When families manage private information

John P. Caughlin, Sandra Petronio, Ashley V. Middleton

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


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). Such examples may suggest that deciding whether to reveal or conceal private information about the family is easy; for example, one might have a simple rule forbidding disclosures that are harmful to family members. However, privacy issues are more complicated for three reasons. First, revealing and concealing are both necessary for family functioning (Petronio, 2002). Family members need to be connected to each other through shared confidences, but they also need to keep some information from others to negotiate or maintain their own distinct identities. Second, because both revealing and concealing are beneficial (Frijns & Finkenauer, 2009), families must manage the way they make choices about disclosing and retaining their privacy. Although some choices may be easy, many are not. For example, in some cases of domestic violence, family members feel two simultaneous needs: to protect the solidarity of the family by limiting disclosure, and to alleviate harmful effects of violence by disclosing to outsiders (Fitzpatrick, 2002). Third, many family privacy issues involve information that some members keep from others within the same family. In such instances, bonding with one member by sharing private information may simultaneously betray another family member (Petronio, 2002). In short, the privacy issues among and between members are myriad and have important implications for the success of the family and its members. The current chapter examines such issues by selectively reviewing research on family privacy, secrecy, topic avoidance, and disclosure. Our intention is to illustrate main foci of the literature rather than offer a comprehensive summary. The chapter is framed by Petronio' s (2002, 2010) communication privacy management (CPM) theory, which uses a boundary metaphor to illustrate the way people manage their privacy. The theory argues that people believe they have the right to control their private information because they feel they own it and they believe controlling this information protects them from vulnerabilities. For CPM, control is achieved through the use of privacy rules that individuals develop to make decisions about how to regulate boundary permeability (i.e., degree of access to private information), linkages (i.e., connections allowing others into a privacy boundary), and ownership (i.e., the belief that one has responsibility for controlling information). In families, people typically own both personally private information and co-own information with other family members. When family members co-own private information, they are expected to coordinate privacy rules for third-party disclosures with original owners. Using the theoretical structure of CPM, the chapter is divided into three main sections: 1 how families manage private information; 2 consequences of changes in privacy rules for family privacy boundaries; 3 suggestions for future research on privacy within families.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Routledge Handbook of Family Communication
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages17
ISBN (Electronic)9781136946370
ISBN (Print)9780415881982
StatePublished - Jan 1 2012

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities
  • General Social Sciences


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