Service of Secrets That Burden

June 14th, 2018

Categories: Leaks, Promises, Relationships, Secrets


I’ve covered this topic before. I defended Nora Ephron in one post. Many of her friends had complained when she died “suddenly.” She’d kept her Leukemia diagnosis a secret. I wrote about General David Petraeus’ pillow talk where he was accused of sharing state secrets with his lover and about leakers in business and government.

Elizabeth Bernstein brought up a different perspective when she wrote “Should You Keep a Secret?” in The Wall Street Journal. One of her sisters, Rebecca, asked her to travel to be with her when she had a breast biopsy. She asked her to tell nobody else in the family, one that is chock full of doctors from surgeons to gynecologists. Her sister, an internist who trusted her surgeon, didn’t want the pressure of unsolicited advice.


Bernstein asked: “How do you decide whether to keep someone’s secret when there are good reasons to tell?” More later about the repercussions of her decision to stay mum.

She offered other examples: You know the spouse of a person having an affair–do you snitch? What about a secret drinker in the family who needs help? Say you learn that a close friend, who died, had led a double life? “You might want to disclose someone’s secret if it will help him or her in the long run. Or if someone else is being hurt or has a right to know the information.”

According to studies to be published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology “we often feel closer to a loved one when we know a secret of theirs, but this information can also be a burden. The studies show that the closer a person is to a friend or loved one whose secret they know, the more he or she is likely to think about the secret. And the more friends the two people have in common, the more likely one person is to keep another’s secret.”


Bernstein quoted the lead researcher, Michael Slepian, PhD, Columbia Business School: “Just having to think about someone else’s secret makes it harmful to our wellbeing.” In an earlier study Dr. Slepian reported that when people think about a secret, everything seems to be more difficult: “They estimate hills to be steeper and distances to be farther” than people not so burdened.

So what happened to Bernstein? She was still at her sister’s house when her mother called. Mom knew—her sister had told her—and “was angry with me for preventing the rest of the family from supporting Rebecca.” The gynecologist was “hurt that I didn’t seem to value her expertise. Too late, I realized that in keeping Rebecca’s secret, I might have betrayed others. It took me almost a week to get back into everyone’s good graces. By then, we’d learned that the biopsy, thankfully, was negative.”

Had you been Bernstein, would you have told the rest of the family? Do you think anyone has “the right” to personal information and someone’s secret and that you should be the person to share it? Have you felt burdened and sluggish when harboring a dear one’s secret? Have you been in the “no good deed goes unpunished” position, like Bernstein, on the bad end of the stick when others learn you knew but didn’t share? Are there some personal secrets you should never share under any circumstance?


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8 Responses to “Service of Secrets That Burden”

  1. Protius Said:

    I’d keep it as simple as possible.

    The only way to keep a real secret is not to repeat it. Period. No exceptions.

    Therefore if you think the person telling you the secret is playing games or that you later might have to reveal it, refuse to accept the secret and tell them you will not keep it. The upfront awkwardness is worth it if you can avoid the later drama of should I tell or shouldn’t I?

  2. Martha Takayama Said:

    This post deals with agonizing issues and ask very difficult questions.
    I guess it is easier not to be burdened with secrets at least while those who have shared them are alive. I also question the point of revealing, especially in post-mortem biographies and essays, certainly while immediate heirs are living, people’s life secrets. If shared to help survivors, then they certainly should be shared in a very restrained manner if at all.

    I myself had asked a family member specifically and categorically to not inform another member of an illness. I was devastated by the totally unexpected and contradictory show of belated concern that the revelation of my secret generated from the specific person I did not want it shared with. I really have never forgiven what I consider a betrayal.

    Being the guardian of secrets is a burden of varying degrees depending on the ultimate consequences real or psychological of violation of trust. However, at this moment I am wishing fervently that Michael Cohen, Paul Manaforte and any other people who have secrets to reveal about our chief executive decide to break the trust.

    Anyway, isn’t the decision of not keeping secrets the essence of “deals” for criminal and civil proceedings? We have to think about where we would be without them. This also means that enforcement of the law may mean violating one’s word!

  3. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I hope that Ms. Bernstein never listens to this sister again should she ask her to keep a secret as she put her in a heck of a spot! It took only a week to clean up the mess, Ms. Bernstein said. I doubt it. Her mother and siblings will take quite a while to get over what they consider a betrayal.

    I like the simplicity of your suggestion especially if a person warns you that they are going to tell you a secret. You can say “please don’t” if you dare. Too often they’ve spilled the beans and then ask you not to tell, landing you in an uncomfortable place. Plus, you’ve been robbed of your choice.

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    The secret business seems to be one of those “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” Ms. Bernstein didn’t say a word about her sister’s biopsy and the rest of the family was angry at HER, not her sister!

    I think professional secrets such as those between lawyer or priest and client/congregant are different than those between family members or friends, but like you, given the cooks involved with the Manafort/Cohen/Trump soup, I hope like the dickens that the two will spill the truth about just a few sufficiently incriminating tidbits so the country can get rid of the baggage, breathe a sigh of relief and move on. What’s that saying about no honor among thieves? Given they do not seem to be the most savory characters, we can hardly count on either doing the right thing. And with the big shark swimming around with promises of forgiveness, I’m not holding my breath.

  5. Lucrezia Said:

    There’s no excuse for breaking a confidence except for reasons of life and death. News of diseases and/or affairs have no bearing on safety. To break those and related confidences is unforgivable.

    A great deal of unnecessary grief results from those unable to stay silent. Any person who recognizes him/herself as a town crier should be decent enough to refuse to accept the role of confidant. No exceptions..

  6. jmbyington Said:


    While I agree, Ms Bernstein’s example illustrates one of the burdens of keeping a secret. Some will blame you should the information become known if they feel they should have been told.

    Should a person feel the need to share in an ideal world they should warn the person in question and/or urge them to speak up.

  7. Martin Johnson Said:

    Martin on Facebook:

    Sure. We all have secrets. Some would make a a great novel or just good catharsis. In a way it’s our secrets that make us whom we are. The secrets are the enticing dimension in our lives. The secrets are the gestalt of our being, making us more than the sum of our parts. Secrets are in our face, our demeanor and our defining. Thank God for secrets, but let’s discover them in the final act. Before the curtain drops, let’s know who set the mouse trap. Or shall we pass leaving a few secrets?

  8. Martin Johnson Said:


    I opt for leaving a few secrets and I’d be just as happy NOT to learn, after a dear one dies, some of hers/his.

    I’ve been thinking of Martha’s earlier comment about people writing memoirs with secrets after a person dies but before close family members have died, sharing information with the world that might upset, for example, the other parent. The child of a famous American writer did that and at the time I thought how the author used anger against the dead father to electrify a writing career. I guess it did, but at what cost to the mother and other siblings or did the person even care?

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