I am a keeper of secrets. Like a priest in a confessional, I have the responsibility of holding and handling people's most sacred, and oftentimes shameful secrets. One of the first contractual agreements I, like every therapist, enters into with a client or clients, is that of confidentiality. I commit to being the professional secret keeper.
There are times, however, when I am struck with a conundrum: Should this particular secret be revealed in the best interests of the family/partner/children, or is it more useful for me to enable the person/people to keep this secret?
A couple arrived dishevelled, distraught and in a state of dilemma. The night before, her husband of many years had disclosed that he was in love with another woman, with whom he had been having an affair for the past year. Their primary dilemma was whether or not to tell their children. I wondered why this took me by surprise. It concretised a known fact: that today's parents prioritise children over and above their relationship. So, naturally, their go-to place when faced with such a huge crisis was, let's call in the kids!
I say no kids! This is when parents have to be parents — adults, actually — and work out their own lives without co-opting children into this space. Not yet, anyway. The looks on their faces let me know they held a different view; they were relieved. The perpetrator was relieved because he got to maintain his superhero status with his kids a little longer. The mom, feeling as all victims feel, longed for the support and exposure of dad as a cad, proof that he was no hero at all. But at the same time, she felt protective towards this lifelong mate of hers and, as shame and humiliation seeped into her, she wanted to keep the secret to avoid her children from seeing her as a failure.
I turn to the law, human and sexual rights, and the social sciences for answers. And I'm often left empty-handed and searching my own accumulated wisdom, values and devices on how to manage keeping family secrets from children.
What I do know is that the impact of keeping a secret can cause alienation and distrust, and be a barrier to intimacy. I also know that secrets have always existed, but today's families face special dilemmas about secrecy, privacy, silence and openness. Google has to be the prime enemy of every family trying to keep a secret, right? It's easy for Generation X and Z to google whether or not a parent really has a degree from a particular institution, perhaps has other children reaching out to them on FaceBook, or has a police record.
The assumption is that telling secrets — no matter how, when or to whom — is morally superior to keeping them, and that it is automatically healing. Clinically, I have learned that telling secrets in the wrong way or at the wrong time can be remarkably painful and destructive.
Ideally, we ought to avoid hurting our children unnecessarily at all costs. But bear in mind that children are witnesses to your pain, said and unsaid.
When should I keep a secret?
How do I tell a secret without hurting anyone?
How do I know the time is right?
I want to lead you down a path that will reveal to you that keeping a secret is not a betrayal. Rather, it is a necessity. But you have to weigh up the cost to benefit of disclosure in a mature manner. Confusing, right?
I'm going to give you a few common secrets families keep, and invite you to share your responses on whether to tell or not to tell, when to tell and how to tell... with motivations for your answers.
- Your past sexual life: sex worker, multiple relationships, virginity status;
- HIV status;
- Child given up for adoption or child from another partner;
- Financial concerns;
- Parental illness, physical or mental;
- Parental childhood traumas, for example a family suicide;
- Rape/sexual violence/childhood sexual abuse;
- Criminal record;
- Past alcohol/drug use.
Ideally, we ought to avoid hurting our children unnecessarily at all costs. But bear in mind that children are witnesses to your pain, said and unsaid. Your children are exposed to the tension you carry in your body as a result of shame, humiliation and the trauma you have perpetrated or has been perpetrated against you. The harm done to children is in your withdrawal, disconnection, anger or overprotectiveness. Telling your child may put an ugly name on why a parent has pulled away from the family, but it is, ultimately, naming a truth.
Family values include respect, honesty, trust and the right of everyone to dignity and privacy. Holding family secrets is the antithesis of these values. I believe you want to honour your values. This is the long-term investment you make in your children.
Keeping family secrets from children can be terribly painful owing to the feelings of exclusion and confusion they experience. Use your past behaviour to teach them your family values.
Here are a few points to consider, to guide you in your decision on whether or not to tell your family secrets to your children.
- Clarify why you feel compelled to share this information with your kids. If it's out of anger or revenge on an unfaithful partner, a deceased or living parent, and done to influence the children to choose your camp, it's obviously the wrong thing to do and damaging for your children. Separate the hurt and anger you feel personally toward your unfaithful spouse, abusive parent, your own shameful parts and their relationship with your children. Ensure that you explain to your children that there are parts in all of us that have the capacity to hurt ourselves and others, yet there are other parts that are loving and caring.
- Is this conversation age-appropriate for your children? Consider your child's age, their developmental level and their relationship with the parent who has cheated, a family member who abused you. Share it in an appropriate manner, with just enough information that the child understands your pain.
- Consider what kind of relationship you want to have with your spouse (or ex-spouse), family members, in the future.
Clear up your children's confusion as they see you continue to engage/be married to a person who has hurt you through their infidelity, a parent who harmed you during childhood or a drug/alcohol problem that needs ongoing rehabilitation.
Keeping family secrets from children can be terribly painful owing to the feelings of exclusion and confusion they experience. Use your past behaviour to teach them your family values. Focus on this rather than the behaviour that caused you harm or shame.
Your work is to make peace with your actions and perpetrated harms. Your children will be relieved to know and even empathise with your pain/shame if you present it to them in a manner that is adult, contained and allows them to feel safe.
For more information on family secrets, contact me.