Much of what we conceal from our lovers is the stuff we're trying to get away with, exactly in the way and probably to the degree that we deceived our parents as children. The content of these deceptions varies from couple to couple. Interestingly, little of it is monumental. If infidelity is the traditional marital secret, I hear more about the painful day-to-day duplicities people employ to avoid conflict or to maintain control.
In my practice I've heard spouses lie to each other about whether she had dessert, if he remembered to call the insurance company, how much TV she allowed the toddlers, the cost of his basketball tickets, the number of drinks she had, and what he actually said to his boss. Few, if any of these, are lies you'd tell your best friend. In fact, if you felt compelled to distort or disguise your life for someone's approval, you would probably not regard that person as a close friend at all.
Each petty lie in a marriage nicks intimacy and frays trust. As psychiatrist Frank Pittman famously stated, infidelity is not "whom you lie with. It's whom you lie to." However trivial the distortion, every time you mask yourself to avoid conflict, you take a small step away from your partner. Emotional distance does not foster great love.
But irritated husbands do not make great lovers, either. You are two separate humans and some of what you each do will inevitably infuriate the other. There is a definite argument to be made for shielding your mate from the parts of yourself that he or she finds most difficult to love. It's a tortuous road to the total, loving acceptance of soul mates. Few get there, but the couples I've seen who go furthest had a little judicious padding along the way.
So I do think husbands who have issues with money sleep most peacefully when they don't know what you spent on your shoes, particularly if you earned that money yourself and it's yours to manage independently. And I think wives with shaky sexual confidence might be spared the anecdote about the flirtatious seatmate on the plane. Yes, in both cases you are withholding information that you might enjoy discussing with a friend, but you are doing it in recognition of a partner's soft spots, balancing the pleasure of sharing your experience with its painful potential. That kind of emotional accounting makes sense.
But if you are stealing cash from your husband's pants pocket and routinely hiding purchases in the back of the closet, you are not employing tact; you are sneaking around like a guilty child, and that has never improved a marriage. If you habitually withhold the airplane stories in order to hold open your options for follow-up, this is not sensitivity, it's betrayal. You know the difference.
Only a few of the couples I've seen are gratuitously cruel, and most have established some idiosyncratic balance of what can and cannot be shared, if only because years of catastrophic discussion have taught them where they must not go. She knows she cannot frankly discuss his daughter or that any modest inquiry into his business will be heard as intrusive and controlling. He learns that playful sexual fantasy shuts her down completely or that even mildly negative feedback is received as a critical assault.
Devoted couples keep some secrets that are a pure expression of love. She tells him he's a great cook because this lie makes him absurdly happy; he lies and tells her she doesn't look fat because she needs the confidence boost. Each tells the other that he or she is desirable and beloved and omits the weeks of sexual fantasy about the next-door neighbor or the new associate. She thinks his speech was labored but tells him he was a star. He doubts she'll get the job but cheers her on and stifles his uncertainty. She feels he made a total ass of himself but merely mentions he was out of line. He thinks she is a political idiot but respects her right to airtime.
What's required is a delicate equilibrium between openness and gentleness—and on this tightrope there are any number of places to trip. You get closer to each other as you show yourselves more and more clearly, but if you say it all you'll do some damage. You grow loving as you treat each other more and more kindly, but if your marriage requires too many silent subjects then you sacrifice intimacy at the altar of surface tranquillity, and love dies. At the extreme, the marriage becomes a facade sheltering parallel lives with joint bank accounts.
The decision to withhold or to reveal puts you in judgment's gray zone, where, after all, most long-term relationships live and die. Few people who live in glass houses stay married for long. Ah, but those few who do are very blessed indeed.
Judith Sills, PhD, is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Philadelphia. She's the author of several books, including Loving Men More, Needing Men Less (Penguin) and Excess Baggage (Penguin).
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