Should every secret be revealed? Is it always a good thing to tell the truth? Can it really be so wrong to simply keep quiet about certain things? According to a number of authorities, everyone has an inalienable right to an inner world all their own.
We now live in a culture of confession, in which we all shout our disclosures ever louder. Since the 1970s, everyone has felt compelled to tell each other everything. The media eggs us on, the more shocking the revelation the better. In every realm—from therapy to business—transparency and authenticity are the ideals. But what if we learned to control ourselves a little. What if, for once, we didn’t say anything?
Words are weapons, writes the French magazine Psychologies (October 2004) in an elaborate essay on the subject. A weapon we must learn to use cautiously. After all, confessing a secret can be liberating, or devastating. Telling someone the truth can stimulate or intimidate. Total openness between partners doesn’t necessarily lead to better connection. And certain sensitive information is like pregnancy: you’re better off waiting awhile before bringing it into the world.
“Everyone has the right to his own secret garden,” according to Marthe Marandola and Geneviève Lefebvre-Decaudin, who co-authored L’Intimité, ou comment être vrai avec soi et les autres, a French book about intimacy. “Telling all to another and wanting to know everything in return is a kind of inquisition, a type of mental dictatorship. And in fact it’s impossible, because we don’t know all our shadow sides.” There is such a thing as skeletons in your closet, evil old secrets that render real warmth and closeness between partners impossible, the authors note, and they should definitely be cleared away. But everyone also has an inalienable right to an inner world apart from anyone else.
Truth can be a particularly touchy matter in marriage and relationships. At the beginning of a relationship, for instance, it’s better not to get into too much detail about past relationships, particularly when it comes to your sex life. And in the case of adultery it’s not always best to confess. Indeed, in any situation when you feel a great urge to tell all to your partner—in gory detail—you should ask yourself why you’re so eager to spill your guts. First talk to someone else in an effort to explore your own subconscious motives. There are also a number of taboos that it’s still wise not to violate, such as criticizing your partner’s family members. And frank discussions when others are present is a justified taboo, since it can be very humiliating to your partner.
“Concern with our ability to communicate harmoniously is a relatively recent phenomenon,” says psychiatrist Pierre Angel in the same issue of Psychologies. “That concern goes hand in hand with a new value: that of the love connection that forms the basis of marriage and family. In 1968 we stopped rearing our children by teaching them discipline, but instead to develop their personalities. It has only been since that time that we started exchanging emotions, doubts and intimacies.”
No wonder we’re not very good at it yet and sometimes go too far in our frankness. But we’re becoming aware of what definitely does not work in sharing feelings. Mothers who confide in their children about their own sex life, for example, or fathers that make sexual jokes about their daughters, couples who criticize each other in front of their children—these are a disaster for the kids’ development, according to Angel.
And it isn’t getting any easier now that there are so many different types of family structures: single-parent families, blended families, gay and lesbian families. Angel believes we are in the throes of a mass-scale experiment into the limits of communication. Family secrets are less prevalent than they once were, but they haven’t disappeared entirely. And, according to Angel, it is sometimes better to keep the secret. “I doubt whether someone, even an adult, is always the wiser if he discovers his mother was a prostitute or his father a killer,” he says.
Timing is crucial. The shorter the time between the hearing and telling of a secret, the greater the danger that what is revealed will not be healing but rather destructive. In his book Un secret (A secret), psychoanalyst Philippe Grimbert talks about a family secret that overshadowed his youth. It took him many years before he considered himself able to discuss the secret with his parents and other family members. Those years were well spent: “I distanced myself from my own story and only then could I speak of it clearly. The secret that had weighed so heavily on me for so long had turned into a strength.”
Our natural urge to gossip also drives the trend to disclosing any and all truths. “People who always have some bit of gossip to spread are often afraid they don’t amount to much, that they don’t fit in and aren’t in the loop,” Grimbert believes. If you’re on the verge of gossiping, you might ask yourself who is benefiting from it, you or someone else?
The authors writing in Psychologies are not advocating a return to silence for reasons of decorum or propriety. And they make it clear that children have a right to information if there are problems in the family—if a parent loses his or her job, if the parents plan to divorce or if one parent is seriously ill. Yet here too, it is best not to reveal too much. The most important function of the information is to reassure the children as much as possible and to remove any feeling they might have that they are responsible for the problems.
But a child who continues to ask questions out of curiosity doesn’t necessarily need an elaborate answer to every question. You can say: “These are our problems; adult problems.” Or: “I don’t want to talk about this, it’s my private life.” This gives your child a good example: he or she also has the right to a private psychological space and to ask others to respect it.
In fact the bottom line on telling the truth is a variation on the well-known prayer: give me the strength to say what must be said, to be silent about what is better left unsaid—and give me the wisdom to recognize the difference.