risk not only to herself but also to you. So there is your first litmus test; does your secret deprive her of information that would be useful to her in some significant way? If so, that is a persuasive reason why you should tell her.

Would she prefer to know? That one can be tougher to predict. I've had people say to me, "If I was going to die in six months, I'd rather not know. I'd rather enjoy my remaining time." In the case of the cocaine issue, one could argue his wife might go from a state of blissful ignorance to constant needless worry (of course it's only needless if he remains on the wagon, which is not necessarily a given). This seems to me to be a rather weak argument, but still it might be relevant in some situations.

Now suppose at some later point someone else tells her about your cocaine use. This is likely to be a major blow to your relationship. Not only will she be upset that you engaged in such risky behavior, but she now knows you deceived her both before and after you kicked the habit. Oftentimes deception can be a greater risk to a relationship than the original transgression. The revelation can also hurt her as an individual; finding out your partner has deceived you can be a blow to your self-esteem, for instance. So ask yourself: what sort of damage is likely to occur if she learns your secret on her own? Again, if you are putting her and/or your relationship at risk, you might want to consider telling her the secret, and sooner rather than later. Owning up to a problem right away is often the best way to deal with it and move on, without adding the extra problem of deceit.

I don't know what sort of secret you are keeping and it may not be as serious as the cocaine example I discussed. However you said you are scared your wife will be upset "for no good reason." Is that really true? Are there actually good reasons why your wife should know about your secret? I hope these criteria help you decide.


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