The Power of Secrets

There's no question that family secrets are destructive. But it matters mightily when and how you reveal them. Resist the temptation to handle them at transition times such as weddings, graduations, and new beginnings.

As a family therapist, I'm a professional secret-keeper. I'm often ~the very first person with whom someone risks telling a longheld secret. Several decades of guiding people struggling with secrets have taught me that they have an awesome if paradoxical power to unite people--and to divide them.

From government conspiracies to couples having affairs, secrets permeate every level of society. Secrets have existed throughout time, but the nature of secrets has recently changed in our society. Today's families face special dilemmas about secrecy, privacy, silence, and openness.

We live in a culture whose messages about secrecy are truly confounding. If cultural norms once made shameful secrets out of too many events in human life, we are now struggling with the reverse: the assumption that telling secrets--no matter how, when, or to whom--is morally superior to keeping them and that it is automatically healing. My own experience, however, has shown me that telling secrets in the wrong way or at the wrong time can be remarkably painful--and destructive.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

The questions we need to concern ourselves with are: When should I keep a secret? How do I tell a secret without hurting anyone? How do I know the time is right? I've learned the answers as I've witnessed--sometimes with terror, more often with joy, and always with deep respect--families making the courageous journey from secrecy to openness.

Secrets are kept or opened for many complex motives, from self-serving abuses of power to altruistic protection of others. Understanding the best ways and situations in which to reveal a family secret can help you decide when and how to do so.

HOW SECRETS SABOTAGE

Although we encounter secrets in every area of life, they are perhaps most destructive when kept in the home. Families are support systems; our identity and ability to form close relationships with others depend upon the trust and communication we feel with loved ones. If family members keep secrets from each other--or from the outside world--the emotional fallout can last a lifetime.

There are four main ways that family secrets shape and scar us:

o they can divide family members, permanently estranging them;

o they can discourage individuals from sharing information with anyone outside the family, inhibiting formation of intimate relationships;

o they can freeze development at crucial points in life, preventing the growth of self and identity;

o they can lead to painful miscommunication within a family, causing unnecessary guilt and doubt.

A person who seeks to undo the damage caused by family secrets must accept that revealing a secret is not a betrayal but a necessity Luckily, as you'll see, it's never too late to do so.

SHATTERING THE TRIANGLE

Not all secrets are destructive. Many are essential to establishing bonds between two people. When siblings keep secrets from their parents, for example, they attain a sense of independence and a feeling of closeness. But the creation of any secret between two people in a family actually forms a triangle: it always excludes--and therefore involves--another.

When family members suspect that important information is being withheld from them, they may pursue the content of the secret in ways that violate privacy. A mother reads her daughter's diary. A husband rifles through his wife's purse. Relationships corrode with suspicion. Conversely, family members may respond to a secret with silence and distance, which affect areas of life that have nothing to do with the secret.

Either way, the secret wedges a boulder between those who know it and those who don't. To remove this obstacle, families must break the triangle formation.

Molly Bradley first called me during what should have been a joyous time. She had recently given birth. Her happiness, however, was bittersweet. Molly felt a deep need to surround herself with family but hadn't spoken to her brother, Calvin, in six years. The reason, I discovered, reached back 30 years to a secret made by Molly's mother.

When Molly, Calvin, and their youngest sister, Annie, were teenagers, their grandmother committed suicide. Molly and Annie were told she died from a heart attack. Only Calvin, the eldest, knew the truth. His mother made him promise not to tell. His sisters sensed a mystery, but if they asked about their grandmother, their mother switched topics.

Making secrets soon became the family's modus vivendi. Their aunt committed suicide two years after their grandmother's death. Calvin fathered a child out of wedlock. Each secret was kept from Molly and Annie, amplifying the family pattern of secrecy Calvin grew distant from his sisters, their relationship weakened by mistrust. Eventually, Molly guessed the truth of her grandmother's death but, in her family's style, told only Annie. Secrets between Calvin and his mother were matched by those between Molly and Annie, tightening family alliances.

From the outside, the family looked like two close pairs--Calvin and his mother, Molly and Annie. But the pairs were actually triangles; Calvin and his mother distanced themselves from the girls with their secret, forming one triangle, while Molly and Annie, keeping their own secrets from the rest of the family, formed another.

'DON'T TELL ANYONE OUR BUSINESS'

Molly convinced her two siblings to enter therapy, but each felt that overcoming feelings of alienation was impossible. When I asked Annie if she'd ever considered confiding in Calvin as a child, she told me the thought had never occurred to her. If family members cannot even imagine a different way of interacting, then secrets have truly taken hold of their lives.

In order to bridge the distance between the Bradley children, I asked them to relive their memories of how it felt to keep--and be kept out of---secrets. Molly, Annie, and Calvin each acknowledged that their needs to connect with each other had gone painfully unmet. Calvin explained tearfully that being forced to keep information from his sisters left him unable to relate to them, causing him to withdraw into himself. Molly revealed that watching her infant son each day made her miss Calvin--and the relationship they'd never had more and more.

The siblings finally began to share long-held secrets, realizing that they were bound and supported by their desire for closeness. After the fourth session of therapy, they went to dinner together for the first time in years. "This was so different from any other family event," Annie reported. "Things felt genuine for the first time."

As a lifetime of confessions and hopes emerged into the open, the mangle of secrecy was replaced by one-toone relationships. When everyone in a family knows a secret, triangles cannot create barriers between members.

All families have some secrets from the outside world. Yours, no doubt, has shared jokes and stories told only within the family circle. You also have a zone of privacy that demarcates inside from outside, building your family's sense of identity. But if a dangerous secret--one concerning an individual in immediate physical or emotional jeopardy--is held within your house, the boundaries between family and the rest of the world become rigid and impenetrable. Friends and relatives are not invited in, and family members' forays out are limited. "Don't tell anyone ourbusiness" becomes the family motto.

BREAKING FAMILY RULES

Some families create inviolable rules to keep information hidden, making it impossible for members to ask for assistance or to use needed resources in the outside world. Even problems that do not touch on the secret may go unresolved if resolution requires outside help.

When Sara Tompkins, 37, first came to see me, she spoke with great hesitation. "If my family knew I was speaking to you, they'd be very angry," she confided. She told me about growing up in a family that completely revolved around her mothEr's addiction to tranquilizers. "My father is a physician. To this day, he writes her prescriptions. No one was supposed to know. The worst part was, we were supposed to act like we didn't know. Our family invented 'don't ask, don't tell' long before the government ever thought of it."

Even though Sara hadn't lived with her family for 15 years, this was the first time she had ever broken the family rule against speaking about the secret. When Sara left home for college, she was surrounded with new and exciting faces, each seeking lifelong friends and stimulating late-night discussions. But Sara found herself unable to open up, ultimately finding few friends and fewer lovers. She found it difficult to reveal anything personal about herself to anyone, and even suspected others of withholding from her.

Secrets were how she had learned to process and handle incoming information. Sara finally sought therapy when she realized that she had never been able to sustain a romantic relationship past the second date.

When a family's secret is an ongoing condition--such as drug addiction, physical abuse, an illness--then both family relationships and interactions with the outside world are profoundly affected. In families like Sara's, members must organize their everyday lives around the needs of the secret while performing the breathtaking feat of pretending not to notice anything is out of the ordinary. Conversation is superficial, since what is truly important cannot be discussed. Members become paralyzed, unable to develop relationships with others or to deepen the relationships within the family.

Since individual well-being takes a backseat to group fidelity, being the family member who challenges internal secrets is difficult. Taking the risk of opening a long-held secret to friends and loved ones may seem like an act of betrayal. The anticipated catastrophe of exclusion from the family stops many people--often long after leaving home.

But breaking the rules of family secrecy is necessary to ensure the achievement of freedom and honesty crucial to making and sustaining authentic relation, ships. One of the best ways to ease into revealing long-hidden information is to tell an objective listener, like a therapist.

ROOM FOR REHEARSAL

Only rarely do my clients want their first and final telling to be with me. Making secrets with a professional helper is a double-edged sword. A client's relationship with a therapist, minister, priest, or rabbi can be an excellent arena to dissolve shame, find acceptance and empathy, and seek new resources for support and strength.

At the same time, sharing secrets only with professionals may negatively affect marriage and other relationships. Important issues may be discussed more in therapy, for example, than at home. Instead of being a dress rehearsal for life, therapy becomes the show. Most often, I find that people want a receptive and erapathetic context in which to unpack a secret initially, room to explore the consequences of telling others, then the help to do it well.

Imagine if your sister made a secret with you on the eve of your wedding and told you that you must not tell your husband. Or you are dragged into a secret about your parents just when you are taking tentative steps into the outside world. If a secret is made at a key point in development, the natural unfolding of self and relationships may be frozen. The shifting of boundaries that ordinarily would occur is suspended, creating a developmental deep freeze.

FROZEN FAMILIES

Every family experiences developmental stages. These are most evident when someone enters the family by marriage or other committed relationship, birth, or adoption, and when someone exits the family by leaving home or through separation, divorce, or death. Such entrances and exits require that a family reinvent itself in order to accommodate new roles. The stages of development are not discrete events but rather processes that take place over time. When that process goes well, complex adjustments occur in every corner of the family. When a secret is made in the midst of this process, adjustment screeches to a halt.

Samuel Wheeler tried to leave home when he was 19, but his discovery of a central family secret pulled him back and short-circuited his young adulthood. When Sam came to see me, he was 34 and still struggling with the aftermath. Aimless, jobless, and depressed, Sam wondered why he had never really found his focus. As we explored his past, I realized that Sam's life had frozen when his attempts to assert independence were squelched his first year of college.

Early in his first semester, Sam invited his mother to visit. "I was more than surprised when she arrived with a close friend of the family, Duncan," said Sam. Each morning for three days, Mrs. Wheeler left Sam's apartment at five A.M. and returned to have breakfast at eight o'clock. When Sam finally asked what was going on, his mother admitted that she and Duncan were having an affair. She also revealed that his younger sister had actually been fathered by Duncan.

"My mother had kept this secret for years," Sam mused. "Why did she have: to put it in my face at that moment?" The ill-timed revelation kept Sam from proceeding with his new life and developing his own identity. While very bright, Sam did poorly his first year in college, dropped out, and went back home. He had subconsciously returned to play watchdog for the family's relationships. His sister was only 15, and he was worried that she would discover the secret. He remained home until she left for college.

RESPECTING TRANSITION TIMES

Giving voice to the developmental deep freeze, Sam said, "Knowing these things about my mother's life has kept me from changing my relationship with her and my dad in ways I would like. I wanted to get closer to my dad, but this secret is like a rock between us."

Pulling Sam into a secret just as he and his family were moving apart also kept him from asserting independence. While there is no such thing as the perfect moment to open a secret, there are better occasions than a life-cycle ritual, such as a wedding or graduation. Because family relationships are already shifting, rituals may seem a perfect time to open a secret. The excitement of a major life change, however, will prevent resolution of the secret. Either the importance of the secret will be lost in the event, or the secret will diminish the importance of the ritual.

For family members to have the strength to handle a life-altering secret, it should be told during a normal time in everyday life. Otherwise, development linked to a life passage will stop in its tracks.

When secrets are as much a part of families as birthdays, it may seem impossible to extricate them from the daily routine. But I know it can be done. Each time I meet with a new client, I'm moved by the courage people bring to this endeavor, by the human desire to heal and to connect.

From the book The Secret Life of Families by Evan IrabetBlack, Ph.D. Copyright 1998 by Evan Imber-Black. Reprinted by permission of Bantam Books, New York, New York. All rights reserved.

PHOTO (COLOR): Secrets are kept or opened for many reasons, from self-serving abuses of power to the protection of others.

PHOTOS (COLOR): Family secrets are destructive and all families have some secrets from the outside world. Resist the temptation to handle them at transition times such as weddings, graduations, and new beginnings.

BY EVAN IMBER-BLACK

Photography by Chip Simons

Current Issue

Dreams of Glory

Daydreaming: How the best ideas emerge from the ether.