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Four Ways Keeping Family Secrets Hurts the Family

Denise speaks from her own experience. She has had many trials and difficulties in her own life and seeks to help others through theirs.

Do You Have a Skeleton In Your Closet?


During a recent visit to my son's home, I opened the closet to hang up my dress. To my surprise, I was met by a grinning life-size skeleton. I quickly shut the door and thought I probably shouldn’t say anything. I knew if I didn’t, though, the bony contraption would come to haunt me in the middle of the night.

The next morning, I mentioned the skeleton to my son and he laughed. He said they named it “Abraham” and had purchased it for a Halloween gag. They planned to move it from the closet but had never gotten around to it. He apologized for giving me a scare.

Our family had a good laugh when I shared the picture with them and the following life lessons became evident:

  1. Family secrets start as fact but they eventually become fiction
  2. Family secrets multiply as we try to keep them hidden
  3. Family secrets are revealed unexpectedly
  4. Family secrets revealed are finally resolved

1. Family Secrets Start as Fact But They Eventually Become Fiction

Family secrets originate in real events but keeping them hidden from view distorts them over time. Each person who discovers the secret makes their own assumption as to its origin and meaning. Facts are lost in the translation and all that is left is hurt and confusion.

My son had purchased the skeleton for a legitimate reason. Then, not knowing where to put it, he stuffed in an inconspicuous place. His intention was to find a better storage place for it, but he never got around to it.

Families often have things happen that are either embarrassing or demeaning. They may take the form of addictions, abuse, sexual activity outside of marriage, dishonesty, incarceration, sibling rivalry that has gotten out of control, or mental illness.

We do our best to keep this information away from those who might be adversely affected by it. In an effort to control the damage revealing the information may incur, we keep the matter secret. Unfortunately, the passage of time changes it to the point that more problems occur from keeping the secret than we ever thought would happen with it being made public.


2. Family Secrets Multiply as We Try to Keep Them Hidden

Keeping family secrets causes them to multiply. We tell half truths to the point that people make assumptions as to what is really happening. One thing leads to another in our efforts to keep loved ones from getting hurt. The information grows out of proportion, leading to increased shame and regret.

My father had a brother that was rarely present at our family gatherings. He lived far away, never married, and worked in a "dream job" as a buyer for a large department store chain. He would send my grandmother beautiful clothing and when he came, the adults would all get together without the children.

There were times when I saw my uncle, or heard about things that he did, but I always wondered why the children weren't allowed to be there. We made up stories that maybe he didn't like children, or maybe they just didn't want to deal with us when he was around.

We would fantasize that we could travel the world like he did. He was a handsome man, and seemed always to be dressed in the finest. He took my grandparents on wonderful trips. Many of the grandchildren expressed a desire to become like him, including myself.


3. Family Secrets Are Revealed Unexpectedly

We never know what circumstances will lead to the opening of the closet. It may be an extended family member that stumbles upon it or the child of a friend. Family secrets are often kept in an effort to control what those outside of our family think of us. Unfortunately, people know and understand more than we know.

I was already an adult with a family of my own when my mother shared with me that my uncle was a homosexual and had died of AIDS. She told me that he had eventually become a pauper due to the high cost of his treatment and the choice to be isolated from others during his decline.

I realized that as a child, I had made assumptions, not knowing what was actually happening. I was deeply disappointed in my family when I finally found out the truth. I wondered how my life, and that of my cousins, would have been different if we had been told what was happening earlier.

Perhaps if we had known, we would not have idolized my uncle. The tragedy of his life could have been an example not to follow. As it was, the assumptions that we made lead to beliefs that were unfounded in reality.

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Scarcely an hour of the day goes by but what we are called upon to make choices of one sort or another. Some are trivial, some more far-reaching. Some will make no difference in the eternal scheme of things, and others will make all the difference.

— Thomas S. Monson

4. Family secrets revealed are finally resolved

Bringing family secrets out into the open enables intervention and healing to occur. Thomas S. Monson speaks of "The Three Rs of Choice":

  1. The right of choice
  2. The responsibility of choice
  3. The result of choice

As human beings, we have the right of choice. Every day, we receive a vast amount of information. What we do with that information is up to us. When we receive information that is troubling, demeaning, embarrassing, or even intimidating, we may be tempted to keep that information to ourselves rather than sharing it with our family members

Our responsibility to our families is to see that they have the information they need to become contributing citizens in this world. Oftentimes, we think that hiding information protects our loved ones from the evils of the world. The opposite is actually true. Bringing problems out into the open enables us to use the resources within the family to help one another deal with the issue at hand.

In my son's case, putting the skeleton in the closet did not make it go away. Family problems do not go away by themselves. We work through them together, learning and growing in the process. Yes, it is uncomfortable and we cannot predict the outcome. Time, patience, and love are required as we discover our weaknesses and imperfections, and strive to overcome them.

We may need professional and legal assistance to deal with the current difficulty, but the results of these choices bring opportunities for healing in the long run. Trust is enabled as we work together in the family setting. The pain and embarrassment of finding the skeleton are dissipated as we dismantle it and go through the process necessary to ensure proper intervention and burial. The solidity and unity of family relationships depends upon it.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Denise W Anderson


Denise W Anderson (author) from Bismarck, North Dakota on July 04, 2019:

Your are welcome, Dora. This article took me over a month to write. It was difficult to put the words down in such a way that the subject would be helpful even though I knew it would be uncomfortable. Just like bringing up finding the skeleton with my son, it would have been just easier to ignore it. I knew, though, that it would not go away. Our goal of achieving the healing helps us go through the pain of the difficult process. Thanks for your comments.

Denise W Anderson (author) from Bismarck, North Dakota on July 04, 2019:

You are right, Lorna. I think fear is the biggest reason that we put our skeletons in the closet. We fear what our loved ones will think of us, what others outside of our family will do, and how society in general may shun or demean us. We all have experiences with rejection in our past that were unpleasant or downright hurtful. It takes courage to bring problems out into the open and faith that our family's love will be there as we struggle through the difficult times. I appreciate your insights.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on July 04, 2019:

Thanks for sharing these insights. The topic may not be popular even though most of us can relate to it. And the healing is so necessary!

Lorna Lamon on July 03, 2019:

This is such a thought provoking article Denise. I believe most families have skeletons in the closet, however, sadly not everyone feels comfortable discussing them and so questions remained unanswered or avoided which isn't healthy. My Aunt is Gay and for many years she kept this a secret in the belief that it would change how we felt about her. Of course it didn't, - if anything we loved her more because it took a lot of courage to tell us. Perhaps it is the fear that holds people back not the actual secret.

Denise W Anderson (author) from Bismarck, North Dakota on July 02, 2019:

That is interesting, Mike. This is the very thing to which I am referring. Finding out after the fact can be more devastating than the original thing that was kept secret for so long.

Denise W Anderson (author) from Bismarck, North Dakota on July 02, 2019:

Thanks, Eric. We never know what is lurking in someone's past. Our ability to be honest with ourselves, God, and our families, can make or break us.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on July 02, 2019:

Denise this is great. Such an important lesson. I like how you laid it out.

I think you would like the book "Honest to God". Quite good along these lines. Thank you

Readmikenow on July 02, 2019:

Good article. It reminded me of actor Jack Nicholson. After he became famous, a reporter did some digging into his past. The reporter revealed to Jack Nicholson the woman he thought was his older sister was actually his mother, and his mother was actually his grandmother. I can't even imagine what it would be like to discover such a thing in that way. It proves what your article states, that family secrets revealed are finally resolved. Enjoyed reading this story. Here is a link to an article about Jack Nicholson closet skeleton.

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