Families were created to be a safe institution in which humanity would create and protect their relatives. Since the beginning of time, this institution has been a place where humans build their identity. Still today, people invest money into DNA genetic testing to discover more about their identity through their bloodline. All too often, we depend heavily on finding our identity through families but fail to recognize the hinderance family secrets can have on our lives.
Issues such as adultery, abuse, addiction, adoption and reasons for suicide are just a few of the family secrets people struggle to keep. As psychotherapists, we come across a variety of family secrets people have to carry. Not all family secrets are destructive. Usually, families keep secrets with the intention of protecting others from getting hurt. However, these secrets can still have a negative influence in relationships.
Because family secrets become a part of a family’s culture, it can become “normal” within a family. For example, children will know not to ask questions about Uncle’s disappearance because the family “normalized” avoiding the topic. The consequence of normalizing family secrets is that it quickly produces shame, insecurities and the inability to trust. These children will learn that whatever it was that Uncle did was shameful. If they were close to him, they could build insecurities due to their association with him. Most of all, the relationships these children will build with the adults keeping secrets will potentially be dishonest and inhibit trust.
So how do you decide when or how to discuss family secrets? Here are three factors you should consider before “letting the cat out of the bag”.
Discussing a sensitive topic like a lifelong family secret at the wrong time could be worse than keeping the secret hidden. There are wrong ways and wrong times to discuss family secrets. Sensitive topics like these should be discussed privately. Timing is also key. Revealing family secrets at special events such as weddings or graduations will have a long-lasting consequence every year. It is best to have these important conversations during normal, everyday life. Sometimes hurt feelings are inevitable but it is easier to work through hurt during everyday life rather than during monumental moments.
When secrets are revealed, it is easy to find someone to blame. Blame for lies, distrust and betrayal. In these moments, it is important to remember that the secrets were kept with the intention of protecting the family. This by no means justifies the lie. However, taking sides will not help anyone heal from the hurt that has been caused. Stick to the facts.
Revealing what has been intentionally concealed for years is never easy. It is important for family members to have support. It is likely that there will be hurt feelings, confusion and betrayal. This is all a part of the healing process.
It is essential for family members to have a safe environment in which they can reflect on how this secret has impacted their lives. Secrets have the ability to influence our identity. This will only be identified when family members feel supported and not judged.
When done correctly, revealing family secrets can be liberating and transformational. Authentic relationships can be established when the hidden comes to light.