The Only Real Secret to a Healthy Marriage

The only real secret to a healthy marriage is to not have any secrets. In AA, they say our secrets make us sick. They’re right. And marriage is the place we learn how to empty ourselves of them…

marriage secrets

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I keep secrets from my wife.

Just last week, the kids were released early from school, due to a heat wave and old buildings with no air conditioning. While debriefing the shortened day, they mentioned their mom had taken them to an ice cream shop the day before after the early dismissal. It seemed like a random comment, but I’m sure it was strategic.

They know how to work me.

And I knew they didn’t need the sugar two days in a row, and I knew we didn’t need to spend the money, but who doesn’t want to be the cool-dad, especially when you’re married to a woman who’s always the cool-mom?

So, we piled in the car.

When we got home, I collected the empty ice cream cups, and I buried them deep in the garbage. I actually did that. Rearranged some dirty paper towels over the top of them. Like I was six years old again, sneaking a spoonful of fudge swirl from the freezer at 6am.

Of course, when I was six, I didn’t have three accomplices to spill the beans.

When my wife got home and asked about our afternoon, I didn’t mention the ice cream. But my partners in crime did. And I cringed. I cringed a little because I got caught. But I cringed a little more because marriage isn’t a place for secrets.

It’s a place for pouring them out.

Our Secrets Make Us Sick

When we get married, we gain a spouse. But oftentimes, we don’t end up treating them like a spouse. We wind up treating them more like a parent, and we act more like a kid. Why? Because it’s a role we know. It may not be terribly satisfying, but it is terribly familiar. It’s a well-worn path in the wild woods of love and, though the path may be frustrating at times, at least we know where we’re going.

We live our marriages like we might get grounded at any moment and, instead of doing what it will take to stay in love, we mostly just try to stay out of trouble.

Like the spouse who orders every NFL game on cable and then holds his breath, hoping his wife doesn’t wonder why the networks are showing the Tennessee Titans for the third week in a row. Or the spouse who binges at the department store and then swipes the credit card bill from the mailbox, like a high school kid beating her parents home to the report card in the mail.

Sure, these are small secrets. But small secrets multiply. And grow.

And our secrets make us sick: the bills that are getting paid a little too late because there’s too little money to pay them. The addiction we know is getting a little too addictive. The conversation with a co-worker that goes on a little too long. The heart that is getting a little too hard and little too cold.

Marriage can quickly become a garbage can in which we bury our secrets.

Like clandestine cups of ice cream.

Pouring Them Out

Last week, I wish I’d lined those cups of ice cream right up on the counter.

I wish, when my wife arrived home, I’d said to her, “We got ice cream today, because when I found out you took the kids yesterday, it stirred up all of my insecurities. I think you’re a really good parent, but I’m not so sure about myself. You’re good at having fun, and I’m good at getting frustrated by the mess the fun creates. You’re good at spontaneous, and I’m good at worrying about what won’t get done while we frolic. If you were my mom, I’d love being with you, but if I was my dad, I’m not so sure how I’d feel about me. So, I tried to be fun and spontaneous, but to tell you the truth, I was mostly just trying to keep up with you.”

I wish I’d poured out my secrets all the way to the bottom.

Yet, that’s the nice thing about secrets—they don’t go away on their own, and it’s never too late to empty ourselves of them. It’s never too late to tell each other not just what we’ve done, but also why we did it.

It’s never too late to make our actions known, and our hearts seen.

The Definition of Intimacy

True intimacy is not the absence of privacy or the absence of boundaries or the absence of a separate self. We need to have our own spaces and limits and identity.

True intimacy is the absence of secrets.

True intimacy is what happens when the floor of our marriage is covered with our garbage, because we are two people dumping it all out and figuring out how to clean up the mess together. It may take a while and it may be gritty work, but we will find ourselves healing the whole time. Because it isn’t what we’ve done or who we are that makes us sick.

It’s our hiding that does that.

May our marriages be full of garbage. And emptied of secrets.

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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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44 thoughts on “The Only Real Secret to a Healthy Marriage

  1. Perfect timing, Kelly. And here comes the question you KNEW was going to come….When does “privacy” turn into “secret”. This very theme, topic, discussion is one I am currently dealing with. I say “no secrets”, he says “I need privacy” – and we are not talking about secret ice cream but rather doing something you know the other person doesn’t like you doing. I am unable to find the words to explain what I perceive to be a HUGE difference between the two. After all, I like my privacy as well when it comes to a few things (but I am confident he wouldn’t care a lick if I did them or not).
    Help? :o)

    • Ha! Yes, when I spell checked it last night, it occurred to me that an awfully big question was left hanging out there. Here are a few gut reactions, and then I’d be interested to hear what other people think:

      1. Doing things in private that in no way affect your marriage are totally fair game. Problem is, those kinds of things may not exist. Almost everything we do affects our capacity for relating.
      2. You can do something in private without it being a secret. Can you tell a spouse what you are doing in your solitude? If not, why? Usually, keeping secrets is to avoid conflict.
      3. Do you use time of solitude and privacy as a way to cultivate your own ability to be intimate and vulnerable. In other words, are you working toward having less secrets about your privacy?

      Like I said, just my off the cuff reactions. Do others agree or disagree?

      • First of all, thanks for taking the time to answer and secondly, if I may say so….dang you make me look good! Well, I should rephrase… I am proud to say that I used the exact words “you are just trying to avoid conflict”. Unfortunately he is a most defensive place and would not admit that. I am also not sure he would think along that far to gain this insight. Thanks for letting me know I wasn’t overreacting or barking up the wrong tree! 🙂

      • I taught to my daughter the following rule: “How to do not feel the need to tell a lie” when you want to do something that you think it’s so wrong or so bad that you are going to need to lie about it, don’t do it. Only do something when you are sure you can say you did it without a problem (spontaneously or if asked, in case you don’t want to go and share it openly to everyone straight away). Then she taught it to her father, my ex partner. And he cried.
        I hope this helps.

        • Spotted on. When you keep secrets you will have to lie to protect them and there is no place for this in a healthy marriage (not only in marriage but in any TRUSTful relationship).

  2. Perfect post!! As one of the members of a long marriage; 39 years of ups, downs and love, we learned this lesson as we went along. The more we embraced the concept, the happier our marriage became! The trick is finding the balance or difference between what is a healthy boundary and what could be a detrimental secret. At least that’s what has worked for us. Blessings to all the marriages out there; enjoy the journey! We do!

    • Yes, Patricia! I think that’s another thing I would add to the privacy versus secrets question: don’t ever quit being conflicted about it. Always be asking yourself if the thing you are being boundaried about could be shared, made known, etc. Thanks for adding this.

  3. Yes, Brilliant! And 100% the truth! And yes, so hard to find the fine line of healthy boundary, privacy, personal space versus hiding, secrets 🙁 And yes, this was THE theme of my also long marriage (25 years), until the secrets won and the marriage lost. You are so right Kelly, this is so vital. I would add to the recipe: send your ego in an express post envelop to the furtherest place on earth without a return address, practice genuine deep forgiveness, show vulnerability, honesty, sincerity, transparency, kindness… and your marriage is set for success. Good luck to all couples, being married is a challenge worth living, a great fertiliser for personal growth.

    • Your comment is 100% the truth, Carolina. Transparency from a place of ego is probably impossible. Thanks for that addition!

  4. Thank you so much for your spot-on blog posts. I look forward to them every Wednesday. After 30 years my marriage is hanging by a thread and your insight is helping to keep it from totally unraveling. You have a special gift, thankyou for sharing it so freely

  5. Thank you for this. My own first thought… there is a disclaimer about sharing secrets. If your partner picks up the garbage you poured out and hurls it at you, yelling awful things about how terrible you are for having had that garbage, and even saves it to hit you with it over and over, then sharing secrets has to be put on hold until the partner learns a deeper respect and develops the capacity for understanding and kindness. As Brene Brown puts it, we should only share our shame stories (the garbage) with people have to have earned the right to hear them. If your partner is not one of those people, that changes things and there’s a lot of work to be done. 💜

    • Indeed – you must both be willing to be “garbagemen” (or politically/gender equality correct – garbage-persons)… if not, there is a disparity and inequality in the “job” one holds.

      • I think you’re both right on. In fact, that might be one of the values of marital therapy: when it feels like the marriage isn’t safe enough to wade into sharing of secrets, the therapy room and the therapist make it a little safer to start doing so. And, of course, the therapist will ask for equality in the level of vulnerability.

  6. You nailed it!!!! There should never be any kind of secret in marriage. A ‘secret’ is just a code word for deception. And deception is a lie. And lies and cover ups and manipulation destroy a marriage.

  7. Wow, Kelly, you did it again. You put into words my experience. My husband and I have acted like children with each other because that’s what we have known how to do. As we talk about what we’ve done and why, we are becoming more like adults working together. Thank you!

  8. I love the idea, but there are severe restrictions to its application. It works when you have a adult, God fearing mate who wants the best for you. It does not work when it is used as ammunition to manipulate, control and distrust you more. I do not find many marriages with two such people very often. I would so enjoy that type of opportunity to be real without the repercussions.

  9. Very well said. My boyfriend was going to a wake yesterday and this woman called and asked him for a ride, he came to my job and said I won’t go if you say no. I said no only because it was across town and would make him very late getting back home. He said ok. I will go to the wake and i’ll be back shorty to go to football practice. I had this funny feeling though that he wasn’t being honest, and sure enough he calls 45 min. later in traffic because he went to pick her up. Sure he still told me about it but he lied. I didn’t say much to him, but that little bit of anger was still stored in me. He got to the practice about 1 hr and 30 minutes late. I still didn’t say anything, but later that night we got into an argument and sure enough that was the first thing that came out. That’s how it always goes for us. Little lies and secrets become big issues.

    • Maria, that individuation from family-of-origin is a really common source of conflict in marriage. Sometimes, a spouse ends up feeling like a kid torn between TWO parents. My best as you work through this in your marriage.

  10. Your pieces are super inspiring. They make me want to be more of me and inspire me to write. Thank you for always sharing these ordinary things in an extraordinary way.

    • “They make me want to be more of me.” That’s actually beautifully worded. Maybe you should write. : )

  11. Ha – and your kids just thought that was ice cream in those cups! Hmmmm, how large were those cups of creamy, sweet, frozen dairy? That’s quite a lot in a cardboard container… (-;

    • Ha! Yes, it was ice cream and shame and competition and regression. I’m surprised they didn’t get sick to their stomachs. : )

  12. I notice that most of the preceding comments are from women. I wonder why! You reminded me of two statements in the Bible. The first is in Genesis. And when Adam saw Eve, he said,” This is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh”. The next verse says,” and they were naked and not ashamed”. The first verse speaks of oneness and security and the second verse speaks of honesty and total openness. This is not just physical, but also emotional, intellectual, and spiritual nakedness. These are the two most basic foundations of a good marriage.

    • Thanks for this addition, Tom. What a great reminder that it’s right there in the beginning, the foundation of everything else. Good stuff.

    • Thank you for sharing your insights, Tom (and Kelly). As a Roman Catholic, these verses reflect that there is something about Adam that completes Eve, and something about Eve that completes Adam. And so husband and wife are gifts to one another, and in their union they establish a community of live and love: the family. As parents, my wife and I have pushed hard against the current nihilistic culture to teach our three children to have reverence for themselves as they are, the gift of sexuality, and the opposite sex. We need to see the dignity of each person, for the proper response to a human person is to love them and never use them for our pleasure.

  13. Going through the garbage with your partner is rotten, stinky and painful. And oh so necessary. Thank you, again, for another brilliant post. Your Marriage Manifesto helps me every day to lay my ego at the altar of love (I’m not married, but in a committed relationship), this article will undoubtedly help me to dump the garbage on the altar too so we can both sift through it together. Maybe next time your kids can leave some ice cream in the cups so you both can at least have a yummy treat while you’re going through the garbage together! 🙂 Thank you!

  14. Another great blog, Dr. Kelly, love it. Best way of all for both prospective partners is to really connect to themselves before the marriage and to the best of your ability deal with all of these childhood hurts etc. that are buried there deep within. Of course that will not be perfect, but a better start than usual for a marriage. But TRUTH is the key word for any successful marriage, as you have said, it should be a very important word used in the marriage vows. If a couple cannot each be truthful with the other, then there is going to be a problem within the marriage. The other word is TRUST in the ideal marriage, each partner must be able to trust the other. I guess another really important word covering all is the word LOVE, true love, not the romantic version we are all brought up with. When a couple have disagreements, and they will not always agree on everything, it is so important for each party to speak lovingly when they are sharing their disagreement, maybe along the words, could we really look at this and have a little discussion about it, rather than blurting out your disagreement. Also, a great idea I have found is to walk gently together while discussing each other’s point of view. It is amazing how a solution can readily appear when doing something gently together.

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