Sally was asked to keep her first secret when she was eight years old. Her mother was planning a surprise party for her father, and with her solemn promise to stay silent, Sally was let in on the planning.
The next year, her neighbor and friend, Henry, suggested they play "doctor." Since he was a year older, he took the role as doctor first. She remembers uneasily lying on a grubby towel in his dimly lit garage, as he tapped and probed her body. Then they changed places, and she examined him. When her mother asked if she had fun playing at Henry's house, she nodded her head but gave no further description. While Sally was privately glad that her curiosity about boys' bodies had been satisfied, she felt too ashamed to talk about it.
During her adolescence, Sally and her group of girlfriends shared many secrets. They gossiped about who had a crush on which hunky football player and which girls were having sex. They texted their opinions of their teachers and how gross they thought it was that their parents still "dated."
Then, at 18, Sally began keeping the first biggest secret of her life. She was date raped on her graduation night. Sally felt so ugly and tainted. Her body ached, but her spirit hurt worse. She felt small and confused. She thought no one would believe her. And so she stayed silent.At 25, Sally married Chuck, a nice, hardworking guy, who treated her well and shared her dream of a nice house and two children. By thirty, their dream was fulfilled, and Sally knew she should be happy and content. Instead, she felt restless, empty and unfilled. As was her habit, she remained silent.
Then, Sally met Zeke, and they innocently began talking. The attention made Sally feel alive again. Soon they were meeting for lunch and for drives in the country. Sally knew they were having an emotional affair, and she felt dirty and ashamed, but Zeke's compliments nourished her emptiness. She wanted to tell her husband how unfulfilled she felt in their marriage or to confide to her mother or a girlfriend how alive she felt when she was with Zeke, but this secret needed to be kept.
Social psychologists believe that women hold secrets for several reasons. The first is to be obedient. Sally’s mother told her not to tell her father about the surprise party, and she was expected to obey her mother and comply.
A second reason women hold secrets is to cover feelings of shame and/or guilt. Social mores or norms set standards which are expected to be followed. Going outside of them creates finger-pointing and accusations. Many girls who participate in childhood sexual experimentation as well as many women who are victims of sexual abuse or rape are blamed instead of the perpetrators. Their families ostracize them or make fun of them, and they maintain these secrets to protect themselves from further accusation. This feeds into the third reason secrets are kept.
Sharing comments and actions together creates secret pacts that allow girls and women to have a sense of belonging. If Sally’s adolescent girlfriends found out she had broken their confidences, they would no longer be her friends. Because fitting in with this group of girls was important to Sally, she kept mum about the targets of their gossip.
A fourth reason women and girls stay silent is because of fear. Girls and women, especially in abuse situations, are threatened by the perpetrator. They are told that if they tell anyone about the abuse, it will result in further harm or death to her or to members of her family, pets or friends.
Lastly, women keep secrets to maintain status quo. They are taught that "rocking the boat" is wrong. They come believe that their lives should be lived certain ways and that others must never see anything short of perfection. As a result, many women live empty or secret lives as their way of keep others - especially their husbands or partners - happy.
If you are reading this blog and having strong feelings about the secrets you are keeping, you may want to speak with a trusted health care professional or a psychotherapist. They follow rules about maintaining confidentiality and can give helpful guidance. Consider making an appointment. Life is too precious to be lived in shame and fear.