Family secrets are powerful. They can create a strong bond or they can be divisive. And for some reason, they aren’t usually insignificant. Affairs, abuse, addiction, mental illness, and even arrests are giant secrets that family members can be forced to keep. And while a family secret might bring siblings closer together, there are risks involved in keeping one; such as, guilt and lack of trust, especially in relationships outside of the family.
At the beginning of a mediation session, I remind my clients that everything they discuss in my office is confidential. My office is a safe place for a client to divulge a secret. “I never loved you” is one; “I slept with your brother” is another; “I took all the money out of our joint checking account;” “I’m moving to Texas and taking the kids;” etc. A safe place to relieve the burden of a long-kept secret is certainly helpful.
I also want you to think about the difference between what’s secret and what’s private in a family. As a kid, I never told my friends that my mom used to hide candy in the pockets of her robe and in her knitting bag. The fact that my mom was a bit of a candy-junkie was, in my mind, private. not a secret. To me, family secrets usually have some degree of embarrassment, humiliation, and/or shame attached.
So, what’s a family to do? Are there any guidelines about revealing a family secret? If you’re ready to let go of one, I have some suggestions:
- Try therapy. A session or two with a qualified therapist for the express purpose of figuring out the strategy of your reveal will be extremely helpful.
- Choose your person. Take some time to figure out with which family member you have the greatest likelihood for success. This could be your closest sibling, your calmest niece, your oldest aunt, etc. Avoid a group reveal — too many personalities can derail your plan.
- Choose a quiet time. Try not to make it when the family is together for a holiday or other major family event. This conversation should be focused on the story you’re going to tell, not on a particular date on the calendar.
- Prepare for a backlash. You might want to anticipate the questions you’ll have to field once you’re done with the telling. I can assuredly list a few: “Why did you wait so long?” “Why me?” “How am I supposed to process this?” Plan on bringing along some empathy, some compassion, and most of all, some patience. After all, you’ve been dealing with this for ages. Your cousin Heather hasn’t.
And most importantly, make sure it’s YOUR secret to reveal. Unless it’s been entrusted to you by some sort of deathbed promise or specific permission, if it’s not your own secret, ZIP IT. On the other hand, if it’s time for you to let it out, I wish you all the best. Please let me know how it worked out for you.