Keeping secrets in couple counseling is a controversial topic. One of the things that clients wonder when they begin therapy for their marriage or relationship is if the therapist will keep the secrets of one partner from the other partner. If you were a therapist would you keep a partner’s secret? If you chose not to keep that secret, what would you do? I want to tell you upfront, that I discuss secrets with my couples in the first session so they know what I will and will not keep from their partner. It’s never a surprise to them after the fact.
Different Schools of Thought on Secret Keeping in Couple Counseling
There are many schools of thought on therapists keeping the confidences of one partner from the other in relationship counseling. Some therapists believe that if they should keep secrets for clients. They believe that the client’s will not be able to give them the information that they need unless they are willing to keep those secrets. They believe it is ethically wrong to disclose these secrets to partners.
On the other side of the debate are the therapists who believe you should never keep a client’s secrets. They feel that it is doing the couple a disservice, and harmful to the relationship. Many of these therapists believe it is unethical to keep a secret as This limit’s one client’s ability to choose. Don’t you love it that ethics can be used by both sides of the argument?
Do I Keep Client Secrets?
For me, this question is not black and white. There are some secrets I will keep, and others I do not. Let me explain. If there is a secret that I feel is a relationship secret, then I will not keep that secret.
Client Secrets I Will Keep
One type of client secret I will keep is if the client is being abused. Often, if the abused spouse tells someone outside of the relationship about the abuse it puts them in danger. Telling this secret could put the client in danger and remove their ability to get help for the abuse.
Another type of secret that I may keep is that of past childhood trauma that the client has endured. The reason for this, is that the client may not be able to tell their partner about the trauma without getting some therapeutic help for the trauma first. In this case, I would encourage the client to get individual therapy for the trauma and discuss with them how they would know when they are able to tell their partner about the abuse and how much to tell.
Client Secrets I Will Not Keep
Emotional or Physical Affairs
The primary secret I see in couple therapy is an emotional or physical affair. The affair may be ongoing, or it may be over, but the client does not want to tell their partner about it. This is a secret I will not keep, and for good reason. In the case of an ongoing affair, couple counseling cannot be successful. If a partner is having an affair (not talking polyamory here) then they are not completely committed to their current relationship.
I also will not keep a prior affair secret, even if it is over. An affair is part of the damage to a relationship. There is healing that needs to happen on both sides. Without discussing the affair in therapy, the damage will remain. It’s also more likely that another affair will happen if it is not disclosed. Finally, much of the time, the partner that was cheated on suspects an affair has happened. Not disclosing the affair is similar to gaslighting the betrayed partner. Especially if they have asked about their partner’s faithfulness and been told that there has never been an affair.
Problems with Addiction
Another secret I will not keep is a problem with addiction. Addictions, whether to drugs, alcohol, gambling, porn or anything else, come first in a person’s life. It is just the nature of addiction. In order for the addict to get help, they need to come clean with their partner about the addiction. If they do not want help with their addiction, then the partner has the right to know what they are dealing with and who they are committing to.
I handle other secrets on a case-by-case basis. My general rule is that if it will affect the relationship and the partner’s ability to choose, then it should be disclosed. However, some secrets are benign. For instance, I’m not going to tell a client what his or her partner is buying them for their birthday.
How Does A Client Know If A Secret Is Safe to Tell Me?
First off, I have stated rules around secret keeping that I discuss with my clients in the first session. I also put these in writing in the paperwork they sign before we start therapy. If a client has a secret that they are unsure I will keep, I suggest they do not tell me.
What Do I Do When A Client Tells Me A Secret?
If a client tells me they have a secret, before they tell me, I go over my rules for secret keeping with them. That way they understand what will happen if they tell me. However, when a client tells me a secret that I feel their partner should know, I don’t just blurt it out in our next joint session. First, I will explain to the client the reason I think their partner needs to know their secret. We discuss the benefits, and the likely consequences. If the client chooses to keep their secret, and not tell their partner, we will terminate therapy, and I will refer them to another counselor. The usual reason given for this is “poor fit” or Partner A and I just don’t seem to be gelling very well. Sometimes the partner with a secret will want to tell the spouse themselves that they’d prefer another therapist.
If the partner chooses to tell their secret, we discuss how to do this in a way that is least harmful to the relationship. Going out and telling your partner, “I had an affair and the therapist says I need to tell you,” would likely do more harm than good. We will discuss how to tell the partner, the words to use, and if the secret should be disclosed in session or at home. We discuss the likely fallout of telling the secret and prepare them for the partner’s reaction. We also discuss how to heal the relationship after the secret is out in the open.
The After Effects of Secrets
Sometimes the aftereffects of telling a secret are positive. For instance, if a partner has experienced some form of abuse as a child, the telling often improves the relationship. It is often helpful for the partner to know that the client is reacting to the events of their childhood, and not to anything the partner has said or done. Telling about an affair can allow the problems that led to the affair to be worked on and healed. It can also lead to a couple becoming closer in the long run. It is likely that the client will feel better living without the shame or guilt of the secret. Once that stress of keeping the secret is removed, their behavior toward their partner may change naturally to something that is more healing for both parties.
Sometimes, however, telling a secret further harms a relationship. When a client tells about an addiction that they’ve been hiding for many years, the partner may be more upset about the lying that it took to hide the addiction than about the addiction itself. At other times, the partner is unwilling to do the work that it takes to repair the relationship after a secret has been disclosed. There are also times that the client, after having their secret told realizes they were staying in the relationship for the wrong reasons. They were there because of a sense of shame or guilt about the secret. Once the shame or guilt is no longer there, they no longer feel the need to “bend over backward” to keep their partner happy and how they interact in the relationship changes.
I hope this discussion on secret keeping has been helpful for you. I encourage you to ask your therapist his or her policy on secret keeping in couple counseling. I would also like to encourage you to keep as few secrets from your partner as you can. If you have a secret and would like help telling your partner about it, I’m here to help. We can work out a plan to tell your partner and to deal with the fallout of the secret. You might just find that you feel better after telling your secret. At the very least, you will not have to worry about the stress of being found out.