Family Secrets: Keeping the Trust, but at What Cost?

Reviewed Aug 26, 2015

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Summary

As long as there are families there will be family secrets. Addressing them with integrity is not always easy, but is always right.

There is something about human nature that makes us love to be in on secrets. Learning a juicy tidbit about a scandalous incident involving a friend or family member quite often has the perverse effect of elevating our sense of importance and creating the illusion that we are members of an exclusive club. The trouble is—along with trusted information comes enormous responsibility. Family secrets are really a double-edged sword. Keeping a confidence may protect an individual relationship, but it can also create heartache or harm for others. Divulging a family secret can be seen as the ultimate betrayal, resulting in irrevocable damage to the relationship. 

“I want to tell you a secret, but you have to promise not to tell anyone.”

Perhaps the best way to avoid the dilemma of family secrets is to refuse to hear them. When someone asks you to “promise not to tell anyone,” you are more than likely being manipulated. Here are several responses to consider when faced with this dilemma:

1.   “Sorry—I can’t make that promise.”
This will either end the conversation or encourage the other party to tell you more about the nature of the disclosure. The more information you have, the better.

2.  “Who or what is this about?”
This may give you a little more detail about the secret and help discern whether or not you want to hear confidential information.

3.   “Why do you want me to know this secret?”
This strategy goes right to the motivation of the other party. If it’s simply gossip, then your participation serves no positive purpose. Sometimes there is a specific reason, such as the other party needs help or guidance in dealing with a particular problem or person.

4.   “Why do you think I can help?”
This question may help you assess whether or not you are in a position to contribute anything meaningful if there is a problem. It’s horrible to know something dreadful about a situation and find you are powerless to help.

5.   “What would happen if I failed to keep the secret?”
If you are leaning toward hearing something secret, it’s smart to ask about the consequence of breaking the trust. This will make the other party think hard about divulging a secret. If they perceive that the risk outweighs the reward, they may decide that reticence is the best policy.  

What if I am already struggling to keep a family secret?

Depending on the nature of the secret, you must consider the cost and the benefits of keeping it to yourself or bringing others in to help.

The following illustration may clarify this:

Jessica comes home from college for Christmas vacation. The next morning Tammy, her 16-year old sister, observes her in the bathroom throwing up her food after breakfast. Jessica confides in Tammy that she is only doing this to lose a couple more pounds and makes Tammy promise not to tell anyone. Tammy, who is shocked and surprised, reluctantly agrees. The following spring Tammy visits Jessica at school and finds that her sister has continued this harmful behavior. Tammy is now worried about her sister’s health. Jessica reminds Tammy of her promise and warns Tammy that she will never trust her again if she tells anyone.

Tammy is in a tough spot. The short-term consequences of breaking this trust are disastrous; however, the long-term consequences of not telling are even worse. Tammy is in a lose-lose situation. She lacks the expertise to help her sister with her problem and because of her promise she cannot engage the help of others.

Stepping back and assessing the short- and long-term consequences of keeping or breaking a confidence helps put things in perspective. In this illustration, the only way Tammy can help her sister is by breaking her promise and telling her parents who are in the best position to help their daughter.

As long as there are families there will be family secrets. Addressing them with integrity is not always easy, but is always right.

By Drew Edwards, PhD

Summary

As long as there are families there will be family secrets. Addressing them with integrity is not always easy, but is always right.

There is something about human nature that makes us love to be in on secrets. Learning a juicy tidbit about a scandalous incident involving a friend or family member quite often has the perverse effect of elevating our sense of importance and creating the illusion that we are members of an exclusive club. The trouble is—along with trusted information comes enormous responsibility. Family secrets are really a double-edged sword. Keeping a confidence may protect an individual relationship, but it can also create heartache or harm for others. Divulging a family secret can be seen as the ultimate betrayal, resulting in irrevocable damage to the relationship. 

“I want to tell you a secret, but you have to promise not to tell anyone.”

Perhaps the best way to avoid the dilemma of family secrets is to refuse to hear them. When someone asks you to “promise not to tell anyone,” you are more than likely being manipulated. Here are several responses to consider when faced with this dilemma:

1.   “Sorry—I can’t make that promise.”
This will either end the conversation or encourage the other party to tell you more about the nature of the disclosure. The more information you have, the better.

2.  “Who or what is this about?”
This may give you a little more detail about the secret and help discern whether or not you want to hear confidential information.

3.   “Why do you want me to know this secret?”
This strategy goes right to the motivation of the other party. If it’s simply gossip, then your participation serves no positive purpose. Sometimes there is a specific reason, such as the other party needs help or guidance in dealing with a particular problem or person.

4.   “Why do you think I can help?”
This question may help you assess whether or not you are in a position to contribute anything meaningful if there is a problem. It’s horrible to know something dreadful about a situation and find you are powerless to help.

5.   “What would happen if I failed to keep the secret?”
If you are leaning toward hearing something secret, it’s smart to ask about the consequence of breaking the trust. This will make the other party think hard about divulging a secret. If they perceive that the risk outweighs the reward, they may decide that reticence is the best policy.  

What if I am already struggling to keep a family secret?

Depending on the nature of the secret, you must consider the cost and the benefits of keeping it to yourself or bringing others in to help.

The following illustration may clarify this:

Jessica comes home from college for Christmas vacation. The next morning Tammy, her 16-year old sister, observes her in the bathroom throwing up her food after breakfast. Jessica confides in Tammy that she is only doing this to lose a couple more pounds and makes Tammy promise not to tell anyone. Tammy, who is shocked and surprised, reluctantly agrees. The following spring Tammy visits Jessica at school and finds that her sister has continued this harmful behavior. Tammy is now worried about her sister’s health. Jessica reminds Tammy of her promise and warns Tammy that she will never trust her again if she tells anyone.

Tammy is in a tough spot. The short-term consequences of breaking this trust are disastrous; however, the long-term consequences of not telling are even worse. Tammy is in a lose-lose situation. She lacks the expertise to help her sister with her problem and because of her promise she cannot engage the help of others.

Stepping back and assessing the short- and long-term consequences of keeping or breaking a confidence helps put things in perspective. In this illustration, the only way Tammy can help her sister is by breaking her promise and telling her parents who are in the best position to help their daughter.

As long as there are families there will be family secrets. Addressing them with integrity is not always easy, but is always right.

By Drew Edwards, PhD

Summary

As long as there are families there will be family secrets. Addressing them with integrity is not always easy, but is always right.

There is something about human nature that makes us love to be in on secrets. Learning a juicy tidbit about a scandalous incident involving a friend or family member quite often has the perverse effect of elevating our sense of importance and creating the illusion that we are members of an exclusive club. The trouble is—along with trusted information comes enormous responsibility. Family secrets are really a double-edged sword. Keeping a confidence may protect an individual relationship, but it can also create heartache or harm for others. Divulging a family secret can be seen as the ultimate betrayal, resulting in irrevocable damage to the relationship. 

“I want to tell you a secret, but you have to promise not to tell anyone.”

Perhaps the best way to avoid the dilemma of family secrets is to refuse to hear them. When someone asks you to “promise not to tell anyone,” you are more than likely being manipulated. Here are several responses to consider when faced with this dilemma:

1.   “Sorry—I can’t make that promise.”
This will either end the conversation or encourage the other party to tell you more about the nature of the disclosure. The more information you have, the better.

2.  “Who or what is this about?”
This may give you a little more detail about the secret and help discern whether or not you want to hear confidential information.

3.   “Why do you want me to know this secret?”
This strategy goes right to the motivation of the other party. If it’s simply gossip, then your participation serves no positive purpose. Sometimes there is a specific reason, such as the other party needs help or guidance in dealing with a particular problem or person.

4.   “Why do you think I can help?”
This question may help you assess whether or not you are in a position to contribute anything meaningful if there is a problem. It’s horrible to know something dreadful about a situation and find you are powerless to help.

5.   “What would happen if I failed to keep the secret?”
If you are leaning toward hearing something secret, it’s smart to ask about the consequence of breaking the trust. This will make the other party think hard about divulging a secret. If they perceive that the risk outweighs the reward, they may decide that reticence is the best policy.  

What if I am already struggling to keep a family secret?

Depending on the nature of the secret, you must consider the cost and the benefits of keeping it to yourself or bringing others in to help.

The following illustration may clarify this:

Jessica comes home from college for Christmas vacation. The next morning Tammy, her 16-year old sister, observes her in the bathroom throwing up her food after breakfast. Jessica confides in Tammy that she is only doing this to lose a couple more pounds and makes Tammy promise not to tell anyone. Tammy, who is shocked and surprised, reluctantly agrees. The following spring Tammy visits Jessica at school and finds that her sister has continued this harmful behavior. Tammy is now worried about her sister’s health. Jessica reminds Tammy of her promise and warns Tammy that she will never trust her again if she tells anyone.

Tammy is in a tough spot. The short-term consequences of breaking this trust are disastrous; however, the long-term consequences of not telling are even worse. Tammy is in a lose-lose situation. She lacks the expertise to help her sister with her problem and because of her promise she cannot engage the help of others.

Stepping back and assessing the short- and long-term consequences of keeping or breaking a confidence helps put things in perspective. In this illustration, the only way Tammy can help her sister is by breaking her promise and telling her parents who are in the best position to help their daughter.

As long as there are families there will be family secrets. Addressing them with integrity is not always easy, but is always right.

By Drew Edwards, PhD

The information provided on the Achieve Solutions site, including, but not limited to, articles, quizzes and other general information, is for informational purposes only and should not be treated as behavioral health care or management advice. Please direct questions regarding the operation of the Achieve Solutions site to Web Feedback. If you have questions related to workplace issues, please consider contacting your human resources department. ©2017 Beacon Health Options, Inc.

 

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