Privacy vs. Secrecy?Who Owns the Secret?

People tend to justify some inappropriate secret-keeping with the self-righteous claim that, “It’s no one’s business,” or–better yet–“It’s private.”

So what is the difference between privacy and secrecy–and how do you know if you’re being private–which is okay–or secretive, which can cause so much collateral damage?.

Privacy belongs only to you–and it is at your discretion to discuss or not, as you see fit. You are certainly entitled to keep private issues private–if you’re honest about your motives. If you’re saying, “It’s no one’s business,” does that really mean, “I am ashamed”?

The determining question is who owns the secret?  If the secret concerns someone else, they have a right to know.

What kinds of information do other’s have a right to know?  For a future spouse, a history of bankruptcy,  or of sexually transmitted diseases, rape, or possible infertility. For your children, any genetic history that isn’t obvious, a previous marriage, other children you may have given up for adoption. (I lived in the time when adoption was hidden from the very children who were adopted.)  Past suicide of a family member, as well as history of mental illness.  A current serious medical diagnosis of any important family member.

Remember that most of the above secrets are known by some other people.  Your child or spouse should find out from you.  They might find out from a newspaper article or other document, from a careless comment, or just by piecing the truth together from dates and names that don’t seem quite right.  Often, their suspicions are aroused from the very secrecy around an issue, or from your expression when certain topics or people show up.

You can chose the time and match the style of presentation to the individual better than anyone else.  Don’t wait too long, however, for your children to mature. They are likely to feel betrayed if the big discussion occurs when leave for college or are about to get married or pregnant. Don’t make it a deathbed confession.

It breaks the bonds of trust between spouses or between parents and children when they uncover family secrets by accident or from others.  Often, they will keep their new-found knowledge secret because they understand it’s too shaming to bring it up–double layer of deceit. You may find when you finally get up the courage to uncover the secret that your confidant has known for years.

Secrecy is unhealthy because it is fundamentally based in shame–and, additionally, it deprives people who have the right to know of knowledge that rightfully belongs to them.



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.

One Comment

  1. Fascinating post, as always.

    Are you arguing that all secrecy is embedded in shame? Or perhaps that those aspects of secrecy that are shame-related are especially corrosive?

    I ask because it seems like people are likely to have diverse motives for keeping secrets, including something as simple as selfishness.

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