AI: Secrets, Confidences and the Marriage Bed

Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.

– Benjamin Franklin

I was listening to the latest Savage Love podcast on the way to work this morning and Dan Savage, as always, gave me cause to think.  A woman called in because a friend of hers had confided in her that she was having an affair. The friend had asked the woman not to tell her own husband or her friend’s husband (the two couples were close friends).  As part of the advice he gave, Savage said that one of the most unfair things the friend had done was to ask the woman to keep this secret from her own husband. He said that it’s unfair to tell a person something and expect them to keep it secret from their partner or spouse because healthy relationships mean not keeping any secrets. When you tell one person, you should assume you are also telling their spouse.

What do you think? Do you keep friends’ confidences from your partner? When you tell a friend a secret, do you assume they will tell their partner? When a close friend gets into a serious relationship does that make you re-think whether you can confide in them?


The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 3pm ET.


Maria D'Souza grew up in different countries around the world, including Hong Kong, Trinidad, and Kenya and it shows. She currently lives in the Bay Area and has an unhealthy affection for science fiction, Neil Gaiman and all things Muppet.

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  1. Yes I keep the couple of secrets I know away from my wife. I’m not a person who feels the need to spill secrets. My wife is, which leads to the situation observed in the first sentence.

    A few years ago a very close personal friend confided a secret to my wife. Naturally the first thing my wife did was call me and fill me in.

    Now I’m a party to a secret which would wreck our friends marriage (it’s not an affair). So basically I have to keep my mouth shut whenever we see them.

    My personal opinion is if you have a secret, keep it that way!


  2. Ugh, I hate secrets in general. The friend confides her secret… why? So that others may be burdened with the keeping of it? That’s not buddies At. All.

    I don’t know about other couples, but I don’t worry about telling secrets to my spouse because he’s an extreme introvert who hates talking unless it’s absolutely necessary. But yes, in general I expect my friends to share anything I tell them with their romantic partners.

  3. Hi there!

    My Wifey and I had this discussion early on in our marriage. We’d been watching something about “cybercheating”, and the question of whether having cybersex with someone constituted “cheating” or just “masturbation”. We came to the conclusion that cheating actually has little to do with the sexual acts involved. It’s about the LYING. If I go out to a nice lunch with an attractive co-worker, and then feel that I need to lie to my wife about it, that’s “cheating”, even if nothing sexual happened. That’s not to say that we need to discuss every single thing that we did during the day, but actively trying to deceive our spouse means that, in our own mind, we’re doing something “wrong”.

    Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that I can go out to a hotel room with some sexy acquaintance for some hot steaming olympic gymnastic four-star sex, and then come home and tell my Wifey: “I had such awesome sex with my friend ______ this afternoon! What? I’m not lying about it so it’s not cheating, right??”.

    So, to avoid confusion, we’ve just made a pact to always be honest with each other. The best thing that could have happened to our marriage was giving each other the freedom to say: “Okay, I have to tell you something that might not be what you want to hear, but I think you should know …”. That caveat can cover everything from: “Our mutual friend is cheating on their spouse”, to: “I really didn’t enjoy that noodle salad dish you made for dinner yesterday that you worked so hard on”. It’s just SO much easier being honest with each other.

    Although that might not work for every couple. If you have a very jealous partner, admitting exactly what you’d like to do if you ever got Amy Pond alone in a blue phone booth might not be a good thing. :( But then hey, if your partner gets jealous over little things like THAT, it might be time for a new one anyway! :)

    Where was I? Oh yes. Complete honesty is the way to go. Good for your mental health. [nods]

    — Craig

    1. My husband and I had the same conversation when we first started dating, and we came to the same conclusion.

      Part of the issue is that we were both very young (in our teens) when we started dating. We knew that the statistics were not on our side and, since our personalities were still in development, we would have to make sure that we developed in a compatible direction. So we made a very conscious decision to share pretty much everything about our lives – what we do each day, what we’re thinking, whether or not we like that noodle salad.

  4. I would not expect a partner to tell me all his secrets, and I wouldn’t want a partner who expected me to share all mine with him. Two partners in a marriage will always be individual people. That being said, I would probably spill the secret anyway because I’m terrible at keeping them. All it takes is two drinks, or even just a funny conversation where I let my guard down.

  5. I’m with Savage.

    As a general rule, I don’t have secrets. I realized many years ago that the best way to live my life is to not do anything that I would be ashamed of telling people about, and I’ve pretty much kept to that.

    But when I do have something that I’d rather people not find out (such as if I mess up in some way, or if I think something inappropriate), I make it a point to share with my spouse.

    When asked to keep a secret for someone, I make a point to tell them that I will tell my husband – so they should only tell me if they trust him to keep it too. That’s stopped a few people from telling me secrets which, honestly, is fine by me. Trying to remember what I’m allowed to talk about and what I’m not is far too stressful.

  6. A lot depends on the friendship. Am I friends with the couple, or am I friends with X, and therefore friendly with Y?

    For example, I game with three people; A, B and C. A and B are a couple. C is married, but she doesn’t game with us, and I rarely see her. I’d never tell A or B anything that I didn’t want to get back to the other. I’d reasonably expect them to share things about me.

    C, on the other hand, is my friend, while his wife is not. I’ve no problem with his wife, but I don’t know her very well… aside from the wedding of A&B, I’d be surprised if I’d spent 6 hours in the same room as her for the entirety of our acquaintance. If I told C something in confidence, that did not affect his wife, I’d hope that he’d keep it in confidence from her.

  7. If it affects me or my wife or our lives together (and most everything involving our circle of friends does), then she gets to know everything. The best anyone can expect from me is a slight delay in telling my wife so the other person can have a chance to come clean or address the situation.

  8. I used to be a “good sport” and not tell. However, in my old age I have become increasingly intolerant of people who put me in these morally uncomfortable positions. I have come to despise people who tell me things and then tacitly assume that I will lie for them.

    It is one thing to knowingly enter into a secrecy pact with anotehr, but to have one person drop unsolicited information on another person and then extract an overt or implicit promise to keep it secret is at least rude and more likely contemptable. such people are no friends of mine.

    What would you do if your friend said, “I just planted a bomb downtown. Don’t tell anyone, OK?” Would anyone expect the recipient of such information to be justified in remaining silent because their friend asked them to?

    Your assumption that I will keep your secret is not binding on me.

    You are also assuming that my friendship with you is more important than my friendship with the person who’s spouse you are shtupping. I get to decide that, not you.

  9. I try to make it as clear as possible to other people that telling me means telling my wife. If they have a problem with that, they should keep it to themselves in the first place.

    Part of this was a reaction to the realization that I’d gotten very good at lying during a toxic relationship I was in for several years, where it was my go-to defense mechanism. I realized just how bad that ‘aptitude’ could be if I let it run me, so rather than worry about it, I just make the hard rule that my wife learns everything I think is remotely important, or that she asks about (even if I think she’s asking about something unimportant)–period.

  10. This should be looked at from two perspectives.

    I think couples should be honest with each other about everything, but they should also be able to keep secrets. Just tell your SO that you have secrets. That no, you will not tell him/her about that thing because you want to keep it between you and your friend. You are being completely honest while “remaining an individual” and a trustworthy friend.

    When dealing with other couples you should always take the worst-case scenario when telling secrets. Always assume they’re going to tell the other person. If you’re not cool with that then keep your secret to yourself. You shouldn’t expect your friend to choose between your trust and the openness of his/her relationship to your favour. I’m in the camp of SOs before bros.

  11. Hmmm,

    I don’t normally advocate keeping secrets from one’s spouse, but if the woman who is being cheated on is keeping quiet so she can get a court case together for a divorce, she may have felt pent up and needed to tell someone she felt really close too, but still needs to keep the information as quiet as possible so her husband doesn’t find out she’s trying to get a court action going. In that case, it might be fair to keep it quiet, even from a spouse.

  12. I tend to come down on the other side of this one as well. It’s one thing if a secret directly affects your SO — that is, they are harmed by not knowing. But in general that’s not the case, and then it’s purely a matter of “will everyone be better served by this fact, which is currently not hurting anyone, continuing to not be out in the open?”

    That being said, it’s really not fair to ask one member of a committed partnership to not share important, emotionally affecting information from the other member — or rather, the confidee has the liberty, in my view, to value their partner’s confidence over the secrecy that the friend has requested.

    But to the big questions: yes, just as with any other decision potentially relevant to one’s SO: if they are going to be harmed by it, default to “no”, otherwise I stay away from hard and fast rules.

    1. The thing is that keeping secrets is hard, that is why the first woman told the second, but she then expects no one else to have problems dealing with what she could not. If you are cheating on a partner don’t tell anyone, if you tell someone and expect them to keep it a secret then you are expecting them to do what you can’t.

      So if she needed advice she should have gone somewhere anonymous to ask strangers for it so that it wouldn’t be traced back to her.

      I am not demanding total honesty but when you confide in someone you need to understand that you are asking something that by your act you can’t do. It does not seem likely to be very successful.

  13. i only keep my own personal secrets, it’s to hard to try to remember whats secret from who or why.

  14. I remember this from a discussion with someone who does smuggling:

    “Can you keep a secret?” they asked.

    “So can I.” they said.

    And they did.

    There’s a lot of wisdom to that.

    If you want to keep a secret, then do so.

  15. I’m with what Dan Savage said. You don’t tell someone a thing and then ask them to keep it a secret from their partner.

    My wife and I don’t tell each other quite everything, but that boundary is for the two of us to set. No-one else.

  16. I’ve had a case of the secret I’d rather not have. I have a couple of cousins who are about 5 years younger than I am. They were adopted, and I knew this all along, but they did not. It seemed grossly unfair to me that something so fundamental to them should be known to me but not them, and I greatly resent having been put in the position of needing to keep it a secret. (The reason I knew is that my parents didn’t know initially that it was to be a secret.)

    My cousins know now – they found out in adulthood, but not by their parents (or me) telling them.

  17. Interesting topic. There have been things friends have told me that I haven’t told my wife and probably never will; and that has nothing to do with my relationship with my wife, it’s about that friendship. We have couple friends and I know that my wife and her friend will sometimes talk about their husbands, which is just fine. I don’t need to know what these conversations are about because these two friends deserve the respect and privacy of their own friendship in the same manner I would expect with my friends. I guess I’m having a hard time seeing how a marriage or partner relationship somehow makes you loose your individuality with your respective friends. So while asking someone to keep a secret from your spouse may be impolite or presumptuous in some circumstances, there are certainly times when friends should be able to ask for some privacy when they need to discuss something with a married friend. Keeping someone’s confidence seems a reasonable part of the respect we count on in close friendships, which seems qualitatively different from keeping secrets IMO.

  18. I generally will share everything with my long-term live-in boyfriend. It’s not because I think that’s how it should be; our relationship just is that way. I was just thinking about this fact recently, and thought about how sometimes it might be appropriate for me to warn people about to divulge secrets that they will be letting my boyfriend in on it too, in all likelihood. If someone wants complete confidence, they should go to a therapist or a priest or whatever.

    1. What has *she* told *you* about me? :)

      Seriously though, I decided a long while ago that I’d take responsibility for my own personal thoughts. It may make me much less likely to share confidences that I’m determined to keep private. But, I don’t have to worry that I’m making the person I have a relationship feel uncomfortable by asking them not to share my confidence with their partner (who often I do not have a relationship with).

  19. When asked if I can keep a secret, I have learned the only good answer is No. It’s not even so much that I can’t keep my mouth shut, but that’s just pressure I do not need.
    The rules would be different for a spouse or partner, though. I would expect to keep their secrets and want them to keep a few of mine. Having been married and divorced – I’m not sure I’d take the plunge of telling anybody everything ever again, marriage license or no marriage license. But that may just be me being bitter.

  20. Depends on the secret. I wouldn’t want to know about someone cheating on someone else to begin with, so I’m not sure I’d tell my husband just so he could stew about it as well.

    I certainly have kept really personal information that my ex-bf [disclosure: I’m poly] told me, to myself.

    Oddly, I’ve gotten nudie pics from a friend who assumed I’d share with my husband; just because he trusted me, so therefore he trusted my husband. I hadn’t shared, because I assumed they were sent to me therefore were only for me.

    TL;DR: I do share just about anything with my husband, just not when I think it’s someone else’s really personal information.

  21. @Jacob V: “Keeping someone’s confidence seems a reasonable part of the respect we count on in close friendships, which seems qualitatively different from keeping secrets IMO.”

    The dividing line for me is if the information can have an effect on my wife then I am obligated to tell her. If it has no effect then I wouldn’t tell her anyway because then its just gossip and I hate gossip.

  22. It has been my experience that, more often than not, the secret is told in some clandestine conversation, and then I am asked ..” Oh by the way, don’t tell ANYONE I said that.”
    This is when all bets are off. At that stage it’s up to me to decide. However if I was asked.. ” If I tell you, will you promise not to tell? ”
    Then I must say.. #1 – ” I can’t promise anything for the future.”
    I mean, I could say in 10 yrs time.. #2 – ” I promise I have never told anyone.” To promise, or accept a secret pact not to tell is tantamount to soothsaying or predicting future events. I failed at #1 and succeeded at #2.

  23. What about a confidence, vs. a flat out secret? I understand a secret, something someone doesn’t want explicit people to know about, being difficult and potentially compromising; but what about when you have close friends who confide their personal problems to you?

    It’s not always as easy as saying “Don’t tell secrets.” Having friends means having someone to talk to and empathize with and get advice from.

    In general, if I tell me something personal and it has nothing to do with your partner, should I still assume you might share it with your partner?

    1. Different situations different rules I suppose. I tried to address that situation above, but I guess I’d tell a friend if they asked me to keep a secret that it would depend on the secret and why. I have a friend who’s shared some health problems with me and he asked me not to tell my wife. I was more than fine with that, no one was at risk or endangered and my friend needed my confidence.

  24. “Few friendships would survive if each one knew what his friend says of him behind his back.”
    -Blaise Pascal

    That said, my fiance and I keep very little from each other. Pretty much, if you tell one of us something, the other one knows shortly thereafter. It’s wonderful being able to confide in someone so completely.

  25. Did it ever occur to anyone that maybe that glazed look on the face of whoever they are revealing all their deepest innermost secrets to, means something? It took me a while to catch on, but I think it means “stop talking now”, or less politely, it’s time to STFU. Or maybe it’s just me who has the most boring secrets in the world.

  26. @Buzz Parsec “Or maybe it’s just me who has the most boring secrets in the world.”

    It’s mostly because we already know whether you are wearing underwear or not.

    1. It’s easy to tell. I always follow the dictates of Presidente Esposito and wear my underwear on the outside, and change it every half hour.

  27. My darling wife and I feel the same way as many here do. We don’t keep secrets from one another. It’s not difficult, really. If someone attempts to tell me something in confidence, they should know I may share it with her (but then again, I may not – it may be boring work stuff).

    Once, a boss attempted to tell me and a group of coworkers a “business secret” about a client.
    He began with, “You mustn’t tell anyone, not even your wives”.
    I replied, “I don’t keep things from my wife.”
    They all looked at me like I was crazy. But he amended his stupid condition. It turns out it was actually too boring to share with her, but I did anyway.

  28. I tell my husband everything. There have been one or two things I’ve kept from him regarding work (although I feel it’s kind of stupid, considering his security clearance is about ten steps above mine), but otherwise, he knows everything – all of my secrets, and anything anyone else tells me, and everyone I know should be aware of that, because I tell people. I personally have very few secrets that I won’t share with people, but I find it’s easier to keep less secrets – people have less to use against you if everyone knows all your bad stuff.

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