More Than Money
Issue #28

Who Knows You're Rich?

Table of Contents

“Privacy vs. Secrecy”

When working with individuals and couples with wealth, I have found it useful to point out the distinction between what is private and what is secret. In American society, we often confuse the two concepts, and society itself gives mixed messages about privacy and secrecy. A rule of thumb to distinguish the two is to ask: is this fact about me important in this relationship at this time?

Consider this example: you are about to inherit $1 million. This is a personal fact that you may or may not wish to disclose to everyone. If you are simply friends with someone, you may wish to consider the issue private. It would be reasonable either to keep this information to yourself or to disclose it, depending on your reading of the friendship and whether you hope to deepen the relationship by disclosing something personal. However, let's say you owe that person $50,000. Your inheritance is now highly relevant to the relationship. Keeping your newfound wealth private turns it into a secret that has potential implications within the relationship itself. Important information kept secret in a relationship is not only stressful to maintain but usually damaging in various ways. All secrets involve private information, but what makes them secrets is that the withheld personal information is important to actions in the relationship.

We all have the option to keep information about our financial status private. Keeping it private from some people or in some situations does not automatically mean we are keeping it secret . Healthy privacy is good-just think of anyone you know who seems to have no sense of privacy about personal matters. Continuing to maintain too much privacy in a close relationship, however, does send messages about trust, which eventually impacts the closeness of the relationship.

There are several sources of confusion about the difference between privacy and secrecy. On one hand, there are some cultural pressures to consider nothing private and to label refusal to disclose private information as always being secretive. Some cultures place much more value on privacy than American society does, with less pressure to disclose personal information unless the relationship truly warrants it. At the same time, we get overwhelming messages in our society not to talk about money, to be suspicious of bringing wealth disclosure into relationships, and to hide wealth because of the shame connected to it.

The difference between privacy and secrecy is also very blurry in dysfunctional families. Usually, dysfunctional families-especially wealthy ones- have so many secrets and so little healthy privacy that the rules are very confusing. There are so many secrets, such as alcoholism or abuse, which are required to be kept secret alongside issues of wealth, which are really simply private. Therapy can help redefine the guidelines about what is just personal/ private and what are really secrets.

Figuring out in a specific relationship how to talk about wealth is affected by this background confusion about privacy versus secrecy, and this can make the decision very difficult. So, when considering whether to disclose information about wealth to someone, try to evaluate whether the information is simply private (where disclosing is optional, depending on your beliefs or values) or a secret (where not disclosing is an action that brings risk to the relationship). You may also want to give some thought to your general views on privacy versus secrecy. How you discuss information about wealth may have more in common with your decisions about disclosing other personal matters than it does about discussing wealth.

--Jim Grubman


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