“To keep your own secret is wisdom; but to expect others to keep it is folly”
— Samuel Johnson
The hardest part about secrets is keeping them. Once they leave your lips they become confession, confidence, gossip. The common thought is that secrets control you. I hold the opposite view: that secrets in fact promote personal freedom that ultimately preserves our individuality.
Before I move too far down the garden path, I should say that I do identify a difference between what I consider “dark” secrets and “white” secrets, similar to what would be considered a “white lie.” Dark secrets hurt people in the keeping. These are secrets like “I am an addict,” “I cheated on you” or “I am a Nickelback fan.” White secrets, on the other hand, have truths that really only could affect you. They stem from personal certainties, about things you like, things you do while you’re alone.
There is a commonly held belief that couples should tell each other everything. Building a life with someone is framed as “sharing;” this included everything from your space to your feelings and plans for the future. If you love someone you shouldn’t do anything that you wouldn’t want your partner to know about, right? Actually, wrong.
I have many white secrets that I keep from my man-friend of seven years, despite the fact we live together in a loft space with less than no privacy. He has no idea I keep a journal, because I never write in it when he is home. He doesn’t know which songs make me cry when I listen to them, or why they would. He has never seen the rough, mangled screenplay outline I continue to poke and prod at, or the storyboards of photography series that I imagine myself making one day (after one of the genius inventions hit pay dirt, making me independently wealthy with time for all the art projects I fantasize about). He has never seen the inside of a little shoebox of memories I keep filled with people and things from my life before him. These are all mine. They aren’t scandalous, nor are the other secrets I haven’t divulged here. (The ones above are no longer secrets, but we’ll now see how diligently he reads my column, won’t we?)
I know he must have secrets too, and I try and leave him room to keep them. Nothing is more poisonous to a relationship than a lack of respect for one another’s privacy. Part of loving someone, of trusting them, is assuming that they wouldn’t keep secrets that could hurt you, and therefore their secrets can belong to them without presenting a threat.
I have been guilty of snooping before, but it has always been because my gut has told me there is something wrong. Invariably I have been proven right on these occasions, and when that has happened privacy becomes a very distant second priority to the trouble at hand. These discoveries have nothing at all to do with the white secrets I advocate keeping, but they do indicate the reason secret-keeping has been given a bad rap to begin with. The fear is, if we allow our partners privacy, what exactly will they do with it?
The other major fear is that by keeping things from each other you will be less connected, and your relationship could suffer. We have all met the smug couples that announce whenever possible that “We tell each other everything!” I never believe these people. It is impossible to tell each other everything you think and do without boredom leaking from your ears and eyeballs. Human beings are complex, highly changeable creatures whose opinions and emotions can shift daily, hourly, even from one moment to the next. The idea that we can ever truly know everything about another person is foolish. What we can know is whether, at the root of things, a person can be trusted to look out for us, to make choices with our relationship in mind. If you believe this about your partner, the idea that they would need to tell you everything to prove it is not only overbearing but ultimately unhealthy for a couple’s growth together.
The one thing hardest to come by in a long-term monogamous relationship is mystery. When we first date a new person we are constantly being surprised and delighted by new discoveries about them, and it is often what makes the person so attractive. It is more than easy to feel this slip away with the years. How to protect it? White secrets, our own and our partner’s, banked like gold bars under the floorboards. Revealing a new part of ourselves to someone has the same sexiness, the same draw, after years together as it does at the beginning, with an added sweetness that comes only with rarity.
So keep your hidden journals, your dreams of learning to fly a plane, the private lessons you are taking in Spanish, and your cache of teenage love letters. There is nothing wrong with a richly coloured private world, nothing wrong with being a person with their own inner life. Relationships aren’t for two headed monsters who share one mind. Want to know the best part? If you tell your partner some of your white secrets, you can always make new ones.