Sadie and Sam met in a children’s hospital playroom. Sadie was there because her older sister, who was undergoing cancer treatment, had banished Sadie from her hospital room. Sam was there because he was recovering from a car accident that killed his mother and left him severely injured. They talked a little, not much. Mostly, they played video games– which both found more fulfilling and intimate than deep conversation, anyways. Later, Sadie learned that she was the first person Sam had spoken to in the six weeks since the accident.
Keen to encourage Sam to talk, hospital staff asked Sadie to keep visiting him. In exchange, they signed a log Sadie created; each hour she spent with Sam was counted and credited toward a Bat Mitzvah requirement of 20 hours of community service. To Sadie, the form never really mattered – Sam was her best friend. But, she knew that it would decimate Sam and ruin their friendship, so she kept the arrangement a secret. Inevitably, after 613 hours together, the secret came out and Sam felt betrayed; the revelation put a several year pause on their relationship.
This is one of many secrets Sam and Sadie kept from each other throughout a lifelong relationship – more meaningful than friends or romantic partners – that defied labels. It was both the best and worst relationship of each of their lives. And, the underlying issue whenever things turned sour, was secrets.
Everyone has secrets. Secrets vary widely; anything from personal finances or political views to sexual preferences or behaviors. Some secrets are a perfect blend; they don’t harm the keeper and don’t impact others or aren’t their business. But, many secrets can be harmful to relationships.
Researchers categorize secrets into three dimensions:
Immorality: How immoral or moral is the secret? (I.e. involving theft versus a unique hobby)
Connectedness: How relational is this secret? (i.e. involving a friend, family member or romantic partner versus an institution like school or work)
Insight: How much does the secret holder understand the secret? (i.e. a confusing health problem versus a data driven work problem)
Secrets involving immorality often carry a higher sense of shame and can be more explosive in relationships. Conversely, secrets involving connectedness or insight are less likely to become problematic when disclosed.
Why should we share our secrets?
Generally speaking, disclosing secrets can be healthier for secret-keepers, who otherwise tend to engage in rumination.
Many secrets end up coming to light eventually, and the longer a secret has been kept the more potentially harmful it is.
Ok, you’re sold and ready to try to share a secret (or two, or three). Here are some tips:
Be straightforward and share the necessary facts clearly, without initially overburdening with detail.
Mindfully plan rather than impulsively blurt out. Do it at a planned time and place that is comfortable both for you and anyone else in the conversation.
Share only what you know. If the person you are disclosing to asks a question you don’t know the answer to, honestly share the limits of your information.
Consider the pros and cons of having an neutral third party present. Some of these conversations are best facilitated by a therapist, co-parent, teacher, religious leader, etc.
If Sadie and Sam had not kept secrets from each other (not spoiling the story…), their relationship could have maintained the myriads of positives while dispensing with much emotional difficulty.