Unless you’re in counterterrorism, nothing good comes from keeping secrets from those you care about. And believe it or not, a recent and infamous business debacle has a big lesson on the four most dangerous ways we try to hide things—even in our marriages.
For several years, I’ve followed the story of Theranos, the company helmed by media darling Elizabeth Holmes. This twenty-something genius was transforming the medical industry by creating (she claimed) a revolutionary technology that could test for hundreds of diseases and conditions with only a drop of blood. Imagine if a patient who needed to monitor various blood levels could prick a finger and test themselves multiple times a day! Imagine if pharmaceutical trials could catch adverse reactions in a few hours instead of days, or doctors could do on-the-spot analysis. She raised one billion dollars from investors, and the board included big names like George Shulz, Senator Bill Frist, and Henry Kissinger.
Because I do a lot of women’s leadership work, I was excited to see a female CEO leading a startup that was poised to do great things.
Until, we learned, her entire platform was a house of cards about to implode. And it wasn’t because the technology wasn’t a great idea, or even because it couldn’t be achieved in some form eventually. It was because of the oldest temptation in the human race: the temptation to hide and keep secrets instead of being transparent.
The book Bad Blood, written by the Wall Street Journal investigative reporter who first uncovered the fraud, is a cautionary tale in many ways, but for me as a social researcher it is a case study on four secrets that will kill your relationship . . . whether that is a marriage or a business partnership.
Secret #1: You get yourself in a hole – and hide it.
It turns out that Theranos was making great strides, but couldn’t actually analyze most conditions with a pin-prick by the time they were due to roll out their technology. They had sold the concept to Walgreens and Safeway, both of whom spent millions of dollars to create testing centers in their stores. But instead of keeping their partners in the loop and being candid about the delays, Theranos let them think everything was fine. Secretly, Theranos’ leadership decided to use regular commercial analyzers to do the blood analysis while trying frantically to get their device to do what they said it could.
We think we would never do what Theranos did. We would never have that lack of integrity, right? But . . . how many of us have hidden things that affected our partner?
For example, how many of us have ever spent a little too much on our credit cards for Christmas, the kids’ birthday party, or that weekend away with friends—and not told our spouse about it? After all, we tell ourselves, it will only take a few months of extra payments to pay it off. Sure, that means money available for other things is reduced and our spouse doesn’t know that . . . but we’ll fix it.
Here’s the truth: Hiding uncomfortable facts about something that could affect your spouse (or business partner, or boss, or roommate) is committing relational fraud. And it will almost certainly come back to bite you—and them—eventually.
For Theranos, once the deception was made public, things quickly fell apart. Safeway and Walgreens lost their millions, the Theranos investors lost one billion, the Theranos board was disgraced (probably justified since they didn’t insist on proper accountability), the company is now defunct, and a federal grand jury indicted Holmes for fraud. Her trial is coming up.
Secret #2: When you have a chance to confess, you double down on your denials—ignoring that your partner will get doubly hurt
When Theranos’ partners began to have questions, including about the accuracy of the few blood tests that were actually done on their devices, Holmes and her romantic and business partner, Sunny Balwani, repeatedly insisted that all was fine. And multiple patients ended up in the hospital as a result.
It is mortifying to tell those closest to you that you’ve been less than candid. But having them find out the truth the hard way is far, far worse.
After I spoke at a recent woman’s conference, one attendee told me she was deeply shaken when she recently discovered her husband had been talking to an old girlfriend online. Not because he was having an affair (he wasn’t) or because she felt like she was going to lose him (she knew he loved and was committed to her)—but because she had specifically asked and he had several times reassured her that he wasn’t in contact with any prior flames.
When she stumbled across their online communication, it called into question everything she felt she could trust about him. What else was he deceiving her about? Had he really gotten over his teenage pornography problem? Was that bottle of beer in the trash can a sign that he had a drinking issue? Did he have other relationships she didn’t know about? Her husband was ashamed and insisted that he didn’t tell her the truth only because it was no big deal and yet he knew she would think it was.
And yet, his repeated lies made it a big deal. A woman he loves very much is now in pain and suspicious every day. That’s no way to live.
Secret #3: We squash transparency—because we feel like we “should” be able to keep some things private, or because we want no dissent
Holmes and Balwani kept everything private. In their mind, loyalty to the cause meant that their approach, their numbers, and their science could never be questioned. Crucial, irreplaceable, internal scientists, finance gurus and strategists were summarily fired because they tried to ask well-intentioned (and very necessary!) questions about whether a given strategy was the best idea, challenge a particular fact, or bring red flags to the attention of leadership.
Even worse, everything inside the company had to remain siloed; no-one was allowed to talk about or share anything. Even scientists who needed to compare notes with each other to create the technology were not allowed to do so. This group was not allowed to know that that group had a solution to a thorny problem—and most within Theranos were not allowed to know that any problems even existed!
In this culture of intense secrecy, there was zero transparency. And with zero transparency, there is zero accountability to catch small problems before they become big ones. There is also no trust.
Again, we may think we would never be like that. And hopefully we wouldn’t! But here’s a question: Does your spouse have your passwords to all your email, bank, and social media accounts? Would you be okay if they were to randomly pick up your phone and read your text messages or browsing history every now and then? Not out of a suspicious heart (which is a whole other issue that we cannot cover properly here), but out of a simple desire to be let into all of your life?
If your answer is anything other than “yes, of course they can see everything!” then perhaps you have a seed of the same lack of transparency. Don’t let it grow into a dark infection. Confront the temptation to keep some things private from your spouse. If there is something you’ve been hiding (see Secret #1 and #2), make a plan for bringing it into the light soon.
So why do human beings tend toward hiding things, and a lack of transparency, when deep down we know that only healthy transparency will give us the marriage (or often, the business partnership) we’re longing for?
Secret #4: We are fearful—so we want to be in control
Many observers think that some version of the lifesaving, game-changing Theranos technology actually could have been developed in time. And as I read the book, there’s clearly just one reason why it didn’t: Elizabeth Holmes wanted to keep control of everything that was going on. Everyone had to report up to her. And this effort to control was also behind the edict to not share anything with each other.
So the inventors who were working on the credit-card-like device that would hold the blood and its chemical reaction weren’t allowed to talk to the scientists who were trying to make sure that the reactions were correct. The people raising the financial investment weren’t allowed to talk to anyone to understand how the technology worked.
So the concept—and the company—failed, not because it was a bad idea and Elizabeth Holmes knew from the beginning that it was a giant fraud scheme, but simply because she wanted to keep control. And to do that she kept secrets, prohibited internal communication, and decimated transparency.
How often do we derail our relationships that same way? We’re not trying to cause a problem, but we’re trying to protect ourselves—so we don’t tell our spouse everything. We don’t tell our spouse, “Hey, I know you said not to spend anything until payday, but I got some new clothes for the kids anyway. I didn’t want to argue with you, but it’s the beginning of the school year and this is important for them.”
We may not say, “I have to tell you something unfortunate. I got written up at work.”
Instead, we simply avoid having the conversation, thinking the other person doesn’t need to know.
We do this because we worry. Maybe my spouse will harangue me about every little purchase. Maybe my wife will fly off the handle or worry too much if she finds out I got a warning at work. Maybe my spouse, business partner or roommate will leave me (emotionally or physically) if they find out about this personal problem I have. Maybe they’ll get too stressed out; and it isn’t good for their health.
Yes, I’m sure there are a few cases where we can justify silence temporarily. I know of one wife who waited a few days to tell her business-owner husband, who had just had intense triple bypass heart surgery, that his main General Manager had quit with no warning. But those are rare.
The truth is: in most cases, our desire for control and secrecy is usually trying to prevent a problem from happening—but in the end, it usually creates the very problem we’re trying to protect ourselves from.
So what’s the secret to a lack of secrets? Keep the lines of communication open to protect your marriage
When we have the temptation to hide, remember: a lack of transparency is always going to cause more problems than it (temporarily) solves. And it will usually derail something that could have been addressed and solved in a much healthier way. We’ll never know, but it is entirely possible that something beautiful could have been created by Theranos if the transparency had been there.
The story of Elizabeth Holmes and her company, approached in the popular book as a business lesson, really spoke to me about a much bigger lesson: Keep the lines of communication open in your marriage, and even in your business or roommate partnerships. Don’t hide experiences, struggles, decisions, or failures—especially from your spouse. Have the hard conversations. Open up, even when it is hard. Allow questions. Even welcome them.
And if something big has been hidden (an addiction, secret relationship, credit card debt), get help from a pastor, counselor or wise mentor if necessary so that you can reveal and address your secret in a way that honors your spouse and your future together.
Take the risk to create a culture of healthy transparency. In the end, you’ll not only protect but improve the health and happiness of the relationships that matter most.
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Shaunti Feldhahn loves sharing eye-opening information that helps people thrive in life and relationships. She herself started out with a Harvard graduate degree and Wall Street credentials but no clue about life. After an unexpected shift into relationship research for average people like her, she now is a popular speaker and author of best-selling books about men, women and relationships. (Including For Women Only, For Men Only, and the groundbreaking The Good News About Marriage).
Her latest book, Find Rest: A Women’s Devotional for Lasting Peace in Busy Life, focuses on a journey to rest even with life’s constant demands.
Visit www.shaunti.com for more.