The Costs of Secrets & Lies
Everybody lies. No one escapes this. In fact, research out of the University of Notre Dame determined that the average American lies approximately 11 times per week! Most of us know that lying is not an ideal choice and we often feel guilt when we do. However, we still frequently excuse our lying behaviors when we believe it necessary to protect ourselves, or even, to protect those we love. The deception is that when we assume we are protecting our loved ones from the truth, we are actually causing more damage… and not only to them, but also to ourselves. The truth about keeping secrets and perpetuating lies is that there are disastrous relational, mental, and physical costs.
The Relational Cost
Most people are aware of how secrets and lies take a wrecking ball to trust and can even lead to a complete implosion of an entire relationship. It impacts both the deceiver and the deceived. For the deceiver, it creates a barrier to real intimacy as they withhold their authentic self, only showing an edited version of who they are to the one they love. This act causes the deceiver to live in a split existence, an isolating dual reality between who they are and who they want someone else to think they are… the sad end result is this: never being fully loved because they are never fully known. And while their initial goal in hiding truth is to make it go away, the act of hiding it actually has the opposite effect…it grows bigger and bigger creating more and more distance within the relationship.
Likewise for the deceived, whether secrets are discovered by confession or by evidence, it leaves a devastatingly stressful insecurity and ongoing paranoia or suspicion as they then filter everything they are told through the lens of the betrayal; always questioning, wondering, what is truth and what is lie. The deceived can often sense defensiveness, avoidance or emotional withdrawal by the deceiver upon questioning, which can fuel suspicion, anger, anxiety, and in marriage – feelings of abandonment or neediness.
As a therapist, I encounter the catastrophic reality of lies and secrets on a weekly basis. Teenagers hiding their drug use from parents, parents hiding dark family secrets of generational abuse, spouses hiding struggles with pornography, infidelity, and even criminality. But the results are always the same: DESTRUCTION. Rarely can secrets be kept forever; and when they are discovered (especially if held for years), their impacts are often anything but positive. Even lies that may seem benevolent and with good intentions can end in heartbreak. For example in years past, I watched a couple different adoptive families decide to hide the adoption from their child, leading them to believe they were biological offspring. Although I attempted to gently discourage the parents from doing this, they refused the recommendation believing it would confuse and harm the child, possibly making them feel ‘abnormal’… unfortunately years later, those children learned the truth and sadly, turned against their parents for the large deception. Similarly, secrets of infidelity are rarely kept forever because there is always at least one other person who knows about it, if even only the lover. And even if a husband engages in a one-night stand on the opposite end of the globe with no ties to the person and no admissions of guilt to a single friend or other; research shows that the weight of that secret can follow him his entire life… an isolating burden that will inevitably take its toll on his marriage. This is because he will forever be enchained to that deception; he can never relax in the authentic and honest expression of himself to his wife… because his heart will never be fully “naked” around her. Secrets and lies ruin marriages, families and friendships. If there is no honesty, there is no relationship.
The Mental and Physical Health Cost
While the destructive results that secrets and lies have on relationships is often pretty clear, what many do not realize is that they also take a major toll on physical and mental health as well. The amount of effort required to design and maintain a lie will inevitably tax the brain. One must not only remember the secret, but remember each lie told to protect the secret, which lies were told to whom, and from whom the secret is being kept. The weight of remembering all of this compounded by the fear of discovery can amplify mental stress and generalized anxiety… in some cases even leading to obsessional thinking as one plays and re-plays the secret and its lies in their head for rehearsal. And not only that; but then is the battle of guilt and shame: guilt is feeling bad for something you DID; shame is feeling bad for something you ARE. The guilt one feels from the secret and surrounding lies can turn into shame… and shame inevitably lowers self-esteem and can trigger depression.
All medical professionals will also tell you that stress and anxiety significantly impacts other major areas of health. When the body is flooded with anxiety, all reserves are tapped in order to manage the toll it is taking and to continue to function in spite of the stress. Developmental Psychology refers to this process as the “allostatic load.” Your body will find a way to compensate for the loss to its own detriment. For example, if you decide to eat a stable diet of nachos and soda, or are only getting 4 hours of sleep per night, your body will pull its energy and nutrients from other organs to keep you functioning. You may feel like you are still getting things done, but what you do not realize is that this process is also wearing out your organs at a much faster rate. So stress (and unhealthy living) can literally kill you… or at least shorten your lifespan. As it draws from other organs, the immune system and its functions are weakened, making one prone to sickness and other ailments. Lower backaches, diarrhea, migraines, and trouble sleeping are well-known symptoms correlated with lies and secrecy.
So one can potentially assume then that truth can set one free. Such was the case from University of Notre Dame psychology professor Anita Kelly’s research on the effects of lying. She discovered that individuals who begin telling the truth more often experience 54% fewer mental health complaints (such as anxiety and depression), and 56% fewer physical health complaints (such as nausea or headaches)!
To Reveal or not to Reveal?
That is the question. Should I continue to keep this secret? Or should I reveal it? Here is the truth: When it comes to saving your marriage, all research suggests that total and complete transparency with each other is required in order to successfully rebuild what has been broken. All cards on the table, all masks off. If an affair has taken place, then a realistic understanding of the journey is also important. The intense emotion the betrayed spouse will feel and the rebuilding of trust typically requires the same length of time as the affair. So for instance if the affair was 18 months long, it would take about 18 months of fidelity for trust to be re-established and the intense emotions to subside. Whatever the wounded spouse desires to know should be answered in humility and honesty. To save a marriage at this point, there is no more room for deceit. Professional counseling or therapy during affair recovery is strongly recommended.
When it comes to secrets with your children, they do have a right to information regarding their heritage… be it adoption, criminality, a history of addiction or a history of mental illness in the family. It is important to share this information with them at an age-appropriate time. Waiting for them to accidentally find out at the family reunion years down the road is an explosion waiting to happen. Regarding the revelation of a personal addiction, relapse, childhood trauma never before shared, or other problem long-kept quiet, the benefit of revelation is not only freedom from the bonds of the secret, but a sort of help-seeking that can initiate the journey toward healing and wholeness.
While the fear of ruining a marriage or family relationship by telling the truth is real, research on forgiveness and attachment out of the State University of New York (2004) has shown that when there is a strong attachment bond to the partner and the betrayed are secure in who they are, the chances of forgiveness and reconciliation are very strong, regardless of the severity of the transgression. When it comes to the revelation of a private matter you’ve kept from your spouse, friend or family (such as abuse, addiction, or transgression against another), your vulnerable confession can actually deepen intimacy. And when it comes to the revelation of illegal or illicit behavior, you may in fact lose your job, your reputation, or your freedom. But here is a wild truth… In an interview with 60 minutes, serial rapist, killer, and cannibal, Jeffrey Dahmer, revealed that he actually experienced relief when he got caught! Even though he spent the rest of his life in prison, he stated that he finally felt free from the lies, the deceptions, and ultimately from his sadistic addiction.
We have all committed transgressions unbeknownst to others; some we have confessed immediately, others we have not. But in the end, we are essentially left with only two options… either we 1) Keep the secret and suffer the relational, mental and physical costs, or 2) Reveal the secret, experiencing freedom from mental and physical distress with the potential for deeply intimate and authentic relationships.
Given all the research and information we have on these two options, the second option appears to be a better choice, even though consequences may follow. You may lose your marriage… or you might actually save it! You may lose your job or your freedom, but as in the case of Jeffrey Dahmer, even the seemingly worst of consequences may still be minuscule compared to the absolute release from the life-sucking bondage of lies. So everything appears to plainly point to these facts:
FREEDOM is found in TRUTH.
HEALING is found in CONFESSION.
So make the decision today. Sharing the truth certainly takes courage; but courage is not the absence of fear…rather it is experiencing fear… and doing it anyway. Embrace courage. Be vulnerable. Confess. And step into an authentic, liberated life.