When Friends Reveal Secrets You've Asked Them to Keep
How to respond when a friend violates a trust.
Posted May 25, 2014
One of the most basic rules of friendships really should go without saying, since it is truly about going without saying: Never break a friend’s confidences.
As a counselor, I provide clients with a space where they can truly let go of their burdens and reveal their secrets, troubles, fears, and aspirations. The guarantee of privacy and respect of confidentiality extends all the way to the point where the threat of harm to themselves or others is indicated as likely to occur. Up to that point, we offer the sanctity of privacy.
In your friendships, a similar commitment to a friend’s need for confidentiality should also be upheld to that very same point.
Sometimes, nothing feels better than “telling all” to a friend. Perhaps you're recounting the most amazing first date ever, or describing what a fool you made of yourself at the bar, or revealing something you just found out that maybe you should not have. We use our friends as sounding boards for the big decisions and the small decisions in our lives. We trust them with our secrets, because we know that they won’t tell a soul.
Except when they do.
Shame and Blame, 20 Years Later
A woman I'll call "Janie," now in her thirties, can still recall the shame she felt when she was in high school and confessed to her best friend that she had a one-night stand with a football player at her school. Describing herself as something of an ugly duckling, this woman had not been popular in high school and had spent her junior year just like her sophomore and freshman years—without a boyfriend or even a date. As junior year was ending, though, she and the athlete were both hired for the same summer job, lifeguarding at the beach. A group training/cookout session early that summer turned into something she’d never expected to happen: She and the boy hooked up on the beach. Of course, she told her best friend about it. Unfortunately, the best friend quickly told another friend—the sister of the young man. The secret soon became common knowledge. The fallout just made things worse: To protect his “reputation,” the guy laughed about what had happened and told his friends it was a “pity hook-up," because "every dog deserves her day.”
Since this all happened over the summer, the news had lost its value by the time school began that fall. But the anger and shame this woman felt when her friend broke her promise of secrecy were still very real. When confronted, her friend said she assumed that Janie and the guy were going to become a couple and that she was happy for her friend and simply excited to share the news with his sister, another friend.
Information as Currency
What did Janie do wrong? She trusted her secret to a friend who didn’t perceive the potential consequences of not keeping it to herself. Why do we spill a friend’s secrets? How do we not recognize the damage that we may cause?
Some people may truly be clueless, as the friend in the story above. But for others, insider information is like currency: Having something to share that should not be shared is like having money burning a hole in their pockets. They may trade this currency—your secrets—with someone else for some other kind of information they want. Or they may somehow “forget” that they promised to keep it private, and justify their breach by convincing themselves that once you’ve shared with them, you probably shared with others as well.
Others may simply get carried away in conversations and unthinkingly disclose your secret. These friends don't intentionally breach your request, they're just eager to contribute to a conversation or keep someone in the loop—as they spill the beans. Some people truly have no filters and don't give such concerns a second thought.
But whatever the reason, the result is the same: It is really up to the secret-holder to manage the revelation of their confidences. If we can’t trust a friend to maintain our confidences, then we need to refrain from communicating confidential information or personal secrets.
Once You Share, You Lose Control
This rule is about ethically-inspired relationship agreements. If you can't keep your friends’ secrets, the number of trusting friends you have may quickly diminish. When we enter into relationships, we have to realize that no matter how close we might be to another person, we cannot control anyone’s behavior but our own.
Controlling the controllables in a friendship means controlling your own communication, behavior, and expectations. Trust is earned, and it's essential that you provide the trust your friend needs, as well as the respect your friend deserves. And if you find out that a friend is broadcasting your secrets, take control of where the friendship goes: Edit what you share. Edit the time you spend together. And edit your expectations. Let your friend know that what he or she is doing is not okay. And be clear about how you want the friendship to play out. Learning to trust again can be a challenge, but a solid friendship is seldom built without overcoming a few obstacles.
When relationships are tested, they can grow stronger, or they can wither and die. Weigh the cost of losing a relationship against the benefits of maintaining it. Decide what the best path for you might be—and take the high road. Don’t let yourself follow a friend’s poor example and spill his or her secrets, even if you drop the person from your inner circle.
Practicing the behaviors we expect from others is the surest way to receive them in return.