Concealing and Revealing a Secret [Part-1]

Part 1 [Part 2]


After years of research Dr. Evan Imber-Black, Director of Program Development and Senior Faculty member at the Ackerman Institute for the Family in New York, offers you a step-by-step guide to help you more fully understand the dilemma of secrets.

A major dilemma for both professionals in mental health and non-professionals involves the matter of whether to conceal or reveal a secret. While every secret is its own unique phenomenon, reflecting on several questions can aid in this complex decision-making process.

1. Who “owns” the secret?

When you are keeping a secret that primarily regards your life, then you are the owner of the secret. Decisions to keep it or own it belong to you.

  • If you feel you need someone else’s permission to open a secret, it either means:
    a) it doesn’t belong to you, or,
    b) you are caught in a web of relationships that needs work before opening the secret.
  • If your best friend tells you she’s leaving her husband, that secret doesn’t belong to you.
  • If you are leaving your husband, you don’t need your sister’s permission to tell your father.

2. Who has the right to know the secret?

Some secrets contain information that is at the center of other people’s lives. Such secrets include birth origins and medical diagnoses.

  • These secrets involve another person’s rights to information.
  • Keeping them involves an arrogant position, assuming that you know what is best for another person to know in arenas of life and death.

3. Does the secret violate shared assumptions in a relationship?

Intimate relationships involve shared assumptions about what will and will not occur. These may be spoken or implicit.

  • When a secret violates shared assumptions, the person kept out is operating from “rules” that no longer apply, buthave not been re-negotiated.
  • When you keep a secret that prevents your spouse, lover or best friend from making good decisions, likely you’ve violated shared assumptions.

4. Who is being protected?

Secrets are often born in protection.

  • Are you keeping a secret to protect another person, yourself or a relationship?
  • Has the protection outlived its usefulness?
  • You might question the myth that another person will collapse if you open a secret.
  • Ask yourself if the relationship is enhanced by the secret or infused with alienation and distance.

(Continue reading with Part II : When do you reveal a secret?)

Suggested Reading:

  • The Secret Life of Families: Truth Telling, Privacy and Reconciliation in a Tell-All Society. Bantam 1998.
  • Secrets in Families and Family Therapy. W.W. Norton, 1993.

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