Keeping Secrets: Does “Don’t Tell Anyone!” Include Your Spouse?

Finger on lips - silent gesture
Finger on lips - silent gesture

If you want to tell me something and don’t want me to repeat what you’ve shared, or if you want to vent to me about a personal problem in your marriage and want me to promise not to say anything to anyone else, all you have to do is get me to swear on my children’s lives.

My closest friends and my boyfriend know that if they tell me something personal, or are about to announce something totally amazing and tell me that they don’t want me to pass on whatever personal issue it is, all they need to say is “Don’t tell anyone! Promise on your children’s lives!” I’m superstitious and I believe if I break that promise, something will happen to my children. If I promise on my kid’s lives, my mouth is like a vault. You will not be able to get any secrets or confessions from me.

When I tell anyone something personal but don’t want them to share it, I have my own special way of making sure (hopefully) that whatever I’m telling them will definitely be kept to themselves. This is how I start a conversation that I want to keep private.

Me: “Before I tell you, you need to promise you won’t say a word!”

Friend/boyfriend/acquaintance/daughter: “I promise.”

Me: “Say again that you promise.”

Friend/boyfriend/acquaintance/daughter: “I promise!”

Me: “Say you’ll promise just one more time!”

Friend/boyfriend/acquaintance/daughter: “I promise!”

Me: “Now you’ve just promised THREE times not to say anything!”

This way, if they do break their promise, I can come back to them with, “You promised THREE times you wouldn’t say anything,” and they know, too, that they didn’t just promise once, but they promised three times, and, my thinking is, they’d feel like shit if they did break their promise, since they promised not once, not twice, but THREE TIMES! I’ve taught my daughter to do this too.

But last week, two things happened that made me question what it really means if you say, or someone says to you, “You can’t say anything!”

First, is there an unwritten rule that you’re allowed to tell your spouse whatever it is someone asked you not to say anything about?

I just automatically assume my good friends, unless I’ve made them promise three times, are going to tell their spouses. Why? Because I sometimes tell my boyfriend things that people have asked me not to tell anyone, not because I’m breaking a promise (though, in theory, I am) but, as I’ve mentioned, if you really want me to keep a secret and share with no one else, make me swear on my children’s lives, because, then, I truly won’t tell anyone.

If you haven’t made me swear on my children’s lives, I do sometimes share what some people have told me, in confidence, to my boyfriend, not because I’m breaking some promise, just because, in the case of my boyfriend (and assuming most husbands) whatever I’m telling him, well, he couldn’t really give a shit about. My boyfriend and most of my friends’ husbands do not care, let’s say, that some bitch sent one of my closest girlfriends a batshit crazy text, she showed me. Nor does my boyfriend know this other person. Basically, I will tell my boyfriend certain things, even if some people have said, “Don’t tell anyone,” because, frankly, he doesn’t really care about the gossip I’m sharing, nor does he know the people involved, and finally, he wouldn’t have anyone to share it with!

When it comes to my good friends, I automatically assume they are going to tell their husbands or spouses, for the exact same reason I spill the beans on gossip my friends tell me. Their husbands wouldn’t care. They don’t know the people involved in the secret. When I tell my boyfriend things that my friends ask me not to tell anyone, I’m pretty sure he’s forgotten about whatever gossip I was told not to share within 12 seconds. I’m okay with my friends sharing what I’ve told them to their husbands, not just because I assume they do anyway, but because I just feel there’s this unwritten rule that “Don’t tell anyone!” doesn’t include your spouse.

But, last week I actually STOPPED one of my best friends BEFORE she wanted to tell me some very exciting, but very confidential, news in her life. It was the first time this has happened in our 25+ year friendship – me actually STOPPING her from telling me something. Why? Because I couldn’t “promise on my kids’ lives” that I wouldn’t tell my kids, mainly my 15-year-old daughter.

This friend is the most loyal person I know. She will drop everything, at any time of day or night, if I need her. I think of her as the sister I never had. But, she asked me to “promise” not to tell my daughter. And that posed a problem for me. So, I found myself torn between my very best friend, who is also one of my favourite people in the world, and my daughter, who I’m extremely close with, who tells me everything, and likewise, I tell her everything.

My friend didn’t tell me, I didn’t have to swear on my children’s lives, and since I told her not to tell me, I didn’t have to worry or feel guilty about sharing it with my daughter.

But when it comes to spouses, maybe I’m wrong? Maybe there is no unwritten rule that it’s okay to blab to your spouse of 15 years, who is also your best friend in another way than your best girlfriend. Maybe there are spouses out there who really do keep secrets or gossip because, to them, telling their spouse (who, again, probably wouldn’t even care and would forget about it in mere seconds) IS included in “You can’t tell anyone!”

This question was nagging at me so much, I actually reached out to a friend to ask her the question. Louise Fox, an expert on etiquette, wrote back, “I think it’s human nature to talk, share and perhaps leak confidential information, gossip and secrets. I personally would probably tell my spouse even if told not to.”

Phew. So I’m not alone. She added, just like I thought, that, “My husband is an engineer, a very linear thinker who deals in facts, not emotions. So, he cares nothing about gossip or relationships. I could tell him anything and he couldn’t or wouldn’t be bothered to repeat it.”

And even though I felt terrible that I couldn’t promise my best friend that I wouldn’t keep her secret from my daughter, my friend also wrote me to tell me that I did the right thing!

Louise Fox also said, “I think that the best strategy is to say “don’t tell me!” If you establish the reputation as a blabbermouth people won’t tell you things, which solves the problem too, but usually ruins a friendship. I stick with upfront don’t tell me!” (She suggests if you have a secret you want to share, and not want it to be passed on with 100 percent certainty, go to your lawyer, therapist, or your mother, if she’s not a blabbermouth.)

I take great pride in not only keeping my friends’ secrets 100 percent secret if I swear on my children’s lives. But because all my friends know that my daughter Rowan and I do tell each other almost everything, even if we don’t know the people we are blabbering about, I now wonder if there’s some sort of unwritten rule that you can tell your child, too, as well as your spouse.

I’ve taught both my kids my “Three promise rule,” which is that, before they share, they have to make the other person promise three times, and tell them, “Ok, you just promised me three times you won’t tell!” And now I’m going to also teach my children – who obviously don’t have spouses – that if you can’t promise you’ll keep the secret their friends tell them, it’s best to be honest and simply say, “Don’t tell me!”

Do you share what your girlfriends tell you to your spouse? Or do you really keep everything people tell you in confidence to yourself?




  1. Joanna on September 24, 2019 at 7:30 pm

    Wow, was this a scatterbrained, repetitive article that took way too long to make a basic point. But anyhoo. Good for you for at least being honest if you can’t keep a secret. Yes, there is a definite unwritten rule that you tell husbands (boyfriends, not so much, unless we’re talking “life partner” unmarried status). As for you15 yr old daughter – um, no. It’s awesome you guys are such great friends, but she’s still your child, not your bestie, and if your actual bestie wants to confide something in you without you sharing it with your daughter, you’re kind of a crap friend if you can’t accept that confidence. But again, better than lying and blabbing.

  2. Ashri Gyorgi on May 23, 2021 at 7:58 pm

    I m a grave. What u put in,never comes out. I fell no need to share other people secrets with anyone, including my kid or my spouse or my (very close) sister. I also keep a number of my own secrets strictly to myself. I never feel a need to blabber, I d rather listen and ‘collect.’ We all have a right to privacy and r not obligated to share everything, even with people closest to us.

  3. Jim on March 12, 2022 at 8:03 pm

    If I receive something in confidence and then blab it to everyone then I am dishonest, plain and simple. That includes blabbing to family members and my spouse. The only exceptions I would make would be if something involves safety or something illegal or dangerous, or if the discretion somehow involves the other person directly, i.e. my spouse, and even then I should let the person asking for discretion know I would have to tell about it of they confide, so they at least know, or have the option not to tell me. The idea that there is some unwritten rule that my spouse somehow has the right to know everything a friend or family has shared in confidence strikes me as infantile and ridiculous. Swearing on my children would also be infantile…..if I promise something, then my word should surely mean something.

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