Dear Tzippora,

My mother and my grandmother both say that a married woman needs to know how to keep a few secrets. They say that too much honesty is bad for a marriage, and that is why there is so much divorce nowadays. Yet this sounds very old fashioned to me. I feel that spouses should be able to be open with each other, and in a healthy marriage, women should not need to hide things, such as how much they spent on a new handbag. What do you think? Is there such a thing as too much honesty? Do spouses in healthy marriages still have secrets from each other?

A Straight Shooter

Dear Straight Shooter,

Your question is a very interesting and very complicated one. It would make a wonderful topic for a panel discussion. I suspect that as many people as you ask, you would get different opinions.

Let's imagine a scale, with full disclosure on one end and intense secrecy on the other end. Every couple will have their own unique place on the spectrum, and the majority of healthy marriages will fall in the middle range, rather than on either end. Let's look at why this is so.

Full disclosure could actually be very hurtful within a marriage. A woman who tells her spouse that she is concerned that she is no longer beautiful because she is aging does not want to hear that actually he was thinking the same thing. An answer such as "In my eyes, you will always be as beautiful as the day I married you" would actually be better for their relationship than a more "honest" answer such as "You really need to do something about all those wrinkles. Isn't there a cream you could buy or something?"

The Torah itself permits lying in this way for the sake of preserving marital harmony. When the Torah repeats the matriarch Sarah's incredulity at the possibility of having children so late in life, it modifies her answer to prevent causing discomfort to her husband Abraham (Rashi's commentary on Genesis 18:13). This is the precedent for permitting small lies and omissions within a marriage for the sake of keeping peace.

However, keeping secrets which are hurtful and damaging, such as gambling, an obsession with pornography, binge drinking, or other serious issues are entirely inappropriate within a marriage. I believe that the idea that the other spouse would be so hurt if he/she knew does not justify keeping the secret.

It sounds like your mother and grandmother are talking about "innocent secrets," such as your example of the cost of a new handbag. Assuming this really is an "innocent secret," and not a sign of destructive overspending and concealment, the presence of such a secret would not automatically be damaging to a marriage.

However, I would question what the cost of keeping the secret is, versus the benefit gained by keeping it. A woman should ask herself why she feels the need to keep such information secret from her husband.

In the old days, when women were much more financially dependant on their husbands, it is possible that this was one way of evening the score. Nowadays, since women contribute significantly to the family's finances, they are generally more confident about discussing these matters openly.

There is no one formula for marital happiness. However, as a general rule, it is important to remember that not insulting people, especially spouses, usually takes precedence over being completely honest.