Most marriages have secrets. These might not all be “I buried a body in the desert” kind of secrets but there are secrets. I am calling secrets the unspoken things that we don’t like about our partner or the things that they lack. We keep this information from our spouse out of fear of shaming or hurting them. Or perhaps we did say something but a huge fight erupted – making things worse. In a way we keep these secrets to save our connection.
There are many types of secrets that I have come across in my years of working with couples. Some secrets include: drinking or using drugs in a way that is a bit scary or out-of-control; sexual dissatisfaction – due to different desire levels, activities enjoyed or the shape of your partner’s body; a wish for more money or less spending; seeing your partner struggle with hidden depression, anxiety or grief; or a disappointment in the life you have built together. This is also a list of topics that couples fight about.
The difficulty arises when couples stop fighting and the conflict, shame or disappointment gets buried. This can lead to feelings of distance, apathy or agitation – resulting in either bigger fights where horrible things are said or long silences. I have found that the fights are rarely about the actual “secret.” Instead, couples fight with a scary intensity about grocery items or how the laundry is folded. After a few years or decades of this you have two individuals who feel they are on the brink of divorce. They feel stuck, frozen and helpless. The marriage feels hopeless; it cannot be saved. In all of this silence there is no possibility for movement or change.
So, what should you do if I have just described your marriage? How do you get unstuck? You need to name the secret and find a way to say it out-loud. For many, this feels like terrible advice. How can your marriage possibly survive if this information is named? How can your partner withstand the shame or humiliation that you know will result.
What I have seen in my almost 20 years of working with couples, is that in saying these truths out-loud there suddenly exists a possibility for movement and change that was not there before. There is not any magic in the words – stating what is happening does not make it all go away. But when you acknowledge your most difficult truths you stop all the emotional machinations you are enacting as a way to avoid seeing and knowing these secrets. You are suddenly seeing your circumstances in plain black and white – and you can begin to find a path through.
There is no “right” way to speak these truths. I have seen couples scream them and witness some whisper them. I have heard the secrets said dripping with contempt and I have witnessed them spoken with great kindness. I have heard some couple’s secrets and just known that their marriage could not survive – only to be surprised by the resiliency, love and problem solving skills that emerge. I think that the secret-keeping is toxic and the exposure of truths is healing.
For some individuals it is easier to write a letter or an email to their spouse. This gives them time to outline their feelings, to slowly go over the history and to carefully choose the words they want to use. If you choose this option, I recommend that you write a draft and sit with it for a day or two – you might be surprised by what else comes up that needs to be include. Truth-telling begets more truth-telling.
If you find yourself struggling to find a way to say your truth, you might need a safe place to begin this conversation. Counseling is one option as a way to create a holding space for truth telling. If you have any questions about counseling or how secrets can affect a marriage, please reach out to me at www.CouplesCounselingBoulder.com. I offer a free consultation and provide phone and video counseling.