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Telling a Secret Is Only Half the Story

04/22/2013 12:32 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2013
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Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

Secrets are relational. They are shaped, kept, opened and dissolved in social contexts. From couples, siblings, parents and children to churches, corporations and governments, secrets shape our relationships through their profound geometry of who knows and who doesn't know.

Frank Warren's TEDTalk and his PostSecret community clearly illustrate our fascination with secrets, but telling a secret is only half the story. The secrets sent to him are alternately whimsical, poignant, cynical, funny, sarcastic, angry, touching. They are the 21st-century equivalent of placing a message in a bottle and heaving it in to the sea, never knowing who may read it. And while we are moved by the notes to Frank Warren from an adoptee or a formerly suicidal person, and can experience the warmth and humor in the engagement ring/cat story, we remain voyeurs as these secrets do not belong to us or those we love.

In my 37 years as a family therapy theorist, writer and practitioner, people's struggles with secrets have taught me to be cautious in the presence of the untold, the not yet spoken. When a secret opens in a family, new information is released in to a pre-existing ecology. Relationships shiver and rock for a while as knowledge supplants ignorance and voice replaces silence.

Being a therapist makes me a professional secret keeper. I am often the first person to hear a secret held for decades or generations. Unlike Frank Warren's project in which a secret moves from inside a person to a community of strangers, my responsibility is to begin a critical journey to consider who in my client's intimate world should be told. I never assume that the first and final telling will be with me. Rather, I consider the opening of a secret in the therapy room to be the first step to exploring the consequences of telling others, ultimately doing so, and remaining for the real work of relational healing after a secret opens.

Living on the other side of the adoptee's secret in Warren's TEDTalk example is Elena*, a birth mother who gave her baby boy up for adoption and has never told Alan, the man she subsequently married. Elena now has a daughter, Suzanne, 16, the age when Elena had her son. I met this family for therapy due to increasing battles between mother and daughter. A previously close and loving pair, mother and daughter were arguing daily over how much freedom Suzanne could have. The more Suzanne pushed for autonomy, the more Elena clamped down. Just before I met them, Suzanne had stayed out all night, enacting Elena's worst nightmare. As I began to know the family, it was clear that Suzanne was a terrific teen who got excellent grades, was active in clubs and sports and had good friends. What was going on in this family? In our fourth session, Elena asked to see me alone. Both Alan and Suzanne agreed.

Elena's parents kept her tightly restricted as a teen -- no dating, no boyfriends -- and in response, Elena found ways around their rules, but had no knowledge to protect herself. -- Evan Imber-Black

Elena began our meeting, tears rolling down her face. "Alan doesn't know, Suzanne doesn't know, my in-laws don't know -- when I was 16, I had a son. My parents sent me away. I was forced to put him up for adoption. I have no idea what happened to him. I think of him all the time. I have to make sure this never happens to Suzanne." Elena's parents kept her tightly restricted as a teen -- no dating, no boyfriends -- and in response, Elena found ways around their rules, but had no knowledge to protect herself. In our conversation, marked by my compassion rather than the harsh judgment and shaming she had received as a teen, Elena suddenly realized, "Oh my god, I'm doing the very same thing to Suzanne that was done to me."

Over several weeks Elena gradually shifted her responses to Suzanne's burgeoning womanhood. As her shame and anxiety lifted, she decided she wanted to tell her secret first to her husband. Alan received her secret with love and concern. "I always knew there was something you were keeping from me because you were so distant from your own parents, and I never knew why. When you and Suzanne began to struggle, it was like you had become a different person, and I couldn't figure it out." Over time, Elena opened her secret both to Suzanne and to Alan's parents.

Deciding to open a secret requires careful thought, self-examination and imagining future relationships in which the secret has dissolved. The contemporary meta-message about secrets derived from talk shows and the Internet -- "got a secret -- blurt it out" -- is better replaced by an appreciation of the relational complexities. Secrets opened recklessly in anger, to divide loyalties, to shift the burden from your back to someone else's or to prove moral superiority can do harm. Secrets opened carefully, with empathy and regard, can offer a new found sense of integrity, provide vital information that truly belongs to another and reopen a relationship that has strangled in silence.

Placing a secret on a post card and having it go anonymously online differs markedly from the carefully crafted telling of a secret in a context of meaningful relationships. The former may be a rehearsal for the latter, but it never replaces it.

*Note: All names have been changed to protect privacy.

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