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Family Secrets

Allan N. Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

I recently read an excellent novel called The Memory Keeper's Daughter. This novel describes a tragic incident that leads to a secret being kept and that has even more tragic consequences later in the lives of all the characters who are unable to communicate with each other because of the existence of the secret.

SecretsDid you grow up in a family where secrets were kept from family members? Were secrets kept from you? Were these secrets really hidden or did everyone know or suspect something was being hidden?

During my years of experience working with families, I have come across situations where the most unbelievable types of information were kept hidden from someone.

Some examples of family secrets:

1) A child is not told that he is not the biological son of his father who actually adopted him when he was born. However, he appears in a photograph with his parents on the day they were married.

2) A young woman is raped when she is in college. She keeps this a secret from her family, friends, and the police. This secret stays with her for ten years before she finally reveals it to her therapist.

3) A father of young children has a dark secret known by no one but his wife. He wears women's underwear under his clothes. He hides this when he is out of the house but the underwear shows when he is at home. He and his wife deny the fact that everyone in the family probably suspects what he is doing.

4) Two sons are raised by their mother after she divorces their father. A curtain of secrecy is kept by the mother about so that the two boys never learn much about their father or his family. Later in life, the older of the boys, now men, meets the father and his family, never telling his younger brother or his mother.

5) A woman knows she is adopted but her parents fail to tell her that her biological mother is alive and has made inquiries about her because she wanted to meet her.

6) A woman has alternated between two men who she dated for many years: the man she finally married and the former boyfriend who she couldn’t give up. Although the two men know each other, the husband is unaware that his wife meets the other man at least twice per week. She cannot bear the thought of giving up either man.

7) A wife has good reason to believe that her family is financially secure because her husband is a very successful businessman. What she does not know is that he has a gambling addiction and they are on the verge of bankruptcy because of the enormous gambling debts he has accumulated.

One of the most toxic problems confronting many families is the existence of secrets that prevent open communication and ultimately lead to serious health and mental health problems for family members. In the end, some families are unable to maintain their cohesiveness because of family secrets. Yet, there is little written about family secrets and their impact on marriages, children, and kinship relationships. In this essay we will explore why people keep secrets, how they affect relationships and the types of problems that emerge as a result of secrecy.

It is important to stress that it is sometimes better to not reveal a secret - if it will cause undue and unnecessary damage with no benefit. However, it is the belief of this therapist that most secrets are better brought out into the open.

Motivations for Secrecy in Families:

Shame is a powerful motive for keeping secrets.

Some of the categories of things about which people feel shame:

A) Divorce: When I was a child divorce was rare compared with today. For most people it was embarrassing to admit to divorce. It was not unusual to attempt to hide a divorce from the community. My parents were divorced when I was 3 years old. When I became school age, I was instructed by my family to say that my father had died if asked by the teacher.

B) Mental Illness: Even today, when the public knows more than ever about mental illness, many families continue to maintain a shroud of secrecy around a relative who suffers from one of the psychoses, such as schizophrenia. Years ago these feelings of shame were so powerful that schizophrenic family members were permanently locked away in mental institutions where they were never seen or heard from. Other families locked their mentally ill relative in a room and maintained isolation and secrecy about this person.

C) Rape: I have a number of female patients who were raped either during their early adolescence, late adolescence or adulthood, and who kept the crime a complete secret. These survivors of violent rape attacks blamed themselves for the rape and continued to feel guilty well into late adulthood.

D) Women: Sexual issues and various types of sexually transmitted diseases are sources of extreme shame and embarrassment for women because they fear that they will be judged as promiscuous if they admit to a boyfriend that they have an STD. In this case, I am referring to the less deadly types of STD’s such as Chlamydia and herpes, rather than the more serious diseases such as HIV, which has this as well as other issues surrounding it. I have seen many cases in which a woman is reluctant to begin a relationship because she fears rejection if she admits to having an STD.

E) Adoption: Even today, some families treat adoption as something to be ashamed of. Perhaps this has to do with the fear that they will be judged by others for not being able to have their own children. In addition, there are those parents who fear that if their children learn that they are adopted, they will want to find their biological parents and turn away from their adopted ones. As a result, there are those unfortunate families who keep the adoption a secret from their children.

F) Alcoholism or Drug Addiction: Some attempt to hide their drug addiction for fear of losing their jobs and others fear the loss of their loved ones if they admit to their addiction. The fear of judgment is a powerful motivator for secrecy because people find it difficult to admit, even to themselves, that they have an addiction. Yet, the possibility of recovery dictates that the addict recognize the addiction and find help.

G) Job Loss: In our highly competitive society in which success is measured by the amount of money that you make, being laid off, downsized or fired from a job is experienced as extremely painful and leads to feelings of depression for many people. Men feel most stigmatized by losing their jobs because so much of their self worth is measured by their ability to earn a living for their families. There are actually cases in which a father has lied to his children about his work status, pretending to the child that he still has his old job. In one case, the particular father went to work driving a taxi cab, changed his clothes at the garage to fit that of a driver and tried to make a living in this way so that his children and neighbors would not know the truth.

H) Extramarital Affairs: In example number 6 above, the woman lived a double life. The lover knew of the husband and wanted her to leave the marriage and be with him. She didn’t want to leave her husband because she did not believe the lover could maintain a serious relationship leading to marriage. In addition, she feared condemnation from everyone and maintained strict secrecy around everything she was doing. She admitted that the entire secret could be discovered by her husband one day but, in fact, she was in denial about this possibility. She was constantly plagued by feelings of guilt, yet, could not stop the affair or leave the marriage.

I) Homosexuality: When I was a young man, studying for my PhD, the head of my dissertation committee admitted to all of us, students and faculty alike, that he had left his marriage of 25 years and his adult daughters, in order to live in a homosexual relationship with his lover. He had kept his real sexual identity hidden from his wife, children, colleagues, and friends, out of feelings of shame and the fear of rejection. It was the era of increased sexual tolerance and greater public awareness that allowed him to "come out of the closet." At first shocked, his daughters later came to accept him and his wife had always suspected something was not quite right.

J) Gambling: Tragically, in case number 7 above, the wife did not learn the full extent of the dire financial situation for herself and the children until after her husband suddenly died of a heart attack. Learning the reality of the situation was disastrous for her and led to a complete life style change due to the seriousness of the debt.

This is not a complete list of all the reasons why families keep secrets. Criminal behavior, violations of the incest taboo, and suicide are additional examples of the many other factors leading to lies and secrets.

Consequences:

Secrets lead to lies and secrets and lies can have serious consequences. That is really the theme of the novel, The Memory Keeper's Daughter, in which one character's secret and lies lead to more secrets and lies committed by others in the family and community.

In the real world, I heard of another case in which a son was not told that his Dad is not his biological father. The father who raised him died of a heart attack caused by congenital heart disease. The son, believing that this was his natural father, assumed that he inherited the same gene for heart disease. He spent twenty years carefully limiting his diet and working out in order to delay the onset of what he predicted would be his own demise due to the same heart disease suffered by his father. Then, on her death bed, his mother admitted to him that his Dad had adopted him when he was a small child and neither one had ever told him the truth. The reason for the secrecy was the fact that the biological father was a convicted criminal. The parents feared that the only hope of having this boy lead a normal life was if he knew nothing of this biological father. Needless to say, it came as a tremendous shock to this man to learn first, that his Dad was not his biological father and also that he harbored no genes for heart disease.

In case number 2 above, the young woman finally felt enough trust in the therapist to summon up her courage and reveal the fact that she had been raped when she was in her very early twenties. For ten years she harbored this secret, feeling like she was damaged, believing she was at fault for the rape, fearful of telling her boyfriend for fear she would be judged promiscuous and rejected, and living with an enormous amount of rejection. Once she started to discuss the rape in therapy, including all of her beliefs and fears about its occurrence, and once she felt fully accepted by the therapist, she started to feel enormous relief and her depression started to lift.

Intimacy Made Difficult:

Family secrets have consequences beyond what the secret keepers ever imagined. For example, in case number 2, the young woman who had been raped avoided forming a permanent relationship with a man for fear that when he learned about her rape she would be rejected. However, her trust in her therapist and the safety of the therapy office allowed her to take the risk of revealing the secret. The therapist’s sympathetic, warm, and assuring response was such that she found the courage to tell her boyfriend. His compassion, warmth, and total acceptance of her were the source of even more relief. Then, she decided to tell her mother about it and learned information that was enormously helpful to her in her recovery from depression.

When this young woman told her mother about the rape she was once again met with warmth, acceptance, and deep feelings of regret that her daughter had kept this secret for so many years. The question was why had the young woman elected to maintain secrecy?

The answer to the above question was that the young woman was raised in a family culture of secrecy. After she and her mom talked about the rape (a very emotional discussion) her mother revealed all types of family secrets that had been kept from the children for years. The most important secret was that there was a long history of schizophrenia running through both sides of the family for many past generations. Keeping secrets became the norm of family functioning. Thus, it was natural for the young woman to hold a personal secret for so many years. Family members, extremely ashamed of mental illness running in the family, developed a culture of non communication and secrecy to protect themselves from the truth and to prevent any embarrassing information from becoming available to outsiders. The young woman's reaction to all of this was huge relief at no longer having to live with secrets, even though she did not know many of these pieces of information.

The relationship between this young woman and her boyfriend has grown deeper and closer as a result of her having divulged the awful truth of what happened to her many years ago.

Distrust and Anger:

Maintaining family secrets provides an opportunity for some family members to form a bond between one another. However, the involvement in maintaining a secret means that other family members are excluded. For example, two relatives may join together to keep a secret that may not involve a third member except to guard the secret from him/her. Therefore, this third individual is excluded. In order to continue to keep the secret, lies often have to be told and truth distorted. If the excluded member makes an observation that is perceived as coming too close to the secret, then the observation has to be refuted. In case number one, I was the younger child who, upon entering elementary school, was coached by the family to state that my father was dead. I was so young that the “untruth” became “true” in my mind. I simply came to assume he was dead. Decades later, when the truth emerged and I had the opportunity to meet my father, I felt alienated from my older brother who knew the truth and kept it from me.

Children and Learning Problems:

Learning and education are made possible by human curiosity. However, there is plentiful evidence that maintaining family secrets deeply affects children's ability to learn. The nature of secrets is that no one knows about their existence. However, children are intuitive and are quick to sense changes in tone of voice, facial expressions, and other non verbal communications indicating that there is a secret. If they have reason to fear asking for information because of parental anger, it has a dampening effect on their education. There are simply too many case studies in the literature that illustrate the fact that once a therapist helps a family to disclose and discuss a secret, the learning difficulties of the child vanish. Peggy Papp, family psychotherapist, writes about a case in which a ten-year-old girl has math problems until she is helped by her therapist to understand something in her parent's wedding picture that made no sense to her. Together, they added the months between her parents wedding and when she was born and she discovered that she was 15 months-old by the time they married. Her parents then admitted that she was adopted. Her math problems in school vanished.

Somatic Symptoms, the Body Speaks:

We human beings are metaphorical in nature. It has been my experience that after suffering a "broken heart" over a tragedy, a person has a heart attack. Some examples of the relationship between physical or somatic symptoms and secrecy are:

1) Bulimia Nervosa: The bulimic person keeps their binging and purging a strict secret out of feelings of shame and self disgust.

2) Anorexia Nervosa: The anorectic patient keeps self starvation a secret from herself. This is referred to as denial. I have seen families in which parents, as well as the anorectic individual, are in denial about the illness.

Conclusion:

I have also known of many cases where children are raised in an atmosphere of dark secrecy about both the matriarchal and patriarchal parts of their families. They grow up with a sense that something must be wrong but fear discussing this with their parents. In this type of family, once secrecy becomes the norm, there is no end to the ways in which information is blocked from flowing. In these situations, children keep secrets from parents, and parents keep secrets from children and from one another. This carries over into generations as the children marry and keep secrets from their spouses. None of this is benign since the individuals from these families who become patients, experience depression and physical or somatic symptoms.

There are studies that show that secrecy results in feelings of powerlessness. One study demonstrated that in families where secrecy was a major issue, especially with regard to sexual offenses, vulnerable youth were at greater risk of becoming sexual offenders themselves. When they committed the act of rape, they ordered their victims to behave in certain ways. The research concluded that the rape was a way to overcome the helpless and victimized feelings they had experienced in the family. Of course, the rape itself had to be kept secret, perpetuating the cycle of maintaining secrets. The study concluded that for these young people, family secrecy and deception established and maintained a disregard for the truth and for the customs of society. However, this does not mean that family secrets of and by themselves create sex offenders. Rather, it is the situations in which youth may have conduct disorders and other anti social features to their personalities, combined with family secrecy, and deception that can lead to acts of sexual abuse and rape.

I have always maintained that there are few secrets that are so dangerous that they cannot stand being brought out into the open, where they suddenly lose the evil and dark air that once surrounded them. What was once said in reference to war is true about secrets and the decision to reveal them: "There is nothing to fear but fear itself."