Keeping secrets in your family or business creates a tangled web

By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.

“It’ll just make things worse if I tell him.”

Janice was getting more and more anxious as the days and weeks went by. The bills were mounting, the creditors were calling, the first bank note was due in one month, and sales were miserable. Janice and her husband had just begun a business expansion that they had dreamed and planned for over the last five years. They were positive it was a winner and were thrilled when the bank backed them up. While Cary blazed ahead with building, hiring, warehousing and so forth, Janice as CFO handled the creative financing.

Unfortunately Janice was just a little too creative with the financing. Because the dream was too important she stretched things further than they could be stretched. Cary never questioned his wife and was unaware that they were heading for financial disaster. Janice on the other hand kept trying to pull a rabbit out of the hat.

When Janice first discovered her miscalculations, she was mortified. She was too embarrassed to tell Cary, so instead tried to solve the problem on her own. As the financial problems increased, she started shifting money from one account to another, staying one step ahead of her creditors. She convinced herself that Cary was too busy with the project to be bothered by the financial problems. She rationalized that these problems were temporary because any day now she would find a solution. Janice loved her husband and didn’t want to disappoint him either. She felt he would be crushed to discover that not only would he have to halt the expansion, but that the entire business might go under. So she lied and she hid the truth in a variety of ways.

Since Cary was not very computer literate and left all of the number crunching to his wife, the secret was not hard to keep. Until of course, the bank called the loan. Then Cary and Janice had two problems to face. The financial woes were their immediate focus so as business partners they busied themselves untangling the mess that Janice had concealed. But as the dust settled from the financial nightmare, husband and wife had a to face a more serious crisis . . . how to restore the broken trust between them.

“What they don’t know won’t hurt them.”

Even a surprise birthday party may be a secret not worth keeping, if the guest of honor doesn’t like them. It is rare that secrets are a good idea and yet they are commonplace in family firms. The major reasons for keeping secrets are (1) to avoid disagreement and confrontation, (2) to protect someone from hurt feelings or even physical distress, (3) fear of punishment or embarassment for a wrong doing, (4) or just because you made a promise not to tell.

Why are secrets so bad if they don’t hurt anyone? This is usually a rationalization. If you have to keep a secret, then it obviously affects other people. The content of the secret may or may not affect the other person adversely, but the question is, will keeping the secret affect the other person adversely? As we saw with Janice and Cary both the secret and keeping it powerfully affected the business and the relationship. There is no telling whether the couple could have saved their business had Cary known earlier of the miscalculations. However, by keeping the secret long after she should have told Cary, Janice seriously damaged the trust and the love between the two.

“But he’ll get mad at me if I tell him the truth!”

No one likes an argument but it is foolish to think that you can go through life, build a marriage and a business without having disagreements. As compatible as family members may be, they are bound to disagree on some things and sometimes these disagreements escalate into angry confrontations. Therefore it is useful to develop conflict resolution skills, rather than avoid the anger.

The excuse that the other person will get mad if you level with him or her is a poor one. First, you never know if he or she will get mad. Second, even if he or she does get mad, the discussion doesn’t have to end. Be brave and venture into conflict resolution. Third, the person may have every right to be upset that you withheld information (or fibbed) that affects his or her life. Think about it. How do you feel when a secret is kept from you, especially if your decisions depend upon the hidden information?

“It would be mean to be honest.”

There is often the fear that you will hurt someone’s feelings if you tell the truth, or worse that they will have a heart attack and die. The problem is that you have no right to assume responsibility for the other person’s life or life decisions. When you keep a secret that affects the life of another, you are robbing them of the opportunity to take responsibility for their own destiny. Because Janice loved her husband, she wanted to insure the success of his dream. But by lying to Cary, she kept him ignorant of the information he needed to make a mid-course correction. He may still have failed had he known earlier what the financial picture looked like, but the success of the business and his own destiny would have been in his hands.

Essentially it is disrespectful to keep secrets. You are treating the other person as if they are incompetent to handle the truth. What makes you better able to handle the truth than the other person? Sometimes the truth hurts. Sometimes it is embarrassing. Sometimes the truth is a powerful leveler without which you would never know you are in over your head. When I received the phone call telling me that my ten-year-old daughter had just missed the cut for the soccer team, I had to tell her the truth. Not only had she failed to make the team, but that she wasn’t quite good enough to play with this team. She cried and sobbed and was heartbroken over the failure. She even refused to eat dinner and went to bed early. However, the next day she obviously had learned an important lesson. She asked for new shinguards and went to the backyard to practice for next year’s tryouts.

“I won’t tell you unless you promise to keep it a secret.”

Signs of maturity are honesty and reliability. When we give our word, we feel a strong compulsion to keep it, to be consistent with our image of an honest and reliable person. However, it is important to realize that promising to keep a secret is not a demonstration of maturity, but actually quite childish. As a businessperson, your success depends upon flexibility. Decisions made in 1982, while accurate at the time may no longer fit the business in the year 2000. You would be foolish to hold to old decisions just because you once made a promise. You are just as foolish to keep a secret just because you want to maintain an image of consistency.

Emerson once wrote, “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” To make a promise to keep a secret in the first place is foolish, but you double your foolishness by keeping the secret when the evidence shows how damaging it can be. To cover for an alcoholic in the family business brings destruction on everyone. To withhold information from your spouse because one of the children has asked you is disrespectful of your spouse and the child’s ability to handle the problem out in the open.

Oh what a tangled web we weave . . .

There may be short-term gain in keeping secrets, but the long-term outcome is not worth the risk, especially when working with the ones you love. Openness in all things is the answer, even if it is embarrassing, anger-provoking, or hurtful. Don’t keep secrets, but if you already have, break them. Admit your failure, apologize to those you have lied to and make a promise you can live with. That is, promise to be responsible for your own actions, and allow others access to their own destiny through the truth.

Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S. Licensed Psychologist and Family/Business Consultant is the author of ENTREPRENEUERIAL COUPLES: Making It Work at Work and at Home (Davies-Black, Palo Alto, 1998). She can be reached at (360) 256-0448 or

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