By John Shaughnessy
The Indianapolis Star
The young woman listens to her boyfriend's question. He wants to know how many relationships she has had with other men.
She knows he is asking because their relationship has turned serious. She also fears the number might bother him.
"I'm not going to say," she tells him. "They're in the past."
When he presses the point, she thinks, "Should I tell him? If I keep the secret, what will it do to our relationship?"
Anita Kelly shares that story to show the impact that secrets can have on our lives and the lives of others. The author of The Psychology of Secrets (Kluwer Academic Publishers; $75) also shares these insights about secrecy in our daily lives:
In 11 years, Kelly, a psychology professor at the University of Notre Dame, has interviewed hundreds of people, and only two said they didn't have any secrets.
The most common secrets are about sex, followed by mental health problems and failure, such as losing a job.
The juicier the secret, the more likely it is that people will reveal it.
The major reasons people give for keeping secrets are shame and embarrassment.
"Sometimes, it's too scary to let other people close to us," says Amy Barnes, a mental health counselor. "There's a lot of fear about how people would react if they knew our secrets."
Some secrets seem minor, such as not telling a spouse about a speeding ticket.
Other secrets carry more emotional weight, Barnes says, such as a parent who hasn't told a child he or she is adopted or a spouse having an affair.
Whether to keep a secret or share it is part of the debate.
One camp of counselors says confession is good for the soul, that relationships grow from openness.
Kelly agrees, to some extent. She also offers a counterargument: "We all have a fundamental need to belong. If everyone knew everything about us, a lot of us would be in trouble. To fit into a group, it makes sense that we hide things."
Denial is dangerous
The situation becomes more difficult when secrets are harmful and unhealthy.
"Secret bank accounts, cheating on your mate, lying to someone who believes in you or trusts you, those are unhealthy secrets," says Rick Sudsberry, a marriage and family counselor.
"Trust is the foundation for our psychological safety, and it's eroding in our society," Sudsberry says. "Extramarital affairs are a big area. I've had people go for a period of time denying everything."
Being in denial is a dangerous area involving secrets. Barnes mentions the alcoholic who tries to keep his drinking from his employer and his family.
"When you're hiding it, you're at the point where you need help," Barnes says. "If it's harming you or harming others, get help. If you're afraid to talk to someone like a spouse or a friend, that's when you need to see a therapist.
"Going on a television tell-it-all talk show is not a good way to share a secret with others."
Focus on big picture
The balance between personal reputations and personal relationships can be achieved in another way.
Kelly advises focusing on the larger, more meaningful issues.
The young woman whose boyfriend wanted to know how many previous relationships she's had might say that it's crude to talk numbers, Kelly says. She could say she's committed to this relationship.
"The point is, you have a right to keep things to yourself," Kelly says.
She also suggests avoiding situations that make secrets necessary:
"Imagine what would happen if people spent more time thinking, 'I could have this sexual affair and enjoy it now, but I'm going to have to live with this troubling secret for years to come.' If people thought about the consequences before they did something, I believe people would do fewer things that would require them to keep secrets."
To tell or not to tell?
Anita Kelly, author of The Psychology of Secrets, recommends answering these four questions to determine if you should keep a secret. If you answer "yes" to any, consider sharing the information.
Is the hidden information secret, as opposed to private?
"We all have things that are private, like personal hygiene," Kelly says. "But a secret is something we keep hidden from another person which you would expect the other person to know. Marital partners would expect to know about an extramarital affair."
Would your partner make a good confidant?
"A good confidant is discreet, nonjudgmental and nonrejecting," the author says. "If they have these qualities, sharing the secret should go well. If one of these is lacking, then you have to consider two other questions."
Do you think your partner will discover the secret?
"If you think they will, it's better for you to tell them," she says. "If you do, you may want to share the theme of your secret instead of the details. Talk about the larger issues involved."
Is the secret bothering you mentally or causing physical problems?
"If it's not, you don't have to share the secret," she says. "If it does, you can share the secret or end the relationship. Sometimes, when people feel the discovery of their secret is imminent, they're not willing to stay in the relationship because they fear their reputation will be damaged."
Should you share your secrets?
'Avow' merrily skims life's complications
Fun-raisers: 600 jazzed for arts education benefit
Accessories are her accents
Kraft: Style extra
Get to it!
in our 'Marry My Dad' poll
Coulter's 'Blindside' blends love, intrigue
Dialogue, narration drive police story
Page turners: What you are reading