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Got a Secret, Can You Keep It?

Whether your teenage brother is a petty burglar or you seduced your sister’s fiancé, we all have family secrets. The characters on ABC Family’s mystery-thriller television series, Pretty Little Liars, know this all too well. They struggle to live normal lives despite being surrounded by deceit. To make matters worse, a menacing (and seemingly omnipresent) bully known only as “A” seems to know of every slip-up and secret shame, blackmailing the main characters in exchange for not revealing their dirty deeds. While most of us don’t have an “A” stalking our every move, we all have information that we keep to ourselves. Researchers in the fields of psychology and communication know this too and have uncovered a lot about the nature of family secrets.

What are the contexts of family secrets?1

  • Secrets the whole family keeps from outsiders (e.g., Spencer Hastings won a prestigious contest using her older sister’s economics essay; her family urged her not to come clean)
  • Secrets some family members keep from other family members (e.g., Aria Montgomery didn’t tell her mother about her philandering father)
  • Secrets we keep from our families (e.g., Emily Fields hid her homosexuality from her parents)

What types of secrets do families keep?2

  • Taboo topics are generally stigmatized by society (e.g., several of the girls, who are all in high school, date older men)
  • Rule violation, which is similar to taboo, relates to rules families try to enforce (e.g., Hanna Marin let her boyfriend Caleb live in her mother’s basement)
  • Conventional secrets are not wrong per se, but may be too personal to discuss with acquaintances (e.g., Spencer’s sister continued to pretend she was pregnant after a miscarriage)

What are the reasons why families conceal information from each other or from outsiders?2

  • Bonding, where the secret is special and binds together the people who know it (e.g., Aria helped her mother reenter the dating world after her father resumed dating his mistress, improving their mother-daughter bond)
  • Evaluation, to keep others from being judgmental (e.g., Hanna’s mother slept with a local police officer to get Hanna’s shoplifting charges dropped and hid this from her current partner, a pastor)
  • Maintenance, to avoid creating stress within the family (e.g., Aria didn’t tell her father that her brother injured their mother during a fight)
  • Privacy, because it’s not anyone else’s business (e.g., Spencer’s father didn’t tell anyone about the gun he kept in his desk)
  • Defense, to keep others from using the information against them (e.g., Hanna’s bank manager mother committed a felony by helping herself to a “loan” when money was tight)
  • Communication, as some families are not open and have trouble discussing certain topics (e.g., Emily didn’t tell her disapproving mother that her homosexuality was exposed at school)

There’s no doubt the Pretty Little Liars have serious trust issues after all the times they’ve been betrayed (and will likely spend hours in therapy if they survive A’s persecution). It remains to be seen if their secrets will remain secrets. Young adults are less likely to withhold information if there is greater trust and a sense of obligation to disclose in their familial relationship (e.g., if they feel they have a duty to inform their parents of their behavior). They are also more likely to disclose to parents who are accepting.3 Any reluctance to confide in their parents may stem from a cycle of concealment that may develop; when family members expect aggressive or negative reactions, they are less likely to reveal their secrets.4 Thus, treating family members with understanding may help reduce these problems (unless they start receiving threats from entities named A).

Part 2 of this article, Two Can Keep a Secret (If One of Them Is Dead), looks at what happens when we keep secrets from our romantic partners.

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1Karpel, M.A. (1980). Family secrets: Implications for research and therapy. Family Process, 19, 295-306. doi: 10.1177/0265407594111007

2Vangelisti, A.L. (1994). Family secrets: Forms, functions and correlates. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 11, 113-135. doi: 10.1177/ 0265407594111007

3Smetana, J.G., Metzger, A., Gettman, D.C., & Campione-Barr, N. (2006). Disclosure and secrecy in adolescent-parent relationships. Child Development, 77(1), 201-217. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2006.00865.x

4Afifi, T.D. & Steuber, K. (2010). The cycle of concealment model. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 27(8), 1019-1034. doi: 10.1177/0265407510378301

Dr. Helen Lee Lin - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Helen's past research has focused on potential problems in relationships, such as keeping secrets from a significant other. She is also interested in communication as well as the use and consumption of media in relationships, and is planning to work in applied contexts for her future projects.

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