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The Secret About Secrets

Listen, do you want to hear a secret? Do you promise not to tell?

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Monica Garwood
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“Listen, do you want to hear a secret? Do you promise not to tell?”

Those are the opening lyrics to a famous Beatles love song from 1963. But for some reason those words remind me of being a teenager in the 1980s. I was especially insecure at that time of my life, particularly when it came to friendships. I wondered where I fit in and if my relationships were as close as some of the others in our friend group. This is probably why hearing a friend utter those words would make my ears perk up and my heart race. When you are socially awkward and in constant need of assurance that you are being included, being someone’s confidant feels incredibly validating.

I am not talking about heavy duty secrets here. Nothing dangerous, illegal or health-related that should have been brought to an adult’s attention. It was the age-appropriate, salacious stuff that I reveled in hearing.

As Mary C. Lamia said in a Psychology Today essay, “Secrets are seductive, irresistible, provocative, and exciting. … Deception in the form of having secrets is deeply ingrained in human communication.”

Sharing a secret can create a bond between people. Gail Saltz, M.D., associate professor of psychiatry at the New York-Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine and host of the Personology podcast from iHeartRadio, explains: “The person telling the secret is making themselves vulnerable. They are sharing a part of themselves that they won’t share with everyone. It conveys an element of trust and a willingness to show their authentic selves.”

Hearing a secret, sharing a secret of my own, holding onto someone’s secrets … this was a big part of my closest relationships for many years.

Until one day someone asked me if they could tell me a secret, and instead of immediately wanting to lean in, I instinctively wanted to pull back a little.

Getting older decreased my desire to be a part of a secret-chain. I stopped jonesing to know juicy stuff. I realized, as Lamia explains, “Having someone confide in you can have relational benefits, but it can also be a burden.”

Again, I’m not talking about the fun stuff (like surprise parties) or the scary stuff. I am more than capable and willing to keep secrets that need to be kept for someone’s physical or emotional well-being.

It’s the salacious stuff — the gossip. Just like certain foods, my appetite for those kinds of secrets diminished with age and I couldn’t digest being deceitful for shits and giggles like I once did.

Saltz says, “A particularly salacious secret can be ‘high currency,’ and if you divulge it, you can create a bond with another person.” When I was younger, knowing a secret was adrenaline. I had power and I liked it.

But admittedly, on occasion, I abused that power either accidentally or maliciously. Either way, I hurt people, and I regret that. I also got hurt when people I trusted broke my confidence. Saltz explains, “As much as secrets can create bonds, they can fuel betrayals.”

Secrets can create distance. By agreeing to keep a secret, you agree not to share something with someone else in your life — maybe a spouse or another close friend. I hate having to worry that I’ll accidentally slip up or cause friction in another relationship I value because I kept information from them.

When you are in high school and Sue cheats on Joey, it’s scandalous — but also the stakes are pretty low. Maybe you keep the secret and you can stay up all night, talking with Sue about what she will do next. You feel bad for Joey, but probably not that bad. Odds are they would break up anyway, or someone else is keeping the secret that Joey cheated first.

But as an adult, if someone asks you to keep a secret and spills the dirt on Sue and Joey, the stakes are high. They have kids, in-laws, a mortgage. … If you keep the secret, you feel bad. If you repeat it, that’s wrong, too. Instead of being happy to be in on the secret, you wish you had been left totally out of the loop (and probably that Sue and Joey hadn’t cheated at all because you love them and their kids, and your family barbecues together and now everything is going to be super awkward).

So now if someone asks, “Can you keep a secret?” I don’t get all jittery with excitement. I no longer want to be “in the loop,” because it’s actually nicer and calmer outside of it. If it’s not my business or it’s embarrassing to someone other than the two of us, don’t tell me. But if you need someone to keep your real secrets, a friend you can rely on and confide in, then I am all ears. I don’t think knowing a secret is a power. I’ve learned it’s a privilege.