The Unwritten Rules of Sharing Your News

... and the high costs of violating them.

Posted Jun 30, 2014

Zhiltsov Alexandr/Shutterstock

For years, I collected people’s stories of the most serious lie they ever told anyone and the most serious lie that had ever been told to them. (See more here.) When I read the stories of the people who had been duped, I expected to hear expressions of great pain over having been deceived, and over whatever the lie had been about—affairs, money, livelihood, illnesses, kinship, love, and even life and death.

There was another theme, though, that was less predictable but oh, so powerful: Sometimes when a person first figures out they have been duped, they learn something else at the same time—that not only did they not know about what was going on, but that all sorts of people did know, long before they did. The "in-crowd"—the people who knew before the dupe did—included people who, by the usual psychology of disclosure rules, should not have known.

Two examples (from Behind the Door of Deceit: Understanding the Biggest Liars in Our Lives) illustrate the power of disclosure rules and what happens when they are broken. The first is about an affair:

One young woman described her boyfriend Bill's affair with another woman. The dupe's best friends were Mary (Bill's cousin) and Lynn. The person who was betrayed told us that soon after discovering the infidelity, "I was talking to Lynn and I go, 'Wait, do you know about this?' For some reason, it just occurred to me that Bill could have told Mary and Mary could have told Lynn. And they were supposed to be my two best friends and so they knew the whole time and they never told me…”

The dupe's implicit knowledge of the rules of disclosure led her to her accurate suspicions. Of course Bill would tell Mary, because they were cousins. And then of course Mary would tell Lynn because they were friends. And then Mary and Lynn would tell the dupe because they were her two best friends. But wait: They never told her! And they knew the entire time. The consequences for the friendship alliances were profound. Mary and Lynn shared a secret and kept it from their friend; ultimately, they became best friends and the dupe was pushed completely out of the picture.

The second is from a high-school student who was the last to find out a profoundly important piece of family news:

It was about last May and my mom had cancer. And during the time I had an important tennis game and I had been taking SATs, too, so everybody in my family knew that she had cancer for three weeks before they told me....And I never really told anybody but I felt really bad that I wasn't told….They didn't want anything bothering me. But it really did, so I felt like, everybody else in my family knew—all my siblings, including even my younger sister.

Disclosure rules have their own emotional logic. We understand them intuitively. Younger sisters, for example, should not learn about family matters of life and death before their older brothers.

Examples like the ones I just recounted, in which someone who should have been one of the first to know is instead one of the last, are the most dramatic illustrations of the power of disclosure rules. They are instances in which the breach of the rules destroys intimacy. But the flip side is significant, too—when someone is unexpectedly bumped up in the pecking order. They are let in on something before someone else who should have known sooner. When that happens, the breach of the rules of disclosure results in a deepening of intimacy.

Here’s an example:

A friend of mine told me about a conversation she had with a colleague. He had just been offered a job. It was a big deal to get the offer and it would be a big deal to accept it. Would he take the offer seriously? Would he move across the country for that job? Then she casually asked, “So what does your wife think?” You know where this is going: He hadn’t told her. When this very significant event happened in his life, he told his colleague and friend at work, and mulled it over with her, before he ever told his wife.

I think that disclosure rules represent one of the most underappreciated signs of intimacy—and their breach an underappreciated sign of potential doom. In academic journals, there are tons of studies on self-disclosure and some on secrecy, but this is something else: Disclosure rules are not just about whether you share secrets or personal feelings with someone else—they are about the order in which you are, or are not, let into the inner circle. I don’t know of any scholarly research on that.

I rarely read articles or blog posts touting “Top 10 Signs of Intimacy,” or “Top Signs Your Relationship Is in Trouble,” but I'll bet that those of you who have skimmed such pieces have found the same thing: The power of disclosure rules is not recognized. (For my other writings on deception, click here and here.)

And now for something more specifically relevant to singles...:

Kara Herold, documentary filmmaker with Bachelorette, 34, to her credit, is working on a new film. A brief description is below. You can read more about it, and support it if you’d like, at Kickstarter:

“39½ mixes drama laced with irony, documentary, and animation to follow a single filmmaker approaching 40 who is determined to have a kid. Kara, a filmmaker and the protagonist in my autobiographical documentary Bachelorette, 34 (2009), is still unmarried at the outset of 39½. Still living on the fringes, as her mother puts it, Kara wants a baby before time runs out. In 39½, however, autobiographical elements are transformed into a scripted narrative with actors. The mother, also a central figure in Bachelorette, 34, has plenty to say. She comments on Kara's life choices and is liberal with pointed advice. But advice comes from many sources—her filmmaking partner, who is alarmed at her decision; a close friend and fellow filmmaker, who makes a similar decision with striking success; a psychic; a spiritual acupuncturist; a fertility doctor; and her sisters, who seem to 'have it all' but in more traditional circumstances. The story's considerable humor derives from Kara's earnest yet unconventional route to getting pregnant, her reflective commentary, and responses from supporting characters. But the humor is balanced with a serious investigative thread to the story, asking what it is like to go outside of mainstream methods for getting pregnant, and how one stays buoyed emotionally while those around them are looking askance…”