Tiger Woods' string of affairs ended with him in rehab and on a break from golf. Sandra Bullock surprised everyone not long after husband Jesse James' affairs were uncovered by revealing she had adopted a child, Louis. Former U.S. senator and presidential candidate John Edwards' secret relationship ended his marriage. / Loir Moffett-Pool | Getty Images
Sandra Bullock surprised everyone not long after husband Jesse James' affairs were uncovered by revealing she had adopted a child, Louis. / ROBYN BECK | AFP | Getty Images
How to choose a (trustworthy) confidant for your secret
Experts advise careful thought before choosing a confidant. "One of the easiest ways to tell that is how much gossip or sharing of other people's information has that person done with you," says author Sandy Allgeier, who spent most of her career in corporate human resources.
In her book Trust Rules, Linda Stroh looked at key traits you'll want to look for in a confidant:
Former U.S. senator and presidential candidate John Edwards' secret relationship ended his marriage. / Chris Hondros | Getty Images
Their secrets were oh-so-different: Sandra Bullock had adopted a baby and kept little Louis under wraps for more than two months before announcing his arrival; Tiger Woods and John Edwards appeared to be happily married fathers until those images were shattered amid revelations of infidelity.
So how did these A-list celebrities manage to keep their personal lives so private despite the publicity spotlight that always seemed to shine on them?
Those who study secrets — how to keep them and whom to trust — say that although Woods' and Bullock's motives were very different, each had carefully chosen a trusted circle who would not sell them out.
Those of us outside the glare of the paparazzi also have secrets. In fact, researchers say that when asked, more than 90% of us say we have a secret. So how can we know in whom we can confide? And how sure can we be sure that mum's the word?
“The vast majority of people say they know they're supposed to keep a secret, but they told one other person, and that person tells one other,” says Anita Vangelisti, a professor of communication studies at the University of Texas-Austin. “Even for trustworthy people, it's a difficult thing. That's important for people to be aware of — their most trustworthy people are going to have a hard time keeping secrets.”
Vangelisti has studied secrecy, including types of family secrets, things people keep secret and how secrets affect relationships. “What people decide to keep secret and when they decide to reveal it or not tells you about the relationship currently and shapes the relationship in the future,” she says.
Secrets and sinners: who'll tell?
In her latest study, which she presented in July in Israel at the International Association for Relationship Research, Vangelisti and her co-authors looked at secrets told and the reasons for telling. Secret subjects included taboos such as infidelity (the most often cited), mental health problems and illegal activities; alcohol or drug use; and what they called “conventional” secrets, such as information about dating partners, grades or personality conflicts.
“There are definitely people who just blurt out secrets, and there are people who do it for gossip or do it because it makes them feel better,” she says. “But there are moral and ethical dilemmas people have to work through in deciding whether to tell a secret.” The two most frequently cited “good reasons” to betray a confidence were concern for the welfare of the secret's subject and a conclusion that the person they told had a right to know. For example, she says, telling a guy that his girlfriend was having an abortion because he had a right to know is different from telling a secret out of concern for the person who is having the abortion. “It could be the same topic, but their motivation is different,” Vangelisti says. “One is more righteous than other. The ‘right to know' is making a real judgment call. This is a moral issue to them.”
On the other hand, some people are just blabbermouths. For instance, “children are notoriously poor at keeping secrets, and the ability to keep secrets is something we gain with age,” says Daniel Wegner, a psychology professor at Harvard University. “Most of us can be trusted with a secret for a few moments, or at best for a few days, but then we tend to let secrets ‘leak' because we can't stop thinking about them.” Wegner says people often divulge secrets over time because they've forgotten that the information was confidential.
Keeping secrets can be a challenge. “The desire to share the scoop is a lot stronger in some of us than others,” says Sandy Allgeier, author of The Personal Credibility Factor.
Part of the struggle in keeping a secret is governed by our sense of self-esteem, Allgeier says: “When we learn information that's confidential, we can feel more important if we let others know we have this.”
Low self-esteem may be one reason people tell secrets, but telling isn't necessarily a sign of being insecure. “The insecure part comes in when our desire to impress others with that inside scoop outweighs our commitment to hold information confidential,” Allgeier says.
Vangelisti's research has found people who say they will never reveal a secret no matter what. But it's a very small group — less than 10%.
When someone spills the beans, most relationships are damaged. They can be repaired, but it's not easy, Allgeier says. “It might look like the relationship is going on, but the depth between people in terms of trust has been very seriously damaged and won't be the same again unless there's a process of discussion and forgiveness.”
It's particularly difficult for the person who has been deceived to get past the betrayal, whether by a spouse who has had an affair or when parents discover that their child is using drugs.
“One begins to imagine all sorts of scenarios in which they have been lied to or duped,” says Linda Stroh, author of Trust Rules. “They cannot imagine that someone was able to keep these secrets from them, and they begin to question their ability to know who and who not to trust in their lives.”
Why are you telling me this?
So the quality of the relationship is key to sharing a confidence. “You share a secret with somebody in order to signal trust and make the relationship close,” says Catrin Finkenauer, an associate professor of social psychology at Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam.
“Every time you tell somebody ‘I'm going to tell you a secret,' you say, ‘You're the person I'm relying on' ” to keep a secret, she says. “People keep secrets because they don't know whether they can share. It's not necessarily about the content of the secret. If I decide not to tell it to you, I think the information is not safe with you or I'm not safe with you.”
In Finkenauer's studies, which focus mostly on German, Belgian and Dutch citizens, she found about 70% of all ages in those countries say they have secrets. But in studies in the United States, 98% of Americans say they have secrets. Does that mean Americans have more to hide? Not necessarily, Finkenauer says: “I think it's a cultural difference in what people consider secret.”