In fact, according to a study published last year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, people keep 13 of them on average. The most common secrets are sexual in nature, researchers found: either having to do with behavior or having romantic thoughts about someone outside of the confines of your primary relationship. But all secrets, big and small, have a profound effect on you and your marriage — whether you notice it or not.
Secrets in relationships common. But a body of research suggests they can negatively affect mental and even physical health. Secrets become a problem because people’s minds tend to often wander to the secrets they’re keeping, which can lead to a reduced sense of well-being, concluded Columbia Business School professor Michael Slepian, Ph.D., lead author of the above-mentioned study.
Slepian’s study is just the most recent looking at the effects of secrets. A 2012 paper suggests that keeping secrets from a partner makes him or her less trustful of the secret-keeper, which creates a cycle that ultimately damages the relationship, wrote lead author Ahmet Uysal, Ph.D., a professor at Middle East Technical University. In a study Uysal published the previous year, he wrote that concealing negative personal information lowered subjects’ tolerance of pain.
Belgian researchers found that “important, unhappy” secrets had negative effects on health and tended to cause more shame and guilt than revealing them did. A study out of the University of Santa Barbara suggests that unloading secrets seems to help people to stop stewing about the secret and increases the self-esteem of the revealer – but only when they got a positive response from the person who heard it.
Scientists, it’s pretty obvious, are fascinated by secrets. It would be a mistake, however, to oversimplify the research findings and assume secrets always cause harm and revealing them always makes things better.
“It’s difficult to generalize about the body of research that secrets are bad for you,” says Dr. Karl Pillemer, Ph.D., sociologist at Cornell University and the author of 30 Lessons for Loving: Advice from the Wisest Americans on Love, Relationships, and Marriage. “Many of the studies were small in scale and involved artificial situations, and I’m not sure how well those translate into actual human behavior and well-being.”
Take the study concluding that revealing secrets made people feel better as long as they weren’t judged harshly for what they told. It’s just as likely that the study revealed subjects’ gravitation toward people who would tell them what they wanted to hear as it reflected a cathartic effect from revealing a secret to just anyone.
If you’re cheating on your wife, for example, it might be helpful to vocalize it, but you’re probably going to choose a person to tell who will align with you, not the friend across the country who goes to church every Sunday and has had one sexual partner his entire life, says Dr. Christine Hyde, Ph.D., a licensed clinical social worker and certified sex therapist.
There’s enough evidence to conclude, however, that, for a significant number of people, secrets can cause stress and anxiety and affect the health of relationships.
“At the most basic level, we’re about survival, and by connecting with people on a primal level, we improve our chances of survival,” says clinical and forensic psychologist Dr. John Paul Garrison, PsyD. “When we keep secrets or are being deceptive because we think we’ll be rejected by people, it increases the body’s insulin and cortisol, can create heart palpitations and affect the brain.”