You buy a dress for $200 and tell your husband it was only $100. Harmless, or harmful secret?

It depends. Did you go over a budget you two agreed on? Did you do it to get even for that expensive camera he bought recently? Do you routinely say you spent less than you did? Or it is a little wink-wink game you two play that doesn’t hurt your budget?

Should you come clean — or not? Again, it depends. If fibbing is a game you two play consensually — it’s harmless; zip your lips. If fibbing about money is part of a bigger pattern of concealment because you are afraid of your partner’s wrath, you’ve got a problem and need to lay it on the table.

Ideally, coming clean will be the start of a new, closer relationship. In reality, depending on the severity of the secret and the quality of the relationship, it can be a deal breaker.

It’s best to understand why we keep secrets in order to understand how to deal with them, especially when your goal is the improvement of your relationship.

Where We Learn to Keep Secrets: It’s no surprise that secret-keeping, like most communication skills, is learned in your family of origin. What we all learn early on is that certain information is for the public, certain info is only for the family and certain info may never be discussed at all. You could be re-playing how you deal with certain information if:

· Your parents always changed the subject when a certain topic came up.

· Your parents’ body language changed (angry glances, avoiding eye contact, tense facial muscles) when certain subjects came up.

· Your mom asked the same questions for reassurance(“Are things okay at work?”) and your dad always gave routine answers (“Everything’s fine!”) — even it they weren’t true.

· One of your parents told you not to tell the other something for fear of upsetting him or her.

· One parent always walked out of the room when a certain topic arose.

Why We Keep Secrets: The motives include:

· Fearing the consequences: If you tell, your partner may strongly disapprove — or even leave you.

· Protection: The secret could hurt your partner, so you keep silent to protect him.

· Independence: It gives you a sense of power to know something your partner doesn’t know.

· Avoidance: If you don’t talk about something problematic, you can fool yourself into thinking you won’t have to deal with the unpleasantness around it.

· Shame: The underlying emotion in most secret keeping, shame keeps us from revealing something to someone we love for fear of disgrace, embarrassment, and loss of respect.

For many of us, keeping a secret is almost always a huge burden requiring vast quantities of energy to keep it hidden. Worse, yet, it can become a habit — a way of dealing with things that are uncomfortable. In any close relationship, it almost certainly will build a wall between you and the person you love.

To Tell or Not to Tell:Everyone’s entitled to privacy, so you may keep things to yourself if theyinclude opinions, inadequate information or one-time events from which you learned a lesson. You don’t need to spill the beans:

· If you have an overly anxious partner who’d freak out if he or she knew you were going in for medical tests (i.e., you wait to share the diagnosis after it’s confirmed).

· If you think your partner’s last lover (before you — and never mentioned since) was cheap/sleazy looking.

· If you fantasize about a one-nighter with your partner’s friend.

· If a friend told you something in confidence and it would be a violation of trust to reveal it.

· If you were on a business trip, had too much to drink, were flirty with a stranger from whom you have never been in contact with since.

When You Should Tell: Bear in mind that some secrets MUST be shared. To stay silent is to play with fire if:

* The secret affects your partner’s ability to make important decisions. Ex: He’s planning a vacation with money you’ve already secretly spent.

· The secret affects your partner’s health or well-being. Ex: You’ve had an affair and may have an STD. Or you’ve secretly quit your job and now both of you are without health insurance — only he doesn’t know it.

· The secret affects your health. Example: You experience a recurring rapid heart beat, your blood pressure goes up, you have frequent stomach problems or head aches.

· The secret is creating an obvious barrier to closeness. Example: Your partner is staunchly anti-abortion. You had an abortion long before you met him and have never revealed it for fear that he will see you differently. It hasn’t affected your fertility and yet you always wonder: Would he still love me if he knew?

Timing is Everything: If you’ve held a secret for years, don’t suddenly ambush your partner. Make sure:

· Neither of you is stressed or upset about something else when you make your approach.

· Both of you are sober: Just as drinking and driving is a deadly combo, so too can be drinking and secret telling

· You have time to discuss. Don’t start the dialogue before bed or when you are getting ready to go to work.

Start Talking:Telling a long-hidden secret requires good communicationskills. If your goal is for the relationship and not just an unburdening of your own guilt, you’re already headed in the right direction. So how do you convey that to your partner?

· Start with a simple clear statement. “I need to tell you something that we both need to be part of.”

· Take responsibility. Say, “I had an affair because I needed attention.” Don’t say, “I had an affair because you were ignoring me.”

· Don’t rationalize. Say, “I shouldn’t have dipped into the retirement fund behind your back.” Don’t say, “I shouldn’t have taken money out of our future funds but I figured we’re both going to be working at least 10 more years so we can make it up.”

· Don’t invoke your right to privacy. Say,” I shouldn’t have concealed my shopping problem from you.” Don’t say, “I shouldn’t have spent so much shopping but I also shouldn’t have to tell you about everything I buy.”

· Offer to answer questions. Say, “I’m willing to tell you as much — or little — as you want to know in order to bring closure.” Don’t say, “I will tell you what I think you need to know but some things are still too embarrassing to discuss.”

· Do it in a therapist’s office. If you absolutely cannot start the conversation on your own and the secret is (or has become) part of a larger relationship issue, then consider seeking a third party to help you deal with the secret in the context of your overall relationship problems.

And Finally…Coming clean doesn’t come with a guarantee. The strength of your relationship before bean-spilling will undoubtedly influence the outcome. But many couples have gone on to satisfying lives together after a major disclosure. And what everybody knows deep down is this: if you live your life openly and honestly, you won’t need to keep secrets.

To learn more, visit