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Don't Let Keeping Secrets Become Divisive to Your Family

Millions of people keep at least 5 secrets they've never told anyone.

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Millions of people keep a range of secrets from each other with the best of intentions, but secret-keeping can often have serious and damaging negative outcomes, especially to families. Psychologists Slepian, Chun, and Mason of Columbia University found that people keep an average of 13 secrets at a time, five of which they have never told anyone. Some of the most significant secrets fall into categories such as illegal and criminal activity, infidelity, financial problems, or a family member’s substance abuse or death from a drug overdose. They also found tat carrying secrets correlates with a negative sense of well-being.

There is a difference between having certain things you want to keep private to yourself versus a family secret. Individuals do have the right to maintain their autonomy in a family by having privacy. However, it becomes an issue when the topic they’re keeping private has reverberations that could impact other family members such as in the issues delineated above.

The statistical data reinforces how keeping significant secrets and adversely undermine core relationships within a family. Alicia Walker of the University of Missouri’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology cited in 2017 that rates of infidelity are surprisingly high, most recently reported to be higher than 50 to 60 percent. The APA has found that infidelity is responsible for 20-40 percent of divorces in the US.

In 2017, more than 70,000 people died from drug overdoses. making it a leading cause of injury-related death in the U.S. Roughly 130 Americans die every day of opioid usage. Reports show that secrecy regarding drug use followed by death by overdose arouses feelings of anger, guilt, helplessness, and deprives family members of information that could enable them to take action.

An estimated 13 million Americans have hidden a bank or credit card account from a live-in significant other partner or spouse (31 percent of millennials, 24 percent of people ages 38 to 53, and 17 percent of boomers). And 80 percent of parents keep financial secrets from their adult children.

In many families, secrets are kept because of fear that the receiver of the information couldn’t cope with the truth. Individuals believe that the anger, shame, humiliation, or recrimination the receiver would feel would alienate them from the family or from society.

However, this backhandedly sets up a power dynamic in which the “secret keepers” have all the power in a family. This unexpressed power dynamic impacts how family members communicate with each other, typically resulting in restricted emotional communication.

Here are some reasons to consider transparency instead of secret keeping:

  1. Keeping secrets destroys relationships. Psychologists Slepian, Halevy, and Galinsky, (2017) note that there is a dichotomy between secret-keeping behaviors and human beings as social creatures. In addition, they found that secret keepers had generally lower life satisfaction, and felt fatigued, lonely, sad and hostile.
  2. Keeping major secrets creates an atmosphere of mistrust in a relationship. Rebuilding trust when it’s been broken is challenging because the person who has been excluded from the information needs regular reassurance that there are no more secrets being kept. The constant need for reassurance doesn’t help build trust, it just placates fear. Resentment and suspicion are hard to overcome.
  3. Keeping secrets creates a false narrative. When secrets are kept and then revealed, those kept in the dark often feel they were living a “false” life. They become confused by what actions, reactions, and feelings were “true” and which were representative of a false reality. Because this secretive behavior was normalized, it can be repeated throughout generations as secret keeping becomes an inherent part of the family legacy.
  4. Keeping secrets can make you physically sick. Carrying secrets is a burden that causes guilt, shame, and stress, with co-occurring symptoms of anxiety such as headaches, digestive issues, and sleep problems. Internalizing problems has somatic consequences; some people may even turn to substances to manage the discomfort they experience. This further alienates them from family members.

If you are considering sharing significant secrets with members of your family, here are four tips to make it easier for you:

  1. Be straightforward. Know what you need before having the conversation and ask for that. Do you need your partner to listen or advise? Reveal enough information to make the situation clear without overburdening them. Do not answer questions for which you don’t have answers; for example, if someone is very sick. “Are they going to die?” “I hope not, but honestly I don’t know, they’re very sick.”
  2. Pick a time and place that feels comfortable for you. Don’t be impulsive when revealing the secret. Be mindful of location, timing, and circumstances.
  3. Think about having a third-party present. If the information is something that might create distress between the two of you (infidelity, bankruptcy) think about the pros and cons of having a third-party present. A couple’s counselor would be a good option.
  4. Don’t ambush people to reveal secrets. Being ambushed by information leaves people feeling on unsteady and on unsafe ground with relatives. It also sends a child or adolescent (who might find out a secret during or after sleepaway camp) a message that the family didn’t think they were mature enough or strong enough to cope with the information until after it happened. This not only undermines their sense of family trust, but also their self-confidence.

Even though on the front end the idea of exposing a secret may seem daunting, even terrifying, the relief people feel has been shown to have positive effects for the individual and their family. The research by Slepian, Halevy and Galinsky (2017) demonstrates that those who unburden a secret feel happier, more authentic, and closer to their family members.

In addition, the benefit of teaching compassion in the face of flaw and transparency instead of secrecy is an intergenerational message you want to pass down to your family members.


"The Solitude of Secrecy: Thinking About Secrets Evokes Goal Conflict and Feeling Of Fatigue," by Michael L. Slepian, Nir Halevy, Adam D. Galinsky, Empirical Research Paper, The Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Inc., Oct. 11, 2018

"America's Drug Overdose Epidemic: Data To Action," Center Disease Control Prevention, 2018

"80% of Parents Keep This Financial Secret From Their Adult Children,", April 16, 2017

Research: How Many Marriages End In Divorce Because of Infidelity, Nov. 2019

"Millions of Americans Have Hidden Bank Accounts or Credit Cards,", Feb. 2, 2016