Do You Have a Toxic Secret?

February 11, 2008
Explore when a secret between a couple is necessary and when it becomes toxic.

Deciding when to share a secret, and when not to, can be confusing for both couples and friends who aren’t sure what telling a secret will mean to the relationship. So two days before Valentine’s Day might be a good time to look at one of the ways we try to protect our relationships by withholding information we don’t think the other person would be able to accept or understand.

Sometimes we do that out of a desire to not hurt the other person. Other times, we don’t share a secret because we feel guilty, foolish, or stupid. Better the other person not know so we won’t have to deal with our guilt and our foolishness. When to tell or not tell?

Some of the best advice on the topic comes from two of my favorite relationship writers, a doctor and nurse couple who are specialists in helping couples heal their marriages and partnerships. Barry and Joyce Vissell are authors of the books you see on this page [click on a cover and you’ll go to] and they write the Shared Heart Foundation newsletter and lead couples workshops throughout the year and in various locations.

In their January, 2008, issue they wrote “Toxic Secrets” that I added to the relationship section of Support4Change under the title Secrets: Toxic or Healthy?.

In discussing when secrets are good or bad for a relationship, the Vissells write:

“Rule of thumb: healthy secrets bring you closer to your loved ones, unhealthy secrets create barriers. Healthy secrets are surprises that bring more love to both you and your loved ones. Unhealthy secrets hide a part of your heart, disguise your vulnerability which denies a gift to your loved one, or prevents your loved one from supporting you. Healthy secrets build relationships, unhealthy secrets destroy relationships.”

They then give a powerful example of a man who “hated Christmas” and just wished it would be over. His wife, however, loved Christmas and his attitude put such a strain on their relationship that the couple came to the Vissells for help. With gentleness they gave him the courage to finally tell the story that was central to his wish to get through the holidays quickly. It seems that his pain stemmed from a day twenty years before in Vietnam when he witnessed the brutal killing of a civilian by an officer. Unable to stop the atrocity at the time and told there was nothing he could do about it later, he buried the incident in his heart all these years. However, with the help of the Vissells, he told his story and was released from a secret that was very toxic indeed.

If you have secrets that are keeping you from having a healthy and strong relationship, I recommend you read their article on toxic secrets. There you will also learn how to get in touch with them and possibly join one of the couples workshops.

The questions I pose today encourage you to explore whether you allow toxic secrets to keep you from building a deeper level of love and connection in your life.

I have decided that from now on (usually, anyway) when I suggest questions you can ask yourself, I will pose them in the first person. That is because I want to be consistent with the philosophy I present in the introduction to Ask Yourself Questions and Change Your Life. There I note that questions we pose to ourselves are more potent than those we are asked by others because “all change comes only from a personal engagement in the process of change. You don’t change because you read about or watch people change their lives. You have to find a way to make a shift within yourself for change to occur in your life.”


Is there a secret I keep because I am afraid someone will think less well of me? What makes me feel the other person would reject me?

Is there something so terrible in my past that I have been reluctant to share it with anyone? Why?

What do I think will happen if my loved one or friend discovers something about me that I’m trying to hide?

Is there a secret I shared that caused another person to leave me or think less of me? Could that have been because I told the story poorly, or was the other person not capable of listening to anything that did not support his or her image of what our relationship should be?

Has anyone told me a secret that proved fatal in our relationship because I could not know that fact and still accept that person? Why?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s