Can Keeping a Secret Damage Your Relationship?

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The 2021 Australia Talks survey has shown that between 9-14% of Australians (depending on age groups) are keeping a secret that they think would end a relationship within their family or with their partner.

What are the considerations when you are deciding if it is a secret for keeping? or for sharing?

The Sugar Doctor and Kia Handley discuss the complexities of keeping a secret.

[Full Transcript Below]

 

You can listen to the show fortnightly live on Monday mornings from 9:30 am on ABC Newcastle at 1233AM or stream live here.

Kia Handley is: Not a car! Presenter ABC Newcastle. Loves vintage, Eurovision & great stories.

[Original audio on the ABC Website here.]

You can also find the incredibly talented Kia Handley on ABC  Newcastle Mornings here, Twitter @kiahandley  Facebook kiahandleyjourno and on her podcasts: This Retro Life & Let’s Talk-  Rural Mental Health, PLUS even more amazing gems here.

Episode Transcript:

Kia Handley:

In your mind, what is a secret?

If you share something with some people and not others? Is it something that absolutely no one knows except you? Are secrets always bad? Or can they sometimes be something that is a need to know basis? How does keeping a secret impact relationships?

Oh my goodness. So many questions. Let's take a look at this with the Relationship Coach, Tara Thomas. Good morning.

Tara Thomas:

Good morning, Kia!

Kia Handley:

All right. Tell me your biggest secret. [both laugh]

No… you don't have to, let's just start by delving into your problems. Yeah.

Tara Thomas:

I've I mean, I've been holding them and I'm ready to…

Kia Handley:

Now is the time. Yeah, no one is listening. It's just you and I it's just like a confessional. [both laugh]

A white woman with short blonde hair is whispering in the ear of a black woman with afro hair. She looks surprised.
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What is the Definition of a Secret?

Kia Handley:

What do you think a secret is?

Tara Thomas:

One of my favorite definitions is this, which is just funny and cute.

“A secret is something that you only tell people one at a time.”

But aside from that, aside from that there are a couple of definitions getting around and one that I really like because it's the setup for some research that was done at Columbia University.

So they were kind of having a conversation about, you know, is a secret relational. So does it only exist when I'm in the presence of the person who I haven't told? Or is a secret, something that belongs to you? That sort of begins at the point of decision-making that you're not going to share that thing.

And I think, especially looking at the results of their research, I think that that second definition around, you know, the secret exists, you, it belongs to you and it begins at the point that you decide that you're not going to share it. I think that's a really good fit because it helps to describe some of the things that happen to an individual when they are keeping a secret.

Kia Handley:

There are some things that, you know... life's busy. So there are some things that happen. And you just forget to tell someone, you know, rather than you can't tell all people, all the things you would never want that no one can take that on in our life either.

We don't need to just blurt every time we see something about everything we've done in the last, however many days or hours, since we've seen them...

Tara Thomas:

I mean, I'm a chronic over-sharer, so that's good advice [both laugh]

Kia Handley:

But like, you know, it is, I, I do like, like you, I like that concept of when you choose not to tell someone is perhaps when it's a secret.

Tara Thomas:

Yeah. The decision-making element of that, not just the, you know, but I mean, there's also, there's also the neglect to tell someone so that the lie of omission is also another element to keeping a secret.

So it is kind of complicated and it depends on the context, you know, is it a secret when it's someone who you wouldn't ordinarily share that kind of thing with, so, you know, a workmates, or...

Kia Handley:

No. That to me is.....

Tara Thomas:

the barista... or, you know, the mechanic,

Kia Handley:

would you like soy milk with that? Yes.  And also, let me tell you a secret...

Tara Thomas:

Right. So, you know, what's the context where it might be appropriate to share that and then becomes a secret. All of these complexities, I think, change depending on who you are and who you're talking about, the relationship you share.

A Folder printed with Classified and a red stamp on the desk that says Top Secret. The folder has been stamped.
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What are the Impacts of Keeping a Secret?

Kia Handley:

When we look at that question that was asked through Australia Talks, are you keeping a secret that you believe would end your relationship with your partner or family? Pretty much from 9- 14% of every age group said, yes. What do you make of that?

Tara Thomas:

I mean, it doesn't surprise me particularly, but it's a big deal.

I think one of the big outcomes of this research at Columbia University was they were really looking at what's the impact of keeping a secret on an individual.

And what they found was there, is two elements;

One is what they call mind wandering. So that's kind of that emotional loop, that mental loop and where you keep coming back to thinking about something like touching your tongue to a sore tooth, right. You continually thinking about the secret and the fact that you haven't shared it and what might happen.

The other part of the mental processes of having a secret are the 'not telling' which is the active suppression. So when you're with someone sort of what happens in your mind where you're having to screen and filter what you're saying, making sure you're keeping a secret and not slipping out hints or clues making sure they don't guess the secret.

Tara Thomas:

So that's the screening, but the damaging part they found is in the mind wandering and in what the mind wandering means for you.

So the frequency of mind wandering can lead you to sort of feeling like you're inauthentic, like someone doesn't really know you and you could, or you could be anxious or depressed.

And that again will be different because depending on your kind of personality, your makeup, you know, are you someone who just doesn't care what other people think? In which case secrets might have little impact on your health? Or are you someone who, you know, really.... maybe there's something else going on.

[coughs "sociopath!"]

Kia Handley:

I am listening to a really good podcast at the moment about a con man and lots of secrets. Yeah. That story. Yeah.

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Are There Good and Bad Secrets?

Tara Thomas:

So we have these kind of moral and ethical filters and judgments that we have about, should you, or should you not be keeping a secret? But I think in the end it really comes down to what would the impact be on that particular relationship? Like how would they react and how are you then going to process it?

Kia Handley:

And sometimes it depends what it is, right? Like obviously a secret of a break of trust is different to a secret of, gosh, I don't know...

Tara Thomas:

A surprise party for your 40th birthday

Kia Handley:

I mean, yeah, so that's okay. I mean sometimes unless the person has specifically said, I hate surprise parties, don't do it. Sure, exactly. Right. There are good and bad secrets in this mix.

Tara Thomas:

You know, I think sometimes a secret can be, you know, a surprise or something special that happened a private moment that, you know, you like to think about and it makes you feel happy and it makes you feel good and you don't necessarily want everyone to know.

It could be something about your identity that you don't want everyone to know that it makes you happy.

So I think the, you know, even the classification of good, bad secret really comes down to what's the emotional impact it has on you. And then what's the impact that it has on that person.

So that, you know, there are secrets, like you said around betrayals of trust and around lack of transparency and honesty, avoiding responsibility or accountability. So things like, you know, you're married and you've lost your job or you're racking up a lot of debt or you've, you know, an affair or there's legal issues. Like what are the things that are going to directly impact on your partner's life.

And then what are the things that maybe you can keep private that that really don't impact on anyone else's life and are only your own business.

So it's tricky to decide, you know what, because at the end of the day, you can keep any secret anytime for any reason. Cause it's yours. All you have to do is be willing to own the consequences keeping a secret and of what happens should that secret come out,

Kia Handley:

Impact our health. If we have a secret, a bad one, maybe. Yeah,

How Do You Decide Whether to Tell Your Secret?

Tara Thomas:

It depends on the frequency of mind wandering. So how often are you thinking about keeping a secret? How often are you worrying about that secret? You know, are you worried about what would happen if it came out? Are you playing out in your head doomsday scenarios and they might be genuinely real, you know, you could have made an assessment of their family member or partner based on their past behavior and decided they're not going to take this well. Yeah. So that makes a difference.

Kia Handley:

I'm not going to tell them that I've actually been to Bateman's bay when they've planned this holiday, because it's just not worth the drama. Exactly. Right. I'm just going to pretend I've never been here before.

Tara Thomas:

I'm not going to tell people I'm visiting Canberra when I'm visiting one specific person, because I don't want to see everyone I've ever known down there, correct. Or...

Kia Handley:

Even many of them. So, you know, I guess

Tara Thomas:

You really need to assess the scale of impact of keeping a secret. And then what the impact is on you.

Is it something that causes you guilt or shame? Does it cause you to feel inauthentic? Does it cause you to feel like you're in a really having to wear a mask or be a different person in public?

And then I think, you know, is it something that it would be valuable or helpful to share with someone who is trustworthy and experienced and can help you through that?

How Do You Go About Sharing a Secret?

Tara Thomas:

One of the big problems with secret sharing is that people do it before they've had an opportunity to process it themselves. So it just becomes this big spill and you're processing it out loud while you're processing the relationship while you're processing, you know, what the implications for the other person on all happens in a bit of a explosion.

Kia Handley:

There's a better way to go about it if you are like, right. This is something that I do need to tell, insert close relationship here. Yeah.

Tara Thomas:

I think firstly, it's helpful to see a therapist go find a psychologist, find a counselor, find some kind of therapist that fits you and talk to them about it so that you can unpack and explore, you know, what are the implications for me? How has it played out and do some of that processing before you go into the the scenario with your friend or family or, or partner, and then beyond that, you just might want to have a strategy for that. You know, you might want to think what are some of the things that could happen?

How can I share this with them in a way that is considerate? You know, I'm not going to dump it on them as they're walking out the door to go to work or while we're in a pub on a Friday night or when we're at a family function. So how can I share this in a way that's considerate and appropriate.

And also how can I create space for them to have whatever reaction it is that they have and to be really generous and compassionate about that. And then also, you know, give them some time so that, so that they can do the processing before we kind of move forward with,

Kia Handley:

Because just like no one can tell to tell us what we do and don't tell them we can't actually control how someone reacts.

Tara Thomas:

Yeah. And I think that's why people keep secrets a lot of the time, you know, because you can't anticipate how they're going to respond. And so you think, oh, it could go badly. Let's let's maybe hold back on that. But I think that that's not always that helpful.

And again, it depends on all of these things that we've talked about, but you need to also consider, am I holding our relationship back from growing and is this a respectful way of interacting with that person? Like maybe they have, you know, more capacity for this, could, this could deepen and expand our relationship and having this conversation might lead us to, you know, an even better relationship later, but you can't know that in advance. So you need to be willing to walk down either road when you have that conversation.

Kia Handley:

Is the vicious cycle of being human, actually no nothing about guarantees.

Tara Thomas:

And we try so hard to control the, the criteria and the environment so that we get the outcome we want. It doesn't yeah. For no reason.

Kia Handley:

Tell me when you nail it, because I would like that in my life as well. Tara, great to chat through these. Thank you. Relationship Coach with The Sugar Doctor, Tara Thomas.

For full transparency you should know: This transcript has been lightly edited for flow, and to optimise the SEO on my website. That means that I have substituted some words or phrases so that the article is more likely to appear in a google search. In this article "keeping a secret" has been optimised. I only do that in a context where the meaning will remain the same, for example instead of "...how often are you thinking about that secret?" I have said "...how often are you thinking about keeping a secret?"

This is a decision which I've made because SEO is one of the key factors in determining whether people do, or do not, read my blogs & articles, visit my website, and work with me.