Reflections for the inner life.
We live in a day and age when our lives are less hidden. The advent of social media has accelerated human connection and not all of it is helpful. Our mobile phones have become a primary method for communication. They have also become a powerful tool for manufacturing and maintaining toxic secrets.
You will not find one body of valid research promoting the introduction of toxic secrecy in a marriage to help a relationship flourish. No couple in my counseling office has ever uttered the words, “Our marriage was really struggling, but things got so much better once we started keeping secrets from one another.”
If you are in a marriage where secrets are sabotaging trust, let’s take a deep breath and take a minute explore this a little further.
If you are keeping a secret from your spouse, your feelings of guilt, shame and fear are understandable. They will force you to hide, even from yourself. Over time, this guarded posture will suffocate you the longer you remain in it. The weightiness of your secret/s will cause an emotional, relational and a spiritual scoliosis, bending and shaping you into someone who you will not even recognize. It’s time to begin exploring how to pivot toward the freedom of transparency.
On the other hand, if you suspect that your spouse may be hiding something, the upset and heartache you are experiencing are also valid and normal. No matter how you happen to uncover a secret, whether accidentally or if you go in hunting for it, your hurt is a very normal human response along with anger, fear, and sadness. The longer you remain in this cycle of mistrust, the more profoundly you will be formed and shaped by it. To remain in an enduring pattern of hyper-vigilance to your spouses habit of lies and secrets is absolutely toxic. It’s time to begin exploring how to courageously pivot toward the freedom of some newly formed boundaries.
In marriage, there are huge differences between healthy secrets and toxic secrets. Healthy secrets are time limited for things like birthday gifts, special surprises like concert tickets, and other life giving celebratory events. Healthy secrets promote a spirit oneness in the marriage leaving couples feeling more intimately connected. For example, we willfully operate within agreed upon budgets. We also don’t humiliate or embarrass but celebrate and affirm. Healthy secrets bless your spouse should they ever happen to discover them prematurely.
What’s the difference between my “private thought life” and a “secret.”
Everyone has private thoughts. Your thought life is a much different environment than your secret life. Private thoughts are reserved as a place for the necessary work of internal consideration, contemplation, discernment or self examination. Your private thoughts can hold onto healthy secrets indefinitely without any negative outcome. Secrets, specifically “toxic secrets”, indicate some current or future action that will jeopardize the integrity of a trusting relationship. Toxic secrets are marked by the strategic intent to withhold, mask, manipulate or hide both actions or intentions. Private thoughts honor the timeless tradition of seeking wisdom and listening well to wise counsel.
Another way of describing a toxic secret is “any action or intent that threatens oneness in a marriage.” Oneness is the tender but resilient space between a husband and wife that is reserved for honoring one another well and living a Christ centered life together. Oneness is a space marked by a growing number of the fruits of the spirit; “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:22-23)
If a husband cultivates intimate emotional space with a woman who is not his wife or his therapist, and he elects to keep the details of his intimate engagement sheltered or harbored in secrecy, that would describe an example of a “toxic secret.”
Couples who keep secrets plant seeds of discontent and over time they grow into trees that can not be pulled up by hand. Had those secrets been given the opportunity to be shared and known when they were saplings, they could have been dealt with and handled accordingly being pulled out by the root.
By the time many couples come into marriage counseling, they have sown many seeds of toxic secrecy that have been planted. Time has often only intensified their resolve to keep them hidden. One excuse is, “I just don’t think it’s worth hurting my spouse with that information after so many years.” Another might be, “I love them to much to share this secret now. It would wreck them.”
Secrets grow and they become heavy and burdensome. They crowd out trust and intimacy. Intimate touch, soft tones, tender nudges, loving approaches, loving pursuit all become the first victims of toxic secrecy. To pursue closeness with my wife is to risk being known which is to risk being found out. Secrets love to grow in darkness. The light of day exposes them for what they are…weeds.
Have you ever seen a home so overgrown with weeds and vines that the structure had become dramatically compromised? There is an abandoned condemned building in Chattanooga near the intersection of Main and Market that had a large tree growing into and out of the brick. No zoning committee would ever approve of that structure being opened for business while still hosting this enormous tree in its infrastructure.
The same is true with toxic secrets. They will blow up your life eventually. Ivy growing on red bricks can be very pretty. The reality, though, is that ivy can literally tear down a brick wall given enough time. It weaves its way through the mortar and over time slowly allows the wall to crumble under the sheer weight of itself.
Toxic Secrecy shows up in relationships for a number of reasons. Here are four;
1. To guard my own self interest.
2. To protect my self image.
3. To mitigate my deep fear of rejection.
4. To maintain my unhealthy attachment or addiction.
As damaging as a secret may be to a relationship, secrecy is only a symptom. It’s actually not the core issue. Exposing the secret will requires more than a singular tearful confession. It is a compound fracture that will involve a skilled and experienced facilitator. It will also require us to lean on the truth of what Chip Dodd describes as the “algorithm for change” which he defines as “willingness + patience + work + time.”
When couples come in marriage counseling to confront toxicity in their relationship, lies are exposed and the truth comes out. Old wounds are exposed to oxygen and relationship foundations have the opportunity to be repaired and renovated. Sometimes the truth can shatter whatever foundation remains, like new wine poured into an old wine skin, a marriage may not be able to endure the discovery of toxic secrets. In the recovery community this is called “hitting rock bottom”. Years of witnessing humans recover informs us that this actually can become the birthplace of human change and transformation.
To leave toxic things in the ground is to ensure that the drinking water is poisoned. They may be hidden for now but they always leak into the water supply for generations upon generations of poisoning. Scripture calls this generational sin.
Conversely, when toxic things are exposed and extracted and given the opportunity to be touched by God’s grace, generations can be blessed by the refreshment of this clean living water.
To confront or admit a secret, much less decades of them, is courageous. It demands bravery and a willingness to hold that which I’ve been holding tightly much more loosely.
Releasing a toxic secret should not be done recklessly or carelessly. But it must be done with the right infrastructure of support. There is no way to spare hurt but done well, you may be able to spare even more unnecessary injury. Before unleashing a secret you have been hiding, I would recommend a confidential meeting with a professional counselor in your community.
How do I protect our marriage from toxic secrecy?
Elbow Christian Counseling