Dad's picture

Too Many Secrets: Why Privacy Ruins Marriages And How To Save Them

She found a secret.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?


Hope you liked the post. Please do me a favour ...


You are bang on the money

Dan O'Neil's picture

You are bang on the money here... having secret lives means that the secret life becomes incredibly seductive... in that place (particularly for men, but increasingly so for women also) it's really easy to forget your morals, your beliefs & your decency. Somehow it's easy to feel that what they don't know can't hurt them... plus it doesn't mean anything to you, it's just a bit of fun... and all the other nonsense we sell ourselves.

If you've ever had an addiction to something, alcohol, cigarettes, gambling etc., you'll have experienced that place and know that it's all too easy when it's all done in secret. Trouble is, we give ourselves away - there's a part of us that wants to be found out.

Great post. Thanks, Dan.

My wife and I share as much

Dave Higgs-Vis @ Folkabout Baby's picture

My wife and I share as much information as we can. We have shared bank accounts, and we know all of each other's passwords. It's refreshing to be able to be so open with someone.

You're spot on when you talk about how "standards are different in your secret life." I had a hell of a time quitting smoking when I worked away from home. I could go out for smoke breaks, and my wife wouldn't know. I took a lot more discipline staying away from ciggarettes before I became a stay-at-home dad.

Secrets don't build a sense

Dean Mehrkens's picture

Secrets don't build a sense of connection, and never lead a relationship in a direction we want it to go. By keeping secrets we think we can have the best of both worlds: the pleasure of our secret life with the benefits of our public persona.

Great post. I hope a lot more couples take the no secrets approach.

Great post I read

January's picture

Great post I read it while my husband is away on one of his many business trips. ;)  We just celebrated our 5th wedding annivesary by heading to Niagara on the Lake visiting wineries, enjoying great food and meeting and talking with some very interesting people - all things we both love doing but especially together.

I rec'd some weird comment a

January's picture

I rec'd some weird comment a few weeks ago from an anonymous person and from then on I've been verifying comments before I post was unsettling and actually made me quite angry although it should say after you post that your comment will be moderated by me....however you are not the only one that's been having trouble commenting lately.  Blogger is really getting on my nerves!  Sorry it's giving you issues but I'm happy to hear you're still reading - I was wondering where you went!  :)

Good stuf here Alex. Sorry to

Jk Allen's picture

Good stuf here Alex. Sorry to hear about your friend. Sad situation.

One thing I believe in is including my wife in everything I do. I don't do anything or participate in any activity that she's not welcomed to. I do this because I truly love to be around her and she makes whatever there is to do, that much more enjoyable simply by her presence.

The reality in the world, or at leas the states is that husbands and wives value having "their own life". And, the reality in the world, or at least the states is that most marriages now days fail. I think a large part of the reason is because couples get married, but then live separate lives. A cocktail for destruction in my eyes.


I say marry someone that you want to be around all the time!

Hi Alex! Of course you know

Christa's picture

Hi Alex! Of course you know my stance on separate accounts (for the others: whatever works to get you to your goals, go for it!).

As for everything else, I agree with you to an extent. Secrets in a marriage are almost always negative and should be avoided at all costs. But since I enjoyed our debate on my site, I thought I'd join in here with a little counter:

The one place I disagree is: "Remember, you are weak!" I don't think that everyone needs willpower to remain faithful. If the opportunity were to present itself to me, I would not cheat. And I'm positive my husband would not either. We both came from homes broken by infidelity and vowed to each other to communicate anything that was not working, at any time, for any reason. For both of us, it is not willpower but a strong commitment, shared morals, and being best friends that keeps us intact.

Btw, we both shed tears of happiness when we eloped!

Great post! Again, I hope your friend can find peace after the storm.

True, people do fail at

Christa's picture

True, people do fail at things, even with the best intents. I think we've been saying the same thing all along, just in different ways: communication and no secrets is key to success. Yes, my hubby and I had separate accounts at one point, but it is true that we communicated all the time! Anywho, great post! I think we are actually in agreement here :-)

I completely agree with you

Brynne's picture

I completely agree with you on...everything.  I love the rest of the post, but separate bank accounts are a must.  Joint accounts cause so many problems if a divorce does arise.  (I'm also an advocate for filing separately on taxes as opposed to jointly.)  As a divorcee myself, I didn't appreciate it until the mistake was made. Plus it makes shopping for birthdays and anniversaries more of a surprise. :)  I wish I could offer more feedback on the rest of the post as a female, but my marriage did not end due to infedelity.  All I can say is I think its disgusting no matter who does it.  

Hey Alex,

Amy's picture

Hey Alex,

Great post!  I always assumed that my husband would never cheat on me because he's a great guy (which is true), but until I read this, I'd never really realized that we have our marriage set-up pretty much the way you suggest. 

We both have access to everything, we share a lot of friends and common interests.  But even stuff we don't share an interest in, we each know that the other is always welcome.  (I can tell you that Nathan will NOT be running a half-marathon, however.  :)  )

People worry about having their own lives and identies, but that kind of trust and closeness really facilitates that.  I don't mind if he goes out without me occasionally, because we do have such a high level of trust and involvement. 

Wait--what story did you

Amy's picture

Wait--what story did you steal?  :)  (I think this is particularly important given the nature of this post!  :)  )

I agree; drifiting apart is sad.  We've agreed not to give each other anniversary presents; instead, every year on our anniversary, we do something together that we've never done before.  It's one way to remind ourselves that we want to keep growing together. 

I don't follow how the

spider's picture

I don't follow how the example of a cheating husband proves that privacy ruins marriages.  Abusive spouses use the sharing of things like passwords, friends and finances to cripple the other and control them, and stop them from seeking help.  That doesn't mean that sharing everything with your wife/husband is a recipe for an abusive relationship, but likewise secretiveness and separate lives are just tools for cheaters to use for their infidelities, not the cause of them.  

People should share those things because it feels good to do so, that it adds to the fulfillment of marriage.  If it doesn't feel good, then going through these motions won't solve or prevent any problems, but maybe even cause resentment and conflict.  That's not proof that the love is faulty or doomed to fail.  It's more to do with people's sense of self.   I feel more secure when I feel like one individual in a team, rather than morphing into conjoined twins.  There's a whole essay I could write you on why, and finding the opportunity to go commit nefarious deeds is not part of it. 

I do know that people overestimate willpower, but doesn't it also take some effort to carry on an affair?  Was it a lapse of willpower that made that guy set up an account on a dating site?  A lapse of willpower is me eating the piece of chocolate cake a co-worker sits down next to my computer when it's someone's birthday.  It's not me setting up an account with a cake shop down the road, waiting until no one's looking to sneak out of the build to go pick up a cake, finding a secluded spot in a park to eat it and then repeating that on a daily basis.  That's more than just a weakness for cake.

I disagree. We need separate

louise's picture

I disagree. We need separate lives outside of being a couple. We've been together for 34 years and  happily married for nearly 30 years and it works because we both are both free to be individuals. We have different interests and hobbies, different friends male and female and take holidays separately as well as together.  I've met my husnabds friends ( male & female) they are nice people but I don't want to spend time with them - we'd both be bored! 

I don't  think being faithful is about willpower at all, it's about making a decision that your marriage is important and that you'll be true to those vows.  You make a decision and stick to it. I've worked as a relationship counsellor with many couples, and being too close can drive you apart as much as being too distant.  I could think of nothing worse than my life being only tied up in my marriage or my partner. We're both different people. We love being married and I can think of no other person I'd want to go through the ups and downs of life with.There's plenty of room for privacy and freedom within a relationship if both people are honest and trustworthy. Having secrets and things we keep to ourselves is healthy and normal.