| Family First Feature |

Inside Secrets

“There are also those who keep secrets simply because they never learned how to share and communicate”

Avigail still has the letters her chassan sent her during their engagement; she can’t bring herself to toss them. The letters whisper hope and joy, they share his lofty goals of building a bayis ne’eman b’Yisrael, they paint rosy dreams for the future — a totally different picture from the reality that emerged after the wedding.

“He was sensitive and deep, and special in many ways,” Avigail recalls. “But that concealed the very serious problem he suffered from, a problem that was an absolute secret, but that made it impossible to keep living with him.

“The hardest part was finding out that he knew all along that he had a serious problem. His whole family knew. They thought marriage was a wonderful solution — as if I’d be blinded by a diamond ring.”

Today, Avigail is divorced, trying to rebuild her life and regain her trust in people after suffering a deep betrayal.

The Price of Silence

When secrets are kept, it’s not only the spouse in the dark who is hurt. Those who keep secrets pay a heavy price too.

“Keeping secrets steals a lot of emotional energy,” says Tzippy Heller, a clinical psychologist who specializes in couples and family therapy. “Studies have found a direct link between secret-keeping and stress, headaches, insomnia, anxiety, and depression. And the bigger the secret, the greater the energy needed to keep it.”

“It’s like with an avalanche: the first secret is compounded by more secrets in order to keep that first one. Maybe it doesn’t even start out as a secret. Think of a young avreich who feels that he needs to take some time off to go on trips and unwind. He might feel embarrassed — his wife is so dedicated, working and caring for the family without a break — why does he need a day off to go for a hike? None of her brothers do this.

“So he goes secretly, without telling her… and then the lies start to pile up.

“Carl Jung, a psychoanalyst, called secrets ‘psychic poison,’” she adds. “The secret keeper is afraid to speak openly, to chat freely, because he’s always on guard that perhaps the secret will get blurted out.”

That’s exactly what happened to Miriam, who is today a young grandmother. “When I was a teenager, I went through an emotional crisis,” she shares. “I stayed home for a month, and didn’t even leave my room. After that, my parents forced me to take a medication for depression and anxiety. I was on a relatively mild dosage, but they warned me very explicitly not to tell anyone anything so that it shouldn’t ruin my shidduchim.

“For two years after I got married, I kept this secret. It was dreadful. I did whatever I could to make sure my husband didn’t see or know anything. Before our oldest son was born, every time I went to the doctor, I told my husband not to come with me, so that he shouldn’t hear my response to the standard question of ‘Do you take any medications regularly?’ But then I gave birth, and my mother-in-law saw my medical file… And she became hysterical.”

Such secrets aren’t uncommon, Motty Stern, a social worker and couples’ therapist,explains. “Sometimes a person keeps a secret because he or she doesn’t believe his spouse will know how to deal with it. And sometimes that fear is justified. Not everyone knows how to handle complex issues.

“But sometimes, the fear is what prevents the sharing, when really the spouse will handle it well, and the marriage will only be better for it. That’s not healthy for either of the spouses. They want to share, but are afraid of the consequences, and dynamics of distance are created.”

“In an ideal situation,” Tzippy says, “when the marriage is solid and warm, and the couple forms an atmosphere of trust, confidence, and acceptance, the spouse with the secret will feel safe and secure sharing it.”

“Sometimes the fear of the secret being revealed isn’t rational,” Motty adds. “The fear of the revelation is much worse than the actual revelation. She might imagine that he’ll get angry, or file for divorce if he knows about her secret, when most likely, he’ll be disappointed as he asks: ‘Did you really think I couldn’t handle that?’”

“There are also those who keep secrets simply because they never learned how to share and communicate,” he adds. “There are people who lack basic conversational skills, who don’t know how to form bonds and share deep feelings. Therefore, they keep to themselves, without knowing there’s a door to the other person’s heart.

“It’s important to teach young couples that connection is built slowly and gradually — you can’t immediately generate complete trust and deep conversations. They may need to learn to speak more openly and to be more attentive. But if they both put in effort, they’ll gradually learn the skill of genuine communication.”

Secret Revealed

Sometimes, a secret explodes unintentionally: the wife discovers the pill, he discovers the relationship with the problematic friend she tried so hard to hide, the bank manager calls the house and the massive debts he’s accrued become open information…

But sometimes the opposite occurs: the burden of the secret becomes so great that the secret-keeper erupts and reveals it, ready to pay any price to offload the burden. “Sometimes, subconsciously, a person causes the secret to emerge, because he can no longer carry the emotions, anxieties, and guilt it causes. Freud describes it as follows: ‘No mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore,’” explains Tzippy.

That’s what happened to Dovid. His wife, Miri, came from a sheltered, yeshivish home. Her father and brothers were all still learning, and no one in her family had ever pursued a college degree. When they got engaged, it was clear to everyone that Dovid would stay in kollel forever — unless maybe one day he decided to go into klei kodesh. But after a few years of marriage, Dovid realized that he needed a change, and he wanted to pursue a professional career. He was almost afraid of his own desire — so when he signed up for night classes, he kept it a secret.

Until one day, he accidentally left his assignment on his desk. This was inadvertent, and yet, Tzippy explains, it likely stems from a subconscious place, a place that so desperately didn’t want to be alone with his secret. Perhaps it stemmed from an inner desire to have Miri know about his decision and support him — maybe even be happy for him.

But when Miri discovered the incriminating papers, she felt doubly hurt. Not only had her husband partially left kollel — he’d done so behind her back.

When one spouse discovers a significant secret the other had been keeping from him, it’s advisable to seek guidance from a professional, says Tzippy. “The spouse may feel betrayed — they don’t understand how their spouse could have withheld this from them for so long.

“There may be a mourning process: I thought I married a calm person, and I discovered that he’s on medication that helps him be this way. I thought I married a masmid, and I discovered that he actually plans to go out to work. I thought she’s a great, successful girl, and now I see she’s obsessive about cleaning. It’s not easy to digest these new revelations.

“And the person who kept the secret will also be struggling: They want to feel understood, but they’re also grappling with feelings of guilt. There are lots of cracks that need to heal after the secret is discovered, but it’s definitely possible to heal.”

“Moving on after a secret is revealed requires huge reserves of patience and forgiveness,” says Motty Stern. “There’s no magic phrase; couples need to work on the deepest layers of trust. The person from whom the secret was kept needs to accept that even though she was hurt, her spouse is still a good person.

“And sometimes — and I stress sometimes — the other spouse also bears some responsibility for not being accepting enough, driving the spouse to act in secret.”

Miri admits that this was true in her case. “My uncompromising views that my husband should remain in kollel or in klei kodesh, made him conceal more and more from me, while I was getting more suspicious. When each one of us agreed to accept responsibility for his share of the secret, we were able to start finding our own path, one that was right for us and our family.”

Rebuilding Stronger

Once couples are able to overcome the rift created by the secret, they may feel a sense of relief — and even grow closer. “Sharing a revelation leads a person to connect with himself,” Tzippy says, “and a marriage will become stronger and freer once the barriers impeding the relationship are removed.

“Noted pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott describes this as the ‘true  self’ as opposed to the ‘false self.’ The ‘false self’ is a façade that makes it possible for a person to maintain his inner world and hide his real self in public.

“It makes sense that we can’t open up to everyone; erecting a façade protects our inner world. But this only works if it’s not too distant from the real self. Yes, there’s a need to be a bit inauthentic — but only a bit. When the false self is too dominant, you feel a lack of self-fulfillment, a lack of authenticity, and a lack of creativity. Anyone whose energy is focused on keeping a secret can’t access the real creativity deep inside him.”

Learning to appreciate all aspects of your spouse’s true self will also deepen your relationship, Tzippy adds. “Psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut explains that if we only feel empathy toward our more photogenic features, that’s not genuine empathy. It’s not hard to like the nice parts. This sort of ‘empathy’ leads to a split, it encourages people to hide their less favorable traits.

“True empathy is the ability to look at all of a person’s traits and characteristics — even the less desirable ones — with compassion. So, true, he isn’t the biggest lamdan, and yes, maybe she’s not the best balabusta. Still, there’s place for so much empathy. And developing that empathy leads to deeper and more meaningful relationship.”

“No one wants to have secrets in their home,” Motty says firmly. “But discovering a secret gives you an opportunity to really work on your marriage and discover new depths. When you work together to understand the reason why the secret was kept, and to take steps to remove the blockages in your relationship, you’ll create a closeness so much greater than what you had before. The discovery of a secret can lead to a blossoming of your bond.”

Privacy, Not Secrecy

When a couple is trying to build a connection, does that mean sharing every aspect of their lives? There are many shades of gray in life: The staunchly Litvish man who likes to daven in the chassidish shtibel. The woman with a secret notebook where she pens heartfelt poetry.

Keeping that to yourself is privacy, not secrecy, and it’s vital to maintain, says Tzippy Heller. “There’s a difference between healthy privacy and unhealthy secrecy,” she says. “Privacy means maintaining autonomy over the aspects of your life that aren’t directly connected to your marital relationship.

“The test to discern if something is rightfully private or unfairly a secret is whether the relationship is negatively affected by what’s not being shared. If one of the couple is harmed because of that ‘secret,’ it’s a problem. If neither will be negatively affected, that’s privacy.

“Developmentally, children need the experience of knowing something about themselves that others don’t know about them. This is how they develop a sense of self, how they understand that ‘I’ am not ‘you.’ When a child keeps a secret for the first time, he realizes he has an internal life of his own that his parents don’t know about,” Tzippy explains.

“Keeping something private isn’t by definition bad,” she adds. “Every person has a need for privacy. We couldn’t function if everything was always open, out there, and we didn’t have the opportunity to retreat into a realm no one else can enter.”

Motty Stern explains, “Many couples don’t know how to identify the right dose of separateness and closeness. Sometimes they believe a couple must know everything about one another. Feeling that way is an early developmental stage in a relationship; they’ll mature eventually. And once they’ve learned to give each other space, this prevents obsessiveness and smothering and enables the bond between them to become deeper.”

When Secrets Emerge

What’s a good way to share — and listen to — secrets?

Take responsibility. That’s first and foremost. If you’re the secret keeper, then you’re responsible for the pain you caused by keeping a secret. It’s possible that the reasons you chose secrecy are understandable — but that doesn’t absolve you of responsibility.

Accepting full and genuine responsibility for the pain you caused your spouse by withholding information opens the door to forgiveness and renewed closeness. You can say things like, “I’m really sorry. I did something that isn’t right, and only now do I realize to what extent. It’s clear to me that you’re angry at me and I deserve it. It must feel horrible to make this discovery, and I understand that it makes you have a hard time trusting what I say.”

Be smart, not right. It’s true there’s one side revealing a secret — and that they’re the “offending” side. If your spouse kept a secret from you that you inadvertently discovered, then yes, you’re ostensibly the victim here. That’s true.

But when your spouse is finally sharing this secret, be smart. Smart doesn’t mean forfeiting the sense of betrayal. It means dealing with it wisely. It means being able to say: “It hurts me that you kept this a secret from me. But we’ll get through this.”

Listen. Listening is the key for both sides. Both the spouse revealing the secret and the one who is hearing the secret will be overflowing with emotion. Remember that listening to emotion doesn’t mean agreeing with the act being described.

A readiness to hear your spouse out means a readiness for connection. You may say something like: “You’re saying that you feel a terrible rift in your trust in me, because if I could smile when I was misleading you; you feel like you can’t trust my smiles anymore.”

Maintain a rational perspective. True, your spouse may have hid something. Still, in most situations, there are no evil people — just human beings who made a serious error of judgment. Maintaining this perspective can help you deal more rationally with the revelation.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 769)

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