THE BLOG
01/23/2014 05:39 pm ET Updated Mar 25, 2014

On Family Secrets: Lessons From Downton Abbey

From a psychological perspective, Downton Abbey continues to demonstrate that while times may change, many aspects of the human experience remain the same. Family secrets, a standout theme from the most recent episode, were as complicated and problematic 1922 as they are today. Anna and Tom's concurrent secrets and their simultaneous efforts to keep their humiliation to themselves sheds light on the extent to which carrying a secret can burden the family as a whole.

Family Secrets Weigh on the Secret Keeper:

Anna is deeply traumatized when she is brutally raped by a visitor's footman. As is all too common with rape (whether in 1922 or 2014), Anna blames herself. She shuts out others and chooses to keep this awful experience a secret. She requests to move into her own living quarters and pushes her beloved Mr. Bates completely out of the picture. Housekeeper Mrs. Hughes is the only one who knows of Anna's rape. She questions Anna's decision and begs her to take others' support and to go to the police. Anna feels this would be further traumatizing and would only make matters worse. Mrs. Hughes cites Mr. Bates' broken heart, and Anna explains that she believes the Mr. Bates would kill her abuser and then hang for his actions: "I can't let [Bates] touch me...I'm not good enough for him....I think that somehow I must have made it happen... I feel dirty. I can't let him touch be because I'm soiled...Better a broken heart than a broken neck."

Tragically, given Mr. Bates' recent brush with the law, Anna is not necessarily mistaken. When asked what she will do if she is pregnant, Anna does not hesitate to say that she would kill herself. Her determination to keep this secret reflects how common it is that keepers of family secrets would rather die than reveal their private pain.

Like Anna, Tom Branson feels terrible shame following his drunken tryst with Lady Cora Grantham's manipulative maid, Edna. His extreme preoccupation is obvious and his sister-in-law, Mary, raises her concern. Tom explains that if he told Mary the source of his utter distraction, she would "despise" him. Mary then gives some excellent advice: "It may surprise you to hear that I said that to someone once. That I did confess in the end and it made things a lot better.... Find someone you can tell, it will help more than you know."

Reluctantly, Tom takes Mary's advice, confiding in Mrs. Hughes, who takes action and helps Tom sort out the situation with Edna. Not all secrets can be resolved so easily as Tom's. And it is not necessarily clear that Tom has heard the last from Edna who seems to have a talent for resurfacing. However, when people are able to reveal shameful secrets, they frequently notice that their internal suffering resolves.

Coincidentally, the New York Times recently ran a fascinating story about family secrets. In most of the cases described in Bruce Feiler's riveting piece, a loved one sensed that there was more to a certain family story than their loved ones revealed. Following their death, family members (many of them journalists) conducted research and discovered secret marriages, second families, secret sexual assaults, and secret fortunes. Many of the subjects of this piece preferred to carry their secrets to the grave. As the story describes: "This seems to be a common provenance of family legacies: Some things are too painful to discuss while people are living but too important to be left unsaid after they die."

Family Secrets Also Weigh Heavily on Those Who Are Kept in the Dark:

The decision of whether to reveal a secret is always deeply personal, but both Dowton Abbey's episode and the New York Times story reveal a common truth about family secrets: Loved ones in the family are almost always aware that something is amiss and know that they are not getting the full story. Family secrets weigh on the secret keeper who must carry information with no chance to process it or receive input or support. Family secrets can equally burden the loved ones who are left to wonder.

The topic of family secrets comes up frequently in my therapy practice. A woman has been married for years to a man she never loved, a father lost a fortune in the stock market and his wife and children have no idea, a woman gave a child up for adoption as a teen and has told no one, not even her husband of forty years. It is never for me to decide if such secrets should be revealed, but when exploring the impact of carrying such a secret, it is worth considering if you really do your family members a favor by hiding such important information.

As the episode nears a close, Lord Grantham, who has also noticed that Anna seems too quiet, raises his concerns with Mr. Bates. Mr. Bates opens up about how worried and confused he feels about Anna's sudden withdraw. Lord Grantham replies:

There is no such thing as a marriage between two intelligent people that does not sometimes have to negotiate thin ice. I know. You must wait until things become clear, and they will. The damage cannot be irreparable when a man and a woman love each other as much as you do.

Hopefully Lord Grantham's well spoken words will help Mr. Bates find a way to support Anna through this trauma so that her tortuous secret will not destroy them both. Anyone carrying a difficult family secret should consider this wise advice.