Family Secrets

It would appear that families are what they seem, but most often they are not. Every family has secrets that greatly impact its emotional health and personality. A family could have witnessed or experienced a trauma, and it was simply never talked about again because there had been an unspoken vow of silence. Some family secrets are generational, and others victimize someone in the family. The secret could be about something legal or reflect a law that was broken. Some feelings are repressed, consciously or unconsciously, while others are acted out by the children in a family for generations. Very little research has been done on the dynamics or long-term effects of family secrets.

When something traumatic happens in a family, either consciously or unconsciously, it affects the rest of the family. If the affected family members are not “debriefed” after the incident and allowed to openly express their feelings about it, depending upon its severity, the incident could affect the family members for as long as they live. It could even be passed on to future generations. 

When a child’s feelings about an event are not validated or are discounted, it can cause a split in the child’s psyche, and he will have difficulty connecting with those feelings.   He may even be unable to connect with parts of his body. 

We act out behaviors and do not think that they point to something else. These behaviors, though, are very significant. They reveal our own inconsistencies and become an element in generational patterns. Often these behaviors reflect a child’s enmeshment in his parent(s)’ pain and are the child’s attempt to “fix” the parent(s)’ unresolved issues. In taking on this burden, however, the child pays a price: He becomes angry. To cope with his anger, he creates a fantasy of the “perfect” parent and looks for this “perfect” person to connect with when he reaches adulthood. The relationship with his fantasy (incarnate) is euphoric and intense in the beginning. But, later, when the person sees his fantasy’s humanness, he becomes disillusioned and moves on to the next fantasy mate, and the cycle repeats itself many times.

Still the person does not know what is wrong. His denial is an ego defense that prevents his fragile self from knowing its own secrets. The problem is that the very thing that saves him early on becomes his operant principle later in life. This is why sometimes people do the same things over and over again and what accounts for destructive life patterns.   In choosing the same kind of “fantasy” person again and again, it is the wounded person’s attempt at working out the “emotional incest” that was foisted upon him as a child by his parents.

To complicate things even more, a family secret may create a cross-generational bond or triangle. Say there is a bad marriage, and the parents project this onto the child. He becomes the “secret bearer,” the one who tries to “fix” the family secret. He may become defiant or act out in some way to become the family “scapegoat” and take all eyes off the marriage and onto the child who needs to be made right. He has fulfilled his family role of “fixing” his parents’ broken marriage by causing them to work together on a common problem: him.

Birth order has a lot to do with what role a child might assume, be it “hero,” “scapegoat,” or “lost child.”

“A child can be a metaphor of generations in a family that has lots and lots of unresolved issues.” (John Bradshaaw, Ph.D.)

Therefore, it would prove beneficial for anyone to look to his family history to correct his inconsistent or incongruous behaviors. This can only be done by finding out exactly where he fits into the family. He needs to talk to family members to discover if there are secrets or damaging familial dynamics that have never been exposed to the light of day. The more people he talks to, the more valuable information he will be able to glean.

Can you imagine how much better off we would all be if we could learn why we are the way we are? We could repair the damage done by our parents, their parents, and their parents’ parents. We could discover the root of our problems. We could understand why some of us possess such a need to control, why family members abuse each other, and why some of us are so compulsive and complicated. Adult children abused in childhood would be less likely to abuse their own children, and we would no longer evaluate ourselves against our generative secrets. 

I will end with a quote by John Bradshaw on family systems and their importance because it sums up his message:

“I’m convinced that unless I know and understand the family system from which I came, I can’t understand my true self and the society I live in. What has been said about cultural history is true of individuals: If we do not know our familial history, we are most likely to repeat it.”