Liane Moriarty Explores the Secrets in a Marriage
Liane Moriarty’s books are smart and funny and, even though they’re always set in her native Australia, somehow universal. Why is she a rising star? Because she’s smart and funny and, oh yes, so very wise about the little things in life (the complications among mothers, friends, spouses) and the bigger ones (What is guilt? What is responsibility?).
In this exclusive guest essay, Moriarty gives us a quirky look at the marital secrets and the question of ethics in a marriage, which fueled the fictionalized circumstances of her book.
I've always been fascinated by other people's marriages. I secretly observe my married friends, watching for those nonverbal signs of deep affection or deep aggravation. I listen for the intonations of tone in a seemingly innocuous request. I am a terrible voyeur. I'm far more interested in hearing how people stay in love than hearing how they fell in love.
There aren't meant to be secrets between married people. Your partner is theoretically the one person who knows everything worth knowing about you. I guess that's why secrets between husbands and wives are so much more fascinating than secrets between other people.
While writing my last novel, I did a little research into the psychology of keeping secrets. Apparently the brain simply doesn't like keeping them. The neuroscientist David Eagleman explains that secrets create a "neural conflict." One part of the brain is desperate to spill the beans. Another part wants to do the right thing. Researchers have found that carrying a secret is like carrying a physical burden. When people confess or write down their deepest-held secrets, there are measurable decreases in their stress hormone levels.
The husband in my new novel suffers from such a strong desire to share his secret that he writes it down in a letter to his wife. He seals the letter in an envelope, and writes on the front: "To be opened only in the event of my death." Years later, his wife finds the letter—while he's still very much alive. Should she open it? As I was writing the novel, I presented the scenario to my female friends. Some were adamant that they would open such an envelope straightaway. Others were equally adamant that they would respect their husbands' wishes.
But I noticed something interesting. I think they almost liked the thought of their husbands' having a secret. A flash of pleasure would cross their faces. They found the idea disturbing, but also strangely compelling, almost delicious. It made their partners seem new again. Your husband might be betraying you by keeping a secret, but isn't it interesting that he has one and that he can still surprise you?!
That paradox makes secrets within a marriage such a popular topic for novelists to explore.
Of course, once the secret is revealed, the mystery vanishes and you see your partner in the light of what you now know. You're no longer deliciously intrigued. You feel betrayed, you're amused, angry, or shocked, or whatever the implications may be of what you now know.
(Incidentally, keeping a secret was itself part of the challenge for me in writing The Husband's Secret. I had to withhold it for long enough that readers enjoyed the pleasure of not knowing, but then reveal it before they lost patience.)
Readers often ask me what I would do if I found myself in the situation in which I put Cecilia. I'm somewhat ashamed—although not that ashamed—to admit that I would open it immediately. My desire to know would outweigh all ethical considerations.
"I know you'd open it," my husband says with a sigh. "That's why I'd never be so stupid as to write a letter like that in the first place."