The most powerful energy that exists in the family is rarely if ever spoken about. It causes divisions in the family, stress, strife, and can have a major impact on diseases that affect everyone. What is this energy that carries so much influence?
Secrets in families can have devastating effects on every family member and all subsequent relationships (e.g., parental, sibling, relatives, etc…). Secrets are designed to protect the perpetrator (e.g., uncle, grandparent, cousin, parents) from being held accountable to the family for some action or status that is condemned or is unacceptable to the group. However, I will argue that “there are no secrets in families”, only a conspiracy of silence among family members not to talk about or bring up the subject. Who are the players in this conspiracy of silence?
Firstly, there is the perpetrator, the one who is the source of the secret. This is the person who committed the act that violated the family’s expectation of decency, righteousness, and religious practice. Many times, the perpetrator has some kind of power: money, property, status, or physicality. Everyone in the family knows to walk on eggshells around this person because the family does not want to upset the perpetrator for fear they will take away the resource that could liberate the family or enact violence to instill fear. Perpetrators get away with atrocities that others in the family would be punished for.
Secondly, there is the “enabler”… this person tries to maintain peace in the family at all costs, but it comes at a great sacrifice to self and all future relationship. The enabler makes excuses for the perpetrator in order to justify the behavior exhibited. This person may rationalize the actions or behaviors of the perpetrator to family members as being normal. For example, the enabler may say that “alcohol” is medicine for the perpetrator to the family so that they will overlook the fact that he or she is an alcoholic. The enabler tries to keep the knowledge of the secret from being revealed to the family. BUT… you can’t heal what you won’t reveal!
Finally, let’s talk about the “burden bearer” of the secret. The burden bearer isn’t always the enabler, although it is possible. Sometimes, this person is the victim of the perpetrator’s action (e.g., molestation, incest, rape, spousification), or has specific knowledge of what the perpetrator did (e.g., steal money, change the will, murder). The burden bearer carries the weight of the sin committed by the perpetrator and feels enormous pressure to keep the secret because if the information gets out, their worst fears may come true, and the family structure could be disrupted.
In conclusion, the question you should ask yourself is what are the family secrets you are aware of? Are you the burden bearer? Are you the enabler? Perpetrator? Have the secrets in your life disrupted your family relationships? All childhood trauma shows up in you love relationships, where family secrets can sometimes manifest.
Join our Facebook thread on Secrets in Black Families with questions you may have about families and relationships or sign up for the live discussion.
Leonard Sturdivant, Psychologist
The Marriage & Family Clinic