Keeping Secrets


cartoon_ear_whisper-783886Keeping secrets can do enormous damage in a marriage or, for that matter, any personal relationship.  The cost of keeping secrets is one of the key themes I explore in my novel, A Fitting Place.

It is a subject I know well. 

Over the years of my marriage, there were a thousand times I chose not to share my ideas with my husband. Sometimes it was as trivial as my desire to stop for lunch when I thought he wanted to keep driving.  Sometimes it was more substantive … the kind of house I wanted to live in, or the kinds of food I preferred to eat. Sometimes it was an awkward subject … what I wanted from him by way of emotional support or sexual gratification.

As with more conventional secrets (e.g., an adulterous affair, an addiction), my unwillingness to reveal myself was driven by a fear of what he would think.  Beneath that fear was a belief, instilled by a hypercritical mother, that how I felt and what I wanted was silly or childish or immature.

As too often happens, I carried this relationship with my mother into my marriage, projecting her scornful attitude onto my husband. It was not long before I started to read every difference of opinion as criticism, to live in fear that he “wouldn’t love me” if he knew that … [you can fill in the blanks].

To avoid the criticism and scorn I imagined he felt, I let him make most of “our” decisions and articulate most of “our” opinions.  Day by day, I drifted farther away from the thoughtful, interesting and often opinionated woman he’d once wanted to marry. By the time we left for the journey recounted in Sailing Down the Moonbeam, I had become a cipher, an empty shell in the role of a wife.

And, of course, I blamed him for being controlling.

Our divorce, when it came, was all the more painful because I was in a foreign country where I knew no one and I had no support systems.  But it also meant that, for the first time in my life, I had no one to tell me what I should think or what I should want or what I should do … no one to tell me that I was silly or stupid or childish.  

At age 45, I finally stopped keeping secrets. I finally took control of and responsibility for my own life. The world has been a much better place ever since.

Are you a keeper of secrets? Have you been a keeper of secrets in the past? How did affect your relationships?


This blog continues the discussion on themes in my novel.  I welcome comments and guest blogs from my readers based on their own experiences.  Let me know if you’d like to do a guest blog on one or more of the issues relevant to A Fitting Place




  1. Thanks for the provocative question Mary. I appreciate the opportunity for a review of my thoughts on this matter. I guess I see it in layers. As a friend said to me a few decades ago when our children were teens, “You have to pick your battles. Learn to sort what matters from what doesn’t.” I don’t necessarily see the decision not to voice a thought or preference as keeping a secret so much as expediency. Sometimes it really DOESN’T matter and negotiating the slightest thing becomes tedious. On the other hand, if you always defer, yes, you become an empty shell. Awareness, balance, and knowing when it matters seem keys to managing this process of appropriate, healthy disclosure.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Sharon … you are right that there are many layers … and there are times when keeping a secret is exactly the right thing to do (e.g., my blog on honesty in friendship). I think it depends on the motivation. If it’s fear, it’s probably not a good thing. If it’s sympathy or concern, it’s more likely to be a good thing, but even that has its limitations.

  2. Sarah Fluharty says

    I have always been interested in the selves we reveal to others. I think some people have a very solid, consistent personality with any number of different facets, and others are much more fragmented and lack congruency. (I’m thinking of the kind of person that is one way with certain people, and different with others.)

    I think keeping secrets is a very personal matter. It all depends on our level of trust with someone, our experience with trusting people in the past, the situation, and what can be gained from the disclosure. When we keep secrets we are trying to protect ourselves, and the fear is telling us something. It might be irrational and it might not. Revealing secrets does not necessarily mean everything will turn out for the best. It doesn’t mean it won’t, either, so I believe a certain balance is necessary. It’s all about context.

    Some level of intimacy is required for all human relationships, so I think it is important to tell SOME of our secrets. But all? I don’t think anyone ever reveals everything. And I don’t think it is necessary. I think we can still take responsibility for ourselves and have control and still keep secrets.

  3. Rhonda Rae Baker says


    This is a beautiful post…so many things I relate to. I was one who let him make the decisions as well…it was a toxic relationship from the beginning, no wonder. Thank you for sharing all of this…I really need to download your memoir and get to it! Your writing is so beautiful…thank you for sharing!


  4. Hi Mary, Yeah, I kept my adoption a secret from anyone I could for years. I was only in my 20s when I came to terms with it and knew I had too long to live to deal with that. I like what Sharon said too…You do have to pick your battles. “Do you like this purse?”….Not a huge battle about how much of my opinion to share. When it is your happiness, safety and wellness, you have to own it. Great topic! P.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Thanks, Paige. I know that adoption can be a very painful issue to come to terms with. I often the extent to which adoptees project their own sense of abandonment on to the world … that they expect every to react as they imagined their birth mother did. It must come as a huge relief to let go of that secret … and then a delight to discover that most of the world loves you anyway!

  5. I had never considered the act of simply not telling someone where I preferred to eat dinner when they wanted to eat somewhere else to be keeping a secret. But I can see how not sharing even low level info like that can diminish the value of our own desires and keep the other person from knowing the real us. There are, indeed, many levels of secrets!

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Carol … you’re right about the consequences of not sharing. The things you fear, not matter how trivial, take on much more importance in your own mind than they probably have in reality, and you soon become paralyzed. The loss of intimacy is not just in the “not-telling,” but in the view that you have nothing worth sharing.

  6. Mary Van Heukelom says

    Communicating one’s needs in a relationship that is intended for a monogamy “until death do you part” is vital. I have discoverd however, how and when we choose to share our needs is just as critical as expressing it. I too agree, with other readers, that one must “pick a battle” or decide what issues are negotiable and ones we will not enable a form of passive aggressive control.

    Simply, most people want to feel respected and validated for their opinions.. it isn’t about always getting what you want, but knowing a person cares enough to listen and attempt understanding.

    Some relationships, as friends or companions, have such a deep level of trust and security that discourse and different opinions won’t ruffle their foundation.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Mary … I agree with your point (and others) about “picking your battles,” although I see it more in relation to balancing mutual needs than in sharing secrets. Revealing a secret you know will be cause damage or hurt to the other person (as opposed to damage to the secret keeper) doesn’t seem to me to be about honesty, but about “passive aggressive control.”

      Not a good thing … with or without secrets!

  7. Mary Gottschalk says

    Sarah … thanks for the perspective.

    I agree that it’s not necessary to tell all, all the time. But I have been struck, from my own experience as well as others, how many people hold on to secrets for the wrong reasons … because they are afraid of what others will think, or because they don’t trust their friends to accept or understand. And those secrets can impose a cost in terms of loss of intimacy and unnecessary stress.

  8. zullay pichardo says

    I heard a friend once say that b/c she was too nice, she attracted those who could easily control her. The same thing happened with me and in different types of relationships even at work until I finally realized how I had to change. However it is great to discover this. For one, you can start anew and secondly, and most importantly, you can start with someone who really deserves our friendship, companion (or service if is work related). I find that we are constantly changing so instead of regretting what I use to once regret, I find this as an opportunity to be with the person I’m meant to be with. I also think that if, let’s say, we did things differently, what is to say we would still be in that relationship? We might realize we don’t want to be with a person who is so controlling anyway…. and so we shouldn’t always blame ourselves.

    I’ve been in a position where it takes me a long time to get over someone, but b/c there was so much I still had to learn. Once I did learn it, I realized that the person I once claimed to love and could not get over for years, is the person who was no longer my type! I think is human to be hard on ourselves, especially when we are responsible adults who try to nourish relationships and other things that matter to us, but sometimes is simply not our fault. Sometimes things happen so that there can be a reawakening. And that’s definitely a blessing!

  9. Secrets can be a major symptom of abuse. No one wants to put themselves at further risk by admitting there is a problem. We are dealing with this currently with an elderly relative. She is determined to be “good” and not say anything else to complain because to voice her opinion has cost her the one aid she trusted (the aide was reassigned), she has been denied help with her hearing aids after they were broken and a friend of hers (not the family) complained which leaves her nearly deaf and unable to hear any alarms, and she has been told by the head nurse to “straighten up”. I’m guessing for someone who is in their 90’s, that she will continue to keep secrets so the subtle method of punishment does not escalate. I am truly frightened for her well-being. It is only a matter of time before she falls or worse. If we act to resolve the issue and move her, it could further complicate her current failing health and make matters even more difficult for her. The secrets are her only defense today as we struggle with the problems that finally became clear to the family this week. I understand abuse. My abuser was one of the richest men in town. Who would have believed me or dared to intervene to protect me? Sometimes the secrets are truly as basic as the simple instinct to survive one more day.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Peggy. Thanks for such a thoughtful comment.

      I completely understand your perspective on keeping secrets as a survival tool. For your aunt, it seems tragically to be a current survival tool. For many of us, including myself, however, the survival tools that worked in our youth are highly counterproductive as adults … too much energy goes into keeping secrets, and there is an unnecessary loss of intimacy.

  10. zullay pichardo says

    wow I realize how big of a problem abusive relationships are. And b/c many victims are embarrassed to admit it, it goes hidden in the eyes of the people surrounding them. My first relationship was an abusive relationship and I didn’t even know I was in one! until I went to college and I saw ads in a counselor’s office describing what an abusive relationship looks like. To my surprise, after already leaving the relationship a months back, I just realized I was in a abusive relationship but it had to take me a 3 hour bus ride away from home in order to run away from it. And I remember my high school counselor who didn’t know I was in one, knew something was wrong with me and even asked in her office if I wanted to talk about anything. I told her everything was fine because I was trained not to complain and that there are bigger problems in the world. This is where adults go wrong: if they want to guide the youth, they have to stop thinking that the youth are only constantly complaining for no reason at all. Adults have to stop thinking that b/c the youth is young, they have no problems like adults do. Always going about it this way can lead to this type of situation. Thank God I was able to eventually survive that trauma. Peggy it seems to me like you should report this to an authority. This sounds like malpractice. Don’t be afraid to stand up to yourself and your loved ones. I wish you and your family well.

  11. Thank you Mary.for this subject. I’d love to be a guest blogger. I have kept secrets through all of my relationships. I am now 54. Now that I’m writing my first Memoir I feel ready to expose them all. Scary but exciting. I will finally be stepping out in my truth!?

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Michelle …. thanks for the offer of a blog … I will contact you directly by email.