By Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D.
Not everyone feels completely comfortable engaging in self-disclosure, even to the people we hold most dear. Early in a relationship it seems particularly difficult to know just how much to reveal to the other person. However, you would think that by the time a couple gets really close to each other, they’d be unlikely to hold back in the sharing department.
Intrigued by the question of who keeps secrets, and why, University of Tennessee psychologist Beth Easterling teamed up with her colleagues from East Carolina University (2012) to find out specifically whether sexual orientation might influence the level of disclosure in close relationships. They reasoned that people in same-sex relationships spend more of their lives keeping their sexual orientations a secret to avoid the prejudice and discrimination they might face if they disclosed the truth to others. Therefore, they would carry this tendency to hide things even once they were in a relationship in which they felt comfortable with their partner.
There’s surprisingly little research on secret-keeping in relationships, so in addition to informing us about the role of sexual orientation in this phenomenon, Easterling et al.’s study sheds light on the issue in general. In essence, the data from Easterling and her colleagues confirm the notion that secret-keeping becomes a basic way of relating to others among people who keep to themselves about their sexual orientation. A lifetime of living in the closet, as it were, makes a person naturally reticent to share openly to someone else, even a close relationship partner. However, also to emerge from this study were some, shall we say, revealing facts about who else keeps their partners in the dark.
Of course, there are secrets and then there are “secrets.” You might not admit to even your closest friend on the planet, much less your relationship partner, how much time you waste playing online games, scouring the sale racks of your local outlet stores, or reading pulp fiction. You might even hide the fact that you don’t cook your partner’s favorite brownie recipe from scratch but instead use a mix. These seem like innocent enough little lapses especially if you don’t allow them to interfere with your time together. Assuming that this is not the case, then such relatively minor foibles wouldn’t be considered “secrets.” According to Easterling and her colleagues, a secret is a secret in a relationship if it “directly affects or concerns the individual but is withheld from the partner” (p. 198).
An obviously example of such a relationship secret might be not telling your partner that you were once married or, worse, still are. Apart from this extreme, other examples of relationship secrets would concern your family (a siblingcommitted suicide) or your own past life (you were abused as a teenager). Secrets about finances would also qualify as relationship secrets if, for example, you have a huge unpaid debt or, conversely, a secret bank acount that you use to pay for things you don’t want your partner to know about.
The participants in the Easterling et al. study completed an online survey about themselves, their relationships, and their secrets. They ranged in age from 16 to 72 (with the average at 20 years old). Three-quarters were female, about the same percent was heterosexual, and only one-third weren’t in a married or serious relationship.
In general, a large majority (60%) of the sample admitted to keeping at least one secret from their partners at some point in life, and one-quarter said they were keeping a secret right now. On a relationship secret scale ranging from 0 to 355 (based on number and frequency of secrets), the average score was 217. Apparently, there are important secrets that people do keep from their partners, though not everyone does so to the same extent.
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