The Damaging Effects of Family Secrecy

Keeping secrets in the family leads to unexpected consequences for relatives.

Family secrecy can significantly affect family members, leading to emotional and psychological consequences. It is essential to explore the reasons behind it, the potential outcomes it causes, and how individuals within families are affected.

Secrecy means deliberately withholding information or keeping certain aspects of life hidden from others. It arises from various sources, such as unresolved conflicts, past traumas, hidden addictions, shame, financial difficulties, or a desire to maintain a particular reputation. The long-term effects can be detrimental.

One of the critical effects of family secrecy is the erosion of trust among family members. When vital information is concealed or spoken about in hushed tones, it creates a sense of unease and uncertainty. Family members may struggle to communicate openly, leading to strained relationships and emotional distance. The lack of transparency can breed suspicion and feelings of betrayal, creating barriers to forming deep connections within the family.

Family secrecy perpetuates a cycle of unhealthy communication patterns. Individuals learn to suppress their thoughts, emotions, and experiences when specific topics are off-limits or glossed over. What results from this suppression are difficulties in speaking openly to family members, making it difficult to resolve conflicts. Family relationships and communication are complicated by a perceived need to be self-protective about what is revealed.

When integral aspects of family history, relationships, or personal narratives are hidden, individuals may question their identity and wonder about the truth of their existence. This uncertainty can lead to a sense of not belonging to the family. A common suspicion among many children is the question, “Was I adopted or left on the doorstep? When the background of a family is based on being covert, it affects the self-esteem and overall well-being of the family. With a clear understanding of their family history and dynamics, individuals can make sense of their place in the world.

Addressing family secrecy requires open and honest communication. Families must recognize the importance of transparency and create a safe environment where secrets can be shared without fear of judgment or reprisal. Professional intervention, such as family therapy, breaks the cycle of being covert.

There is an excellent novel called “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter.” The 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 cannot communicate with each other because of the existence of the secret. Upon the birth of twin daughters, one has Down syndrome. The father sends the down’s syndrome away to be placed in an institution. The father tells his wife that one daughter died. The mother was under sedation and had no memory of the birth. A series of tragic events occur in the lives of everyone connected to the family. The story is an excellent example of how secrecy leads to tragic consequences.

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

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

Some examples of family secrets:
1) A child is not told that he is not his father’s biological son, who adopted him when he was born. However, he appears in a photograph with his parents on their marriage day.

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 that everyone in the family probably suspects what he is doing.

4) 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 wants to meet her.

5) A woman has alternated between two men she dated for many years: the man she finally married and the former boyfriend 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.

6) A wife has good reason to believe that her family is financially secure because her husband is a successful businessperson. She does not know that he has a gambling addiction and that they are on the verge of bankruptcy because of his enormous gambling debts.

Motivations for Secrecy in Families:
Shame is a powerful motive for keeping secrets.
Some categories of things about which people feel shame:

There was a time when divorce was rare compared with today. For most people, it wasn’t very comfortable to admit. It was not unusual to attempt to hide a divorce from the community. In addition, many husbands and wives remained in unhappy marriages out of religious belief or feelings of shame from the family and larger community.

Even today, when the public knows more than ever about mental illness, many families continue to maintain a shroud of secrecy about 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.

Some women were raped in early adolescence, late adolescence, or adulthood and kept the trauma a complete secret. These survivors of violent rape attacks blamed themselves for the rape and continued to feel guilty well into late adulthood.

Sexual issues and various sexually transmitted diseases are sources of extreme shame and embarrassment for males and females. However, if someone has a sexually transmitted disease (STD), keeping it a secret runs the risk of spreading it to other potential partners. With marriage, a husband or wife may feel too ashamed to reveal the disease or fearful of divorce.

Some families treat adoption as something to be ashamed of. Perhaps this is because of the fear that others will judge them for being unable to have their children. In addition, some parents fear that if their children learn they are adopted, they will want to find their biological parents and turn away from their adopted ones. As a result, those unfortunate families keep the adoption a secret from their children.

Another example of being covert is hiding the drug and alcohol addiction of one of their adult children. Sometimes, the driving force is denial or blindness to the habit. In other cases, the secrecy stems from shame and the fear of being judged by family and community members.

One of the most daunting driving forces for being covert is bisexuality and homosexuality in marriage. There was a case in which the chairman of a department at a university said that he had left his marriage of 25 years 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 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.

Covert gambling often has tragic consequences. When gambling is an addiction, it leads to bankruptcy. There is more than one case of a spouse leaning off their debt only after the gambling spouse dies or if it is no longer possible to pay bills.

There are many more reasons 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.

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