Shh, It’s a Secret, So Please Don’t Share

Secrets are just that. They’re supposed to be secret and kept between the sharer and the listener. Period. Nobody else gets to know…or should know.

Maybe, that’s the reason when someone has a secret and they tell someone else, they often preface it with: “I want to tell you something, but can you promise not to tell anyone for any reason?” 

“Of course,” is the typical response. The person who is confiding might add, “This is really private and between us. I don’t want anyone to know” to emphasize the importance of secrecy. It doesn’t hurt to reinforce this sentiment.  

If you’re the listener, you intend to keep it quiet and say nothing. Hopefully, you honor the wish. But we all know cases where we’ve slipped despite our best intentions or others have. You just couldn’t resist sharing it with one person. Just one. The reason? You thought they should know, would want to know, offer a good take on the info. But what gave you the right to break your promise, no matter your reason? 

We consider breaking a confidence a major faux pas and why this is a topic we’ve written about before. We think it’s worth repeating. The reason is that so many times the secret goes well beyond just you and the person you tell, then like a virus, it begins to spread like crazy. Along the way it may mutate or in this case get wildly changed in the course of its travels. Remember the game of telephone?

Sometimes, it gets back to the sharer. They call you upset, “How could you tell my secret?” You apologize profusely, but most likely you’ve lost your right to be trusted and share in other confidential information. 

We appreciate the fact that it’s human nature to find it hard to resist passing along something labeled a secret with others whether it’s happy, sad, troubling or judgmental news. In fact, it can be harder to keep a secret than to tell the truth, except when it might hurt someone.

So how do you keep a secret? You just do. First, it’s not your right to share; second, it’s not impossible to keep the pact if you take to heart the person’s wishes. How would you feel if you were told and swore to secrecy that someone found they have a half-brother and didn’t want anyone to know, learned their parent had committed a crime under a different name, was really a different religion and hadn’t yet digested that news fully or even they had done something terribly wrong—maybe, shoplifted when young? Imagine any scenario.

Fortunately, we both know people who keep their word. Margaret does. That’s why so many have confided in her about their marital, health or financial problems and different kinds of personal concerns. Barbara’s younger daughter offers the same kind of absolute secrecy when anyone shares anything. It’s zipped inside and tougher to unlock than the doors at Fort Knox. A camp friend’s possible move with her family decades ago was a secret daughter No. 2 honored and when Barbara and her then husband learned about the possibility, they were pleasantly surprised that she already knew about the option and had guarded it. 

For many others, a secret becomes a license to go rogue with all sorts of information. It would be far more prudent if someone understands that if they cannot keep their mouths shut, they might say: “I’m not good at keeping confidences so please don’t share, unless it’s essential, and I’ll do my best.” At least there’s a fair warning. Or say, “When you’re ready to share, do so but for now don’t.” 

Another tactic to try to honor a secret is to ask upfront if the sharer would mind your telling so-and-so whom you think should know for whatever reason. Perhaps, that person is someone who would be affected by the information. 

And there are also people who don’t believe in having any secrets at all. One man Barbara dated briefly told her that he believed that secrets create a distance between people, corrode relationships and nothing should ever fall into that category. That includes information that could prove hurtful, he explained. For him there were no exceptions…ever. However, years later, she learned he had lied about important stuff. So, he didn’t keep secrets but didn’t tell the complete truth. Hmmm; topic for another blog.

We take a much more nuanced position about maintaining secrets of any type. A confidence should never be shared unless someone’s life is endangered, no ifs, ands or buts. And then if someone confides they’re suicidal, you speak up to avert a tragedy. Sometimes you also ask if you can share with your partner or spouse since it’s hard to keep secrets from someone you’re with most of the time. 

There are trickier challenges and even an unhealthy component about keeping certain secrets. We are alluding to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” family secrets. Barbara and Margaret have learned through their strong connections with many childhood friends of the dysfunction that lurked in many households—affairs parents had, parents treating sons much more favorably than daughters because back then they were the heirs-apparent, siblings with serious character flaws, parents doing illegal and unethical things, even some going to jail, and so on. Very few talked about such stuff back then. We have learned now that we’re of a certain age that keeping traumatic, painful, or life-changing secrets potentially can damage an entire family's mental health and well-being for years and years. 

However, as adults some have shared many family secrets, sometimes because the parents or parties involved are no longer alive and wouldn’t be hurt now by the information. It also helps us to understand more about our rearing and strategize ways to mitigate the pain. We don’t want to repeat this tactic with our children. Get it out in the open; learn how to deal with it.

One of Barbara’s high school classmates has written about some secrets in her own family in her book, Baffled by Love. Another classmate on a zoom talked about a parent’s affair. The  Zoom group of 10 has taken the position that’s a paraphrase of the slogan created in 2003 by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority: “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” which means in this case no divulging which classmate’s parent had the affair. If the offspring wants to reveal the secret, that’s fine; it’s that person’s secret to share.

Our goal in bringing up this topic is to raise everyone’s consciousness and inspire more thinking and questions.

Is it better for us to confess our secrets or just refuse to be party to someone else’s? So next time someone takes you aside or calls you up and says, “I need to talk about something and would appreciate if you not share,” take a moment to think what you promise before you to start to listen. If you can’t be brutally honest, suggest the conversation ends there. Now that we’re well into the New Year, one of our main mottos continues to be, honor others’ wishes with kindness. Being silent, when asked, follows that rule.



  • Marilyn Ostrow

    If someone tells me a secret, and someone else asks me something relevant to that secret, I say “It’s not my story”. I advise them to discuss it with the person(s) involved.

  • Phyllis Evan

    Interesting and important topic.

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