After the story broke that New York governor Eliot Spitzer was having sex with prostitutes, relationship experts popped up on every news channel, dispensing theories about Mr. Spitzer's behavior. Opinions about why a married man (and one with a great deal to lose) would behave this way ranged from him having unmet needs to sociopathic tendencies. One expert even suggested that "men are ruled by their genitals." In all the analyses of this scandal, though, what no one brought up was the role of secrets.
The truth is we're never going to know why the ex-governor did what he did. But the reality is that Mr. and Mrs. Spitzer are not alone in having to deal with the devastating effects of an extra-marital affair. It is estimated that 60 percent of men and 40 percent of women will be unfaithful at some point in their marriage.
In my therapy practice I've worked with both men and women who were unfaithful, and many who were on the verge of starting an affair. There are many reasons why someone makes the decision to cheat on their spouse or partner--one often overlooked dynamic has to do with the power and lure of living in a secretive world.
The Power of Secrets
Some people are drawn to the idea of keeping secrets. Whether the secret involves an extra-marital affair, gambling, shopping, or alcohol/drugs, keeping a secret seems to hold a special meaning for the secret-holder, beyond the content of what is kept hidden. For obvious reasons, secrets spell big trouble for your marriage or relationship. True intimacy cannot exist when you build walls of secrecy around each other.
Let's look at five reasons you might keep secrets from your partner (or vice versa): 1. The Secret as an escape
Here the secret acts as an escape hatch from a mundane or distressing reality that you feel little control over. People who feel trapped in painful marriages are vulnerable to creating a secret life that promises relief from the heartache of a deteriorating relationship. For some, the secret might involve emotional infidelity; others might have a physical affair. The secretive relationship can exist for many years alongside one's marriage or the affair can act as catalyst to leaving an unwanted relationship. 2. The Secret as a source of energy
The function of this type of secret is similar to escapism but the emphasis is on the charged energy you feel when you enter into the secretive world. The secret is seen as offering a much-needed adrenaline boost to a lackluster life. One client who had a gambling addiction (that was kept hidden from his family) described how his secretive life made him feel "alive" in ways that eluded him in his day-to- day life. People who remain overly repressed and constrained in their relationships (and in general) are prone to this type of secret. 3. The Secret as affirmation of your disowned self
Typically, people behave differently in their secretive world: The individual who feels stepped-on in his life seeks omnipotence; the high powered executive who bullied his/her way to the top becomes helplessly submissive; the dutiful, and highly ethical husband is transformed into the bad, punishable child. When deep- seated fears of rejection and shame block you from bringing all of yourself into your marriage or relationship, secrets become a powerful way to express these disowned (polar-opposite) parts of yourself. 4. The Secret as an avoidance of intimacy
For many, emotional intimacy is the life energy that makes them feel alive and whole; but for others, a deep connection to another becomes a strait jacket to be avoided--fear of intimacy is a reality for many couples. When you struggle with fears of intimacy, you struggle to maintain your autonomy, while also attempting to give of yourself emotionally. This is a balancing act that does not come easy. When intimacy is being avoided, the creation of a secretive life acts as a possession, a line drawn in the sand that delineates you from your partner or spouse. 5. The Secret as a means of control/power
In a sense, all secrets give you a greater sense of control. At lease initially. This usually changes at some point, as your secretive life spirals out of control--which is often the case when you try to hold onto secrets while being in an intimate relationship. But for some, their secrets are designed to act as a means of power over their spouse--a way of controlling something, anything, that their partner cannot have access to. The importance of this secret is that you gain a sense of control over your partner by maintaining a secretive existence.
The need to keep secrets originates out of an early need to protect
yourself. When a relationship (or some aspect of a relationship) becomes intolerable to a child, s/he begins to retreat, hiding within the protective world of secrets. A child who has been emotionally injured learns to count on the reliability and safety of secrets.
The challenge for all of us is to create a relationship that feels safe, a union that allows a deep and rich sharing of ourselves. When our hard work and commitment pays off in the form of a mutual haven of intimacy and respect, the heavy curtain of secrecy will lift, allowing a true connection to flourish.
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Richard Nicastro, Ph.D. is a psychologist and relationship coach who is passionate about helping couples protect the sanctuary of their relationship.