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Why do people share family secrets?

01 January 2022
Why do people share family secrets?

Sarah Epstein :
Every family struggles. Many families have secrets, those parts of themselves that stay hidden from the outside world and sometimes, from one another. The stakes are often high. Why would somebody share a family secret? The research points to a few primary reasons.
1. Keeping the Secret Becomes Too Difficult
Some secrets, like those related to financial issues, addiction, abuse, or internal family strife, may leave the secret holder anxious and isolated. If keeping the family secret becomes too difficult to bear alone, a secret holder may share it in hopes of finding support, encouragement, and even help. While sharing the secret may be a relief, it may also cause the secret holder to feel guilty for betraying another's confidence and frustrated if sharing the secret doesn't lead to the hoped-for relief.
2. To Help Somebody in a Similar Situation
A person may disclose a family secret in response to a loved one disclosing their own similar secret. For example, a person may disclose their parent's substance use disorder after a friend shares their own family history of substance use. In this scenario, sharing the secret can deepen the bond between friends while creating a small network of mutual understanding. The friends may feel secure knowing that they will not judge one another's experiences and that because both shared sensitive information, neither will spread the secret further.
3. To Get Help Dealing with the Secret
A family member may divulge a secret to reach a more positive outcome, like help for a dangerous or entrenched issue. A child hiding that there is a lack of food in their home, or a spouse enduring emotional abuse may share the secret to receive outside legal and economic help. This sort of cry for help occurs both when somebody divulges their own family secrets (my parent is abusing me) and other family members' secrets (my brother-in-law is hitting my sister). In these kinds of cases, the fear of judgment or backlash for sharing the secret gets outweighed by the overwhelming need for further assistance.
4. To Use the Secret as Leverage
Holding a secret is a form of power over those in the group who want the secret to remain hidden. Disclosing the family secret gives the secret holder power over the individual or the entire family. A family member may choose to exercise that leverage and disclose that secret as punishment or revenge. Still, others may never actually reveal the secret, but threaten to if certain outcomes do not occur. A family member may threaten to expose a family member's drug issues if that family member fails to seek out treatment, for example.
Family secrets are messy. But understanding why people start to share them can build empathy within the family about the monumental task of navigating the line between maintaining privacy and keeping everybody safe and healthy.

(Sarah Epstein, LMFT is a Marriage and Family Therapist in Philadelphia, PA and the Amazon bestselling author of the book Love in the Time of Medical School).

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