Relationships with family members come not only from biological bonds but also from the bonds of maintained connection. When secrets enter a family, they can either enhance or undermine that connection. Benign family secrets that can increase closeness include things like children sharing a “secret” language from their parents or family units sharing inside jokes and traditions. The secrets are rooted in joy and intimate sharing of knowledge.
More insidious secrets, however, such as a prison record, sexual abuse in the family, or an extramarital affair, can pull at the fabric of a family and are rooted in the shame of broken rules and taboo subjects. These secrets are often kept to prevent embarrassment, protect a family from judgment, and avoid punishment. These secrets often lead to internal trust issues, increased anxiety, and shame. Let’s look at the three types of family secrets: individual secrets, internal family secrets, and shared family secrets, and how they impact families.
1. Individual secrets
An individual secret is a secret kept by one person from the rest of the family and include things like a teenager hiding a romantic relationship, a spouse’s extramarital affair, and a family member maxing out credit cards. Notice that in general, individual secrets tend to center on a family member hiding a rule violation. Individuals hide these violations to avoid consequences and possibly to protect others from the pain of the secret and the fact of the violation. Individual secrets can lead to immense anxiety within the family. The secret holder may feel anxious about being found out and the rest of the family may sense that something feels off, without being able to pinpoint where that feeling comes from. Holding a secret about one topic may prevent the secret holder from being emotionally vulnerable in other facets of family life, for fear letting one’s guard down. They may live in fear of being found out.
2. Internal Family Secrets
Internal family secrets involve at least two people keeping a secret from one or many other family members. Examples include parents who hide birthday presents from a child, and a father telling his teenage daughter that he plans to file for divorce, without telling his spouse. The internal secret, known by some and not others, creates sub-groupings, drawing lines between those who know and those left unaware. In some cases, that line may be appropriate. Parents keep presents a secret to create a sense of joy and surprise for the child on their birthday. The secret is temporary, motivated by the desire to create joy, and does not undermine the family.
However, inter-generational secrets in which a parent confides in a child and leaves a spouse out of the loop, creates strife. The daughter, feeling loyalty to both her father and her mother, may feel she betrays her mother by keeping her father’s secret—but betrays her father by divulging it. The daughter cannot maintain loyalty to both parents. This position is called a split loyalty, and it can eat away at a secret holder caught between somebody in the know and somebody left unaware. For children, this position is particularly corrosive as it involves one parent avoiding their own spouse and using their child as a replacement confidante.
3. Shared Family Secrets
Shared family secrets are pieces of information known within the family but forbidden to outsiders. Some of these pieces of information, as in the case of family traditions and inside jokes, actually increase closeness and cohesion by creating an internal culture that feels special. That said, shared family secrets are also more likely to center on taboo topics, such as abuse within the family, a family member’s incarceration, or the presence of alcoholism. People cite many reasons for maintaining family secrets, including protecting the family from judgment, dealing with possible consequences, and privacy. These secrets create a boundary between the family and the outside world and may pressure individual family members to limit their outside relationships to protect against the secret getting out. Family members may feel trapped by the secret and struggle to create close ties outside the family. These types of secrets may also lead families to internalize shame.
Big-Picture Consequences of Family Secrets
Every family has a right to privacy and determining the question of privacy versus secrecy will look different in every family. Hidden birthday presents, private diagnoses, and internal traditions can draw families together cohesively and lovingly. Family secrets that center on rule violations and taboo subjects however, tend to create strife. Individual secrets lead to isolation and anxiety about the secret emerging. Internal secrets create factions and often put kids in the middle of parental issues. Shared family secrets create a sense of loyalty based not on a sense of connection but fear and shame that the secret could come out.
Families must examine themselves and the way information moves through them. Only then can they come together and start to assess and address the role of family secrets.
Karpel, M. A. (1980). Family Secrets:. I. Conceptual and Ethical Issues in the Relational Context. II. Ethical and Practical Considerations in Therapeutic Management. Family Process, 19(3), 295-306. doi:10.1111/j.1545-5300.1980.00295.x
Vangelisti, A. L. (1994). Family Secrets: Forms, Functions and Correlates. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 11(1), 113-135. doi:10.1177/0265407594111007