“We live in a culture whose messages about secrecy are truly confounding,” writes Evan Imber-Black in her book The Secret Life of Families. “If cultural norms once made shameful secrets out of too many events in human life, we are now struggling with the reverse: the assumption that telling secrets — no matter how, when, or to whom — is morally superior to keeping them and that it is automatically healing.”
To understand America’s views on secrecy and truth-telling, we need to examine the current definition of intimacy. Modern intimacy is bathed in self-disclosure, the trustful sharing of our most personal and private material — our feelings. From an early age, our best friend is the one to whom we tell our secrets. And since our partner today is assumed to be our best friend, we believe, “I should be able to tell you anything, and I have a right to immediate and constant access to your thoughts and feelings.” This entitlement to know, and the assumption that knowing equals closeness, is a feature of modern love.
Ours is a culture that reveres the ethos of absolute frankness and elevates truth-telling to moral perfection. Other cultures believe that when everything is out in the open and ambiguity is done away with, it may not increase intimacy, but compromise it.
As a cultural hybrid, I practice in many languages. In the realm of communication, many of my American patients prefer explicit meanings, candor, and “plain speech” over opaqueness and allusion. My patients from West Africa, the Philippines, and Belgium are more likely to linger in ambiguity than to opt for stark revelation. They seek detours rather than direct route.
As we consider these contrasts, we also have to take into account the difference between privacy and secrecy. As psychiatrist Stephen Levine explains, privacy is a functional boundary that we agree on by social convention. There are matters that we know exist but choose not to discuss, like menstruation, masturbation, or fantasies. Secrets are matters we will deliberately mislead others about. The same erotic longings and temptations that are private in one couple are a secret in another. In some cultures, infidelity is commonly treated as a private matter (at least for men), but in our culture, it is usually a secret.
It’s almost impossible to discuss cultural differences without taking a moment to observe America’s favorite point of sexual comparison: les Français. Debra Ollivier describes how the French “favor the implicit over the explicit, the subtext over context, discretion over indiscretion, and the hidden over the obvious — in that, they’re exactly the opposite of Americans.” Pamela Druckerman, a journalist who interviewed people around the globe for her book Lust in Translation, expands on how these predilections shape French attitudes about infidelity. “Discretion seems to be the cornerstone of adultery in France,” she writes, noting that many of the people she spoke with seemed to prefer not to tell, and not to know. “French affairs can seem like Cold War conflicts in which neither side ever draws its guns.”
Back at the ranch, the guns are blazing. While Americans have little tolerance for extramarital sex, deception is often condemned more harshly than the transgression it seeks to conceal.
The hiding, more harshly than the transgression it seeks to conceal. The hiding, the dissimulation, and all the tall tales are the main ingredients of the affront and are seen as a fundamental lack of respect. The implication is that we only lie to those beneath us — children, constituents, and employees. Hence, the refrain echoes from private bedrooms to public hearings: “It’s not that you cheated, it’s that you lied to me!” But would we really feel better if our partners gave us advance notice of their indiscretions?
Belgian psychotherapist Esther Perel is the New York Times bestselling author of The State of Affairs and Mating in Captivity. Her celebrated TED talks have garnered nearly 20 million views and she is also the host of the popular Audible original podcast Where Should We Begin? Learn more at EstherPerel.com or by following @EstherPerelOfficial on Instagram.