When Families Manage Private Information

Authored by: John P. Caughlin , Sandra Petronio , Ashley V. Middleton

The Routledge Handbook of Family Communication

Print publication date:  November  2012
Online publication date:  November  2012

Print ISBN: 9780415881982
eBook ISBN: 9780203848166
Adobe ISBN: 9781136946370


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Popular advice admonishes people about the dangers of family members keeping “dark secrets” (Bradshaw, 1995, p. 27) or “the emotional fallout that often occurs when families keep secrets” (Webster, 1991, p. xi). Indeed, many families conspire to keep dangerous secrets like violence or child abuse (e.g., Petronio, Reeder, Hecht, & Mont’ Ros-Mendoza, 1996; Smith, 1992). However, family members also conceal private information for prosocial reasons. For example, a wife may protect her husband from embarrassment by refraining from mentioning that he secretly wears a toupee. When family members collaborate to keep information private, it can contribute to their sense of bonding and trust with each other, protecting family privacy boundaries from outsiders (Afifi & Steuber, 2009; Petronio, 2002; Vangelisti, 1994). In contrast, revealing private information about another family member can be viewed as a betrayal if the family established rules prohibiting the disclosure (Morr Serewicz & Canary, 2008).

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