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The Secrets Couples Keep

Secrets You Must Spill continued...

When confronted with such a big, sudden revelation, it's natural to think, Why didn't you tell me? I'm the one person on earth who is supposed to understand! But the reasons men, in particular, keep secrets like these are multilayered, say the experts. They may, like Karen's husband, want to keep up an appearance of being strong and in control — out of fear that you'll stop loving them if you see them in a different, vulnerable light. They may be loath to deal with the turbulence they know their secret will unleash. And yes, some men may just hope that silence will help them avoid a fight. "Men are wary of women's emotional reactivity and usually shy away from conflicts," says REDBOOK Love Network expert Scott Haltzman, M.D., author of The Secrets of Happily Married Men. "They'll do anything to avoid making a woman furious, though they usually end up making things worse."

Dawn's story is a prime example of a husband's face-saving secret spinning out of control: "A couple of years ago, my husband, Paul, asked me if his friend could borrow our car," says Dawn, a 45-year-old mother of three. "I checked our insurance policy, found that we wouldn't be covered for another driver, and told him no." Paul lent the car anyway, and his friend hit a pedestrian. At first, Paul tried to keep the accident under wraps, dealing with the police report and insurance forms himself. But when the pedestrian decided to sue, Paul had no choice but to go to his wife — a lawyer — for help. "I felt like he had pulled the rug out from under me," says Dawn. She and Paul have been seeing a counselor to deal with the emotional fallout of his deception.

Even when your secret is something that seems minor to you, you must be open with your partner if it's related to a topic he's expressed curiosity or a strong opinion about. "As soon as you get serious with someone, sit down and ask him, 'Is there anything you want to know about me that I haven't told you yet?'" advises REDBOOK Love Network expert Harville Hendrix, Ph.D., author of Getting the Love You Want. It's a clear-the-air strategy even long-term couples can use. And as counterintuitive as this may sound, the more likely your partner is to freak out about your secret, the more important it is that you confess, Hendrix adds, because if the truth about a sensitive subject comes out later, the rupture could be even more serious. Not only does your partner need all of this information to be able to make informed decisions about your life together, he also needs to know that you trust him enough to share it. "If you don't tell your partner about something, then you're really saying he's not wise enough, generous enough, or loving enough to handle it," says Kirshenbaum. "And that can be deeply wounding."

Ilana found herself at a make-or-break moment several months into her relationship with her husband, Kevin. "When we started dating, Kevin made it very clear that he was antiabortion," says Ilana, 29, a mom of two. "Even though I'm pro-choice, I grew up in a very conservative family, and I respected his views. But I was worried about telling him that I had terminated a pregnancy in college. I wasn't going to lie about it, but I certainly wasn't going to offer up the information right away." When it became clear that their relationship was heading toward marriage, though, Kevin asked Ilana point-blank if she'd ever had an abortion. "I told him the truth, and he wasn't thrilled, but he accepted it as part of who I am, and we've never talked about it again," she says. "But it's a good thing I told him then, because a few years later, when I was in the hospital about to give birth to our daughter, every nurse and doctor who walked in to examine me or fill out a form asked how many previous pregnancies I'd had. It would have been horrible if he'd found out my secret while I was in the throes of labor."

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