The news just hit me this week: My friend's marriage is on the train to Splitsville. She says the husband was maintaining a little secret lifestyle: "Working" into the evening at restaurants with female co-workers, communicating by email and Facebook, and even perusing the online dating sites. Dirty dog. It makes me sad for her and angry for me, since he's a man chalking up to another X for my species. She found out about it by hacking into his computer, put on the scent by progressively suspicious behaviour. It seems he felt safe to act.
It's foreseeable. I always say that if people didn't shed tears of joy at their own wedding then the marriage is doomed. That's a bit of a joke, but I also quip that if they keep separate bank accounts then they're also in trouble. My second rule of thumb is less of a joke. It's an example of couples who keep separate lives, essentially secrets, from each other in the name of a "healthy" need for personal space and individual freedom. Many people think this is fine, but I think it's the risky road to a failed marriage. Here's why (and tell me if you agree because I know some people don't):
Reason 1: The Standards Are Different In Your Secret Life
Think about these questions to yourself:
- Do you ever speed?
- Pick your nose?
- Leave the washroom without washing your hands?
- Have you ever got too much change from a store and just kept it?
- Forgot to pay for something and didn't go back?
- Outright steal?
- Ever clean your house specially for guests so they don't see what a slob you are in real life?
- Ever make hurtful comments about someone when they weren't around?
- Ever take the last bit of coffee from the office pot and then didn't make another?
When do we do these things? When we think we won't be seen. We might never do them in public because they're embarrassing and unhygienic and maybe even illegal. But out of sight, unlikely to be caught, we're all more loose with our standards. The interesting thing is that most of these private transgressions aren't even very strong impulses. Very few people crave having dirty washroom hands and it's absolutely no chore to wash them if someone is watching, yet we've all noticed those "others" who thought they were alone as they skipped the sink. Standards have a way of going down almost to zero in private.
Married people already have it very tough. We spend most of the day apart, with one or both people working. Work provides a secret lair, where we have 8 or more hours away from the spouse interacting with many exciting people who are similarly incognito. Should opportunities for indiscretion arise then it would be very easy to get away with it. Excuses and lies might not even be needed.
What's the Remedy?
Include your spouse, and demand to be included, in activities away from the home. It doesn't have to be overboard, but simply get to know their main office friends. A few barbecues, maybe a games night or a movie night is all it takes. Visit each other's workplaces from time to time, perhaps to have lunch with each other. Call each other during the day. If there are business trips then the other spouse should go with sometimes. Intermingle the two lives as much as possible, not out of suspicion but out of true interest. The side effect is that there won't as much opportunity for anyone to lower the standards.
The other thing to do is integrate everything. Nobody should have a private drawer, a private email account, a password protected computer, a separate bank account, or anything else where secrets can be confidently stored. You don't need to share the same identity, but my suggestion is to share as much as possible and then give open access to the stuff you don't share. My wife and I have a shared bank account and credit card that 99% of our financial activity goes through. We share the access information for all the other accounts that need to separate. We both know all our passwords to the computers and online accounts and we regularly log in to those accounts because of the trust (example: One might ask the other to dig up a phone number out of Facebook email). You can keep things separate, but they should be open and visible to the other at any time.
Reason 2: Secret Lives Make You Stop Loving Your Spouse
For most of us, the world ends roughly at the tip of our noses. We are interested in our ambitions, our feelings, our problems, our stuff. Don't get me wrong, we certainly care about the plight of the starving 3rd world citizens, the terrorism victims,those suffering under oppressive dictators, those dying of incurable disease, the victims of crime, and on and on. We care deeply, now that you mention it, but it'll slip our minds in about 15 seconds when we go back to thinking about whether we would look better with the brown or the black shoes today. Those other people are just that: Others. Not us.
When spouses maintain different interests and hobbies then that separation builds up. As more and more hours and efforts are invested into activities that don't involve the spouse, spouses start viewing each other more and more like those "other" people, easier and easier to ignore, having less and less of an emotional stake. What's more, the activities in which time is invested are fun! It won't be easy to reclaim that time later since the activity will seem a lot better that hanging with the boring old wife or husband. Eventually one might find that they're living with a stranger, reduced to nodding as they pass each other infrequently during the course of their day. Finally, the other spouse may become a hassle, holding one back from doing what they'de rather be doing.
What's the Remedy?
Notice when you're doing something and your spouse isn't there. I can't understand at all, with some families, where everyone is home but they're all doing something separate. Stereotypically maybe dad is watching the game, mom is on phone with her sister, the kids are playing video games. This is nuts! Do something together! Something fun, something you'll all enjoy. It's important. Every hour you spend apart, in space or mind, is replacing them in your life with something else. If this suggestion doesn't seem reasonable, or doesn't seem attractive, then you might be far down this path already.
Remember back to when you were first dating. If you're like me, you tried to find as many excuses to be with your partner as possible. Almost nothing was boring, as long as the other was there. The only thing that's changed since then is your mind. You traded interest in your spouse for other interests. That was a bad trade; you should trade back!
So that's it. Keeping parts of our lives separate and/or secret drives leads to opportunities to be bad and drives a wedge between the spouses. Here are a list of suggestions to reverse that.
- Don't think of this as being distrustful. You aren't. This is the normal level of sharing that married people should default to. It just has the side effects of making the trust easier to keep.
- Remember: You are weak! Willpower does not exist. Although you may not imagine it now, if the right deal walks by at the right time then you will not be able to say no. Do not set yourself up where the only thing between you and bad decision is willpower. Set yourself up so that it's shame and fear of getting caught that keeps you honest when the temptation hits. That means the ever-prevailing hazard that your spouse may come across an indiscretion.
- Think of things to do together, with your spouse and as a family. If that sounds plain and boring then realize I'm not just talking about playing snakes and ladders. You can go out and do something amazing and crazy. My wife took me bungee jumping, we've gone scuba diving, caving, mountain climbing, backpacking, canoeing, camping, we played in squash and badminton and volleyball leagues, we go swimming, we run businesses and invest together, we've done a triathlon together, we visited a beekeeper, go to museums, volunteer at science fairs, walked the mountains of Peru, visited the castles of Europe, drove the longest bridge in the world (over ice), saw the deepest canyon, boated on the highest navigable lake, swam with stingrays, everything -- including playing board games. Nobody has shared more or better experiences with me than my wife.
- Merge and simplify finances (to the extent that it doesn't cost money to do so), and have a monthly process during which the finances are reviewed. Married couples need to run their finances together.
- Provide full access to every secret hiding place, from the workplace to the loose floor-board where the chocolates are hidden. Login ids, account numbers, passwords, combinations, keys, everything.
- But don't ruin the above by going in and re-arranging stuff: You have access to look at any time and the right to talk, but surely you can let your spouse pick the photo for his or her own Facebook avatar.
- Be interested in your family, and be interesting yourself! Have a look at my last post on being curious if you can't seem to find anything interesting to see or do -- it can be a bit of a trick to seeing the amazing things that are right in front of you. Ask questions, share, TALK!
- Be interested in your spouse's friends. Go out with them or invite them over.
- Do not daydream about things that can't happen. None of those: "What if I'd married someone else?", "What if I had pursued my dream of becoming a champion gymnast?", "Maybe I should have gone on to medical school..." These comparisons to an imagined life will only make you unhappy. If you think your current life could be better then realize that you'll feel exactly the same if you were living those alternate lives.
- Daydream often back to when you wanted nothing more than to be with your spouse. Let those feelings linger.
- Keeping secrets pulls people apart. Sharing secrets brings them together.
What do you think? Is it healthier to strike a balance between the individual and the couple, or do you think it's best to share everything and keep no secrets?