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Family Secrets

Posted on 16 October 2019 by LeslieM

Fifty-five years ago, the mother of a loving family gave birth to a baby girl with Down’s syndrome. The child was sent to an institution and never mentioned in the family again … A middle aged daughter sits with her aging mother, who survived Auschwitz and learns that her father had been married before and had two daughters. She also learns that her father’s first wife and two daughters were murdered in Poland by the Nazis … A husband and wife celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary and the husband, recovering from a heart attack, tells his wife that he has fallen in love with his cardiologist — his male cardiologist … These are a few examples of secrets families carry. More often than not, they carry shame along with the secrets. “We are as sick as our secrets” is a slogan said at 12 Step programs, along with encouragement to share those secrets with a higher power and another human being in order to remove the power the secrets holds.

Keeping certain things in our lives to ourselves can certainly be a normal aspect of privacy; but, when such secrets have an impact on the family’s well-being, they can cause hurt and disrupt familial bonds.

As a licensed psychotherapist, I hear details of family secrets during many of my family therapy sessions.

Some of the family secrets disclosed include physical abuse, substance abuse, sexual abuse and hidden political opinions. (Families say they can finally open up about sexual abuse due to the “Me Too” movement and others say they hide their political opinions due to the current U.S. political climate.)

At times, family secrets are maintained due to the desire to protect someone. Parents try to protect their children from information and past situations they believe if known would be painful. Sometimes, this desire to protect does the opposite. One example is a parent not telling their child they are adopted. Another example is a caretaker who is known to the child as their mother tells the child that another relative is their actual birth mother. In these situations, honesty is best. Honesty will decrease the long held belief of protection and shame associated with family secrets.

Keeping a secret sometimes is the better choice and not unhealthy. If a patient tells me they wish to keep their past sexual escapades from their spouse or even their voting record a secret, I help them see that privacy is an active choice that they can be content with.

Many issues that were stigmatized in the past such as adoption, divorce, sexual orientation and gender identity have become more accepted today. Discussing these issues with openness helps affirm to a family that their situations are not shameful. They have become normalized and cared about.

My work as a psychotherapist is to cultivate honesty within the family system and to encourage dealing with family issues in a healthy manner. Family secrets can be worked through and families can realize that “change is possible.”

Dr. Julia Breur is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with a private clinical psychotherapy practice in Boca Raton. Her website is www.drjuliabreur.com. For more information, e-mail info@drjuliabreur.com or call 561-512-8545.

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