Often, when someone has a secret to share, it’s prefaced with: “I must tell you something, but can you promise not to tell anyone?”
“Of course,” is the typical offhanded response. And the person who is confiding might add, “This is really private. I don’t want anyone to know” to emphasize the importance of secrecy.
You listen and intend to keep it quiet. And maybe you honor their wish. Or, maybe you slip. You just couldn’t resist sharing it with one person. Is it the recipient’s right to take that information and do what they want with it? The problem is that many times the secret goes well beyond just one person and then, like a virus, begins to spread.
Sometimes, it gets back to the sharer. She calls 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 know that it’s human nature to find it hard to resist passing along something labeled top secret with others whether it’s happy, sad, troubling or judgmental. 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, well, 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.
In fact, 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. And 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.
But 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.
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 or a spouse or partner from whom you don’t like to withhold information.
And there are also people who don’t believe in having any secrets at all. One man Barbara dated told her 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.
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 there are less life-threatening matters. When Barbara first told Margaret that her husband of then 29 years was leaving, she asked her to say nothing. She never did even when those prying asked her because they knew she would know the scoop. “I don’t know anything” was her standard reply, and she would quickly change the subject. The white lie honored Barbara’s wishes. And she knew soon enough the information would become public, but Margaret had honored the expression: mum was the word.
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 things and going to jail, and so on. Very few talked about such stuff back then. But 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 we have shared these 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. 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 outstanding book, Baffled by Love.
But what about family secrets that are viewed differently by different members. Some autobiographies divulge secrets about parents or other relatives that cast a bad light, which all may not agree with. How should these be handled? Should those still living have a vote?
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. It’s just the right thing to do.