What people don’t know can hurt them—and what they don’t reveal can hurt them even more. Secrets can destroy lives and relationships. When something is kept secret, it can grow in power and significance until it becomes the center of one’s identity. Fed by fear and shame, secrets thrive in the dark. People hiding with their secrets may shrink from intimacy, believing they would never be loved if their secrets were known. Secrets make strange bedfellows—we must cling to those who share our secrets; otherwise, we would be alone with our secret shame.
As therapists, we have learned the liberating power of revealing the awful things other people have done to us, the secrets of our benighted origins, the myriad ways in which we have been abused and molested by the people we trusted, our ridiculous and polymorphously perverse adolescent adventures (at any age), the entrapping habits and addictions we slip into, and even the weird and kinky thoughts and impulses that go through our heads at times. We even know the healing power of openly acknowledging the cruel and thoughtless wounds and betrayals we have inflicted on others, especially those we love the most. Therapists know how to liberate us from the crippling power of those universal secrets by pushing us to reveal them to others. Only then do we discover that others have similar secrets and that we all share the human condition and are not really required to be flawless in life.
It may be socially clumsy, however psychologically liberating, to expose private things, but it is psychologically and interpersonally damaging to keep significant things secret. Secrets involve relevant information that is kept from the people who need it. Secrecy can hurt, even when secrets are being kept to protect people from having to face unpleasant reality.
Hawthorne was a tiny 17-year-old kid, five feet tall, wiry, swarthy, hyperactive, charming, intensely engaging and irrepressibly loud. His sisters complained that he would swing from the chandeliers while they would try to study. Hawthorne had two tall, calm, earnest, Scandinavian college professor parents, and two tall, blonde, serenely controlled sisters. In this placid family, Hawthorne’s rhythms were disruptive and every sound he made cacophonous. In the first family session, I commented that Hawthorne seemed utterly delightful but strangely out of place in his family. Hawthorne acknowledged he had always felt that way too, and talked about how well he got along with people outside the home. He described his family’s opposition to his athletic efforts at gymnastics and wrestling, for which he seemed better suited than basketball and tennis (his father’s sports and the ones at which his sisters excelled).
After the session, Hawthorne’s mother called me to confess that Hawthorne had been secretly adopted. Her younger sister had run off to join the circus, had taken up with a Hungarian trapeze acrobat, gave birth to Hawthorne, and promptly died. The family had decided to keep Hawthorne from knowing the truth about his ancestry (which they considered embarrassing) while they tried to stamp out anything they considered Hungarian in his nature. The result was that Hawthorne had been raised to think he was defective and freakish rather than knowing he was an accurate realization of his unique genetic nature.
Hawthorne ‘s parents were relieved at the suggestion that the secret be revealed. They were reserved and private people, and had often wanted to tell Hawthorne the truth, but they just didn’t know how to bring it up. Like so many people, they were frightened by the prospect of revealing a long-held secret. Once the family secret was revealed, the definition of the problem shifted from Hawthorne’s embarrassingly foreign nature to his family’s prejudices and their skittishness about dealing openly with the truth.
The person who shares your secrets owns your soul. You are bound to those who know your secrets and you are separated from those to whom you lie and from whom you hide yourself. Most people cannot relax well with people from whom they are keeping any significant secret. And most people are eager to reveal their secrets once they feel they are in a place safe enough to do so.
The devastating destructiveness of infidelity is not primarily because the private act of sex has been shared with an outsider, but because the intimacy of the previously bonded relationship has been betrayed by the secret and the lie of the infidelity. During a secret infidelity, people are likely to feel alienated or adversarial with their old mate, and bonded to their affair partner. They may even feel caught up in the temporary romantic high of the in-love state. The crazy alliances produced by infidelity are familiar. One of those alliances might be with a therapist who shares the secret.
As the rest of the world gets more open and trusting, some psychotherapists persist in their historical phobia about truth. They seem to fear the family, perhaps even the world, would explode if its secrets were known. When therapists assume their clients are fragile and all family relationships are treacherous, they urge caution about honesty and intimacy. When they do so, they send the terrifying message that the client’s secrets really are that horrifying, that the client really would be rejected if the secrets were known, and that intimacy is not possible for one with such a secret. Such therapists, as they increase their clients’ shame and alienation, tell us they are guarding their clients’ privacy.
Arnold was a lawyer who had been depressed since having a mild heart attack and began seeing a therapist. After a few weeks of therapy, he told Marie, his wife of 35 years, that he needed to get a divorce. The shell-shocked Marie brought him to see me.
Arnold explained that his therapist, Dr. Lowe, had suggested that a divorce might help his depression. While he regretted that such a drastic measure seemed necessary, he would do whatever it took to recover. He explained that he had learned in therapy that he had married Marie for the wrong reasons. Since Marie needed him after the death of her father, Arnold had lived his life being a dutiful, responsible husband to her.
Arnold insisted that he felt excessive responsibility for his wife. His recent heart attack had led him to worry about how he would support Marie if he ever lost his job. He thought he owed it to her to set her free so she could find a healthier man. I told him this sounded like the sort of rhetoric people think up to cover their tracks when they are having affairs and want to run away from home. Arnold assured me he was not having an affair.
It did not make sense to me otherwise so I asked permission to speak to his therapist. Dr. Lowe explained that Arnold needed to get the divorce he’d always felt his father should have gotten from his mother, a chronically ill woman to whom his father catered excessively. Dr. Lowe had Arnold and Marie take a popular psychological test of martial compatibility, and sure enough, despite their 35 years together, they were officially incompatible. I explained to him that it seemed to me that Arnold was having an affair. Dr. Lowe assured me that was not the case.
Marie continued in therapy with me while Arnold continued to see Dr. Lowe. As soon as the divorce was final, Arnold’s long-suspected affair surfaced. He acknowledged that he had been involved in the affair since before the therapy began. He explained that Dr. Lowe had advised him not to reveal the affair, as it would upset his wife and sons, would look bad in the divorce case and would confuse the couple’s therapy. Marie was livid and the sons even more furious with their father. Arnold would not meet with me again.
Two years later, as is so often the case, Arnold’s great romance had fizzled. Arnold and Marie came back to see me to work out the details for their remarriage. Their sons’ lives, meanwhile, had been torn apart. The older one got divorced, the middle one dropped out of law school, and the younger one was heavily into drugs and 12-step programs. The younger one was preaching at his father and the older two were still refusing contact with him. All three were outraged at their mother for taking him back. They said they could forgive their father’s affair—people in crisis do things like that sometimes—but they were furious with him for lying to them and trying to get them to feel sorry for him.
The wounds from Arnold’s traumatic affair will be healed long before the wounds from his naive and ill-advised efforts to keep it secret. Infidelity, like a suppressed cough, cannot be completely hidden.
Therapists encounter the isolating and disorienting power of secrets almost every hour. Therapists in general are well-seasoned to handle these secrets with aplomb. We maybe adept at dealing with secrets about the things other people have done to our patients, but still frightened by secrets involving the things our clients themselves have done wrong. Faced with secrets of infidelity, like Arnold’s and June’s, we may be tempted, as Dr. Lowe was, to conspire with people to reduce their guilt while maintaining their alienating secrets—at enormous cost to the intimacy of family relationships.
When we therapists believe a secret is unforgivable and its revelations would be dangerous, the client receives a frightening message about him- or herself and about the world. We may accept our patients and make psychodynamic, systemic or sociological excuses for them, while still conveying that their secret is unacceptable to the world. Thus, while explicitly “supporting” them, we implicitly undermine their self-esteem, their sense that they are fundamentally decent, acceptable people. Clients treated in this way are bonded to the therapist but left isolated with shameful secrets that they believe to be too dangerous to reveal. Honestly, in all these years of working with infidelity, I have never seen a murder, a mutilation or even a divorce over an affair that was ended and confessed. The danger comes when the affair is continued, hidden, lied about or repeated.
I’ve been through so many frightening revelations, and have seen so much benefit and so little harm from honesty that I don’t hesitate to ask the embarrassing questions and push for total openness in intimate relationships. People who don’t want that much intimacy can push back, lie or quit therapy if they insist, but I don’t have to magnify their shame and isolation by agreeing that their secret is unforgivable and therefore anxiously sidestepping it. I grow increasingly confident in the safety of honesty during therapy. Certainly, therapy involves much more than openness, but it is a crucial step toward a trusting atmosphere in which both intimacy and change become safe and possible.
This blog is excerpted from “No Hiding Place,” by Frank Pittman in the May/June 1993 issue
Photo © Tom Wang/Dreamstime
Frank Pittman, MD, was a longtime contributing editor to The Family Therapy Networker.