Privacy, Secrets and Shame: How to Reveal a Secret (II)

Back to ideas about how best to reveal a secret. It can’t hurt to start where we left off–using your common sense.

Other tips: don’t construct a whole back story behind your secret to cover your guilt. I know it’s tempting–I really do–but the moment when you finally share your secret is not the time for excuses or lies. Yes, Manfred had reasons for not mentioning his homosexuality, and I can easily understand Alan’s silence on his lack-of-graduation–but that’s not the point here. Resist the urge to excuse yourself, and certainly don’t create a new tissue of fabrication to explain your withholding; it just heaps trouble on trouble. Sit with the discomfort.

Don’t tell  the person to whom you’re telling your secret that they must hold your secret. Your secret then becomes their burden. Before you tell someone, think through your selection of confidantes and ask yourself what knowing your secret might be like for the person you’re about to tell.

If you’re fearful that s/he might spread the information, ask yourself three questions: 1) Is this the right person to tell, is it a person who usually feels the need to spread information around?; 2) Will they tell people who: a) really shouldn’t know, or b) I need to tell first;  and 3) (Back to this one again!) Why do I care if other people know? What am I so afraid of? Some of these answers might change whom you choose to tell.


Be careful in telling your secret to avoid creating an unhealthy triangle of secrets. Imagine a woman who tells one daughter her father had been having an affair, asking her to keep the information secret from the other two children, and the father. The daughter is not sitting pretty when it comes to family’s dynamics.

I return to Evan Imber-Black, who has done extensive work on secrets within families.  Of such a situation she writes, “the secret wedges a boulder between those who know it and those who don’t. To remove this obstacle, families must break the triangle formation.”

What that means, practically, is that you might not be able to pick the person you are closest to to share in your secret.  You might not be able to pick your oldest daughter, your closest sibling, or even your best friend.

Tell the people who you owe it to do so yourself. If someone who should have heard about your secret from you is going to find out from someone else, you are obligated to tell that someone first. This is crucial to trust in a relationship.

This actually brings me to a topic I feel strongly about, which is sharing information with your kids. So if you and your spouse are thinking of divorcing, and have gone so far as to discuss the possibility with others outside the house, the likelihood that your children will hear is there, and they can found out from others who aren’t their primary source of love and trust.

This is true of adoption, as well.  Are you and your spouse really the only people who know your children are adopted? My guess is that some other people noticed that you skipped that rather un-short-lived pregnancy stage. If your children will learn about this from someone else, you really must tell them yourselves–and the earlier the better.

And what about a serious illness, or a lost job? Many parents–nobly–want to protect their children from the pain and fear of knowing that a parent is ill or is in financial distress. But are these secrets kept so well even in the house that the children really can’t guess what’s occurring? My assumption is no. And, again, if you’ve told other people around town, your kids will hear things. They are savvier than we give them credit for. And they will be terribly hurt not to have learned the truth from you.

I also believe the following: Even if a secret is so well-kept the children will never find it out, if it affects kids, they have the right to know. Some more on this topic in my next post.


I help adults and adolescents through the particular struggles of our time: tension between couples, parenting frustration, blending new families, separation and divorce, (un)employment, cancer, and loss. When relationships come to an impasse, I use mediation techniques to try to ensure that each party will have his/her needs heard and accounted for in a dignified way. In addition to talking, listening, and reframing, I utilizes the tools of metaphor, active teaching, role-playing, visualization, and hypnotherapy.for families and businesses, as well as in cases of divorce.

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