From shotgun marriages to adulterous affairs, illnesses to drug abuse, every family has its secrets. So when, if ever, should the proverbial family beans be spilled?
In these confessional times, when TV shows like Jerry Springer and Jenny Jones seem to have little trouble coaxing their guests to blithely reveal the most sordid details of their lives, the answer would seem to be: whenever.
But Evan Imber-Black, a New York-based family therapist who has made family secrets her life's work, says people who see public confession as an all-healing process are making a major mistake. Sometimes, she says, a little secrecy is a good thing.
"The self-help crowd has led people to believe that you're only as sick as your secrets and the way to solve your problem is to blurt it out," says Imber-Black. "Life is a lot more complicated than that."
Imber-Black, who practices in New York City and Westchester County, says she was first attracted to the issue by patients whose chronic problems nearly always involved some long-held secret.
Over 25 years, she collected their accounts -- and took note of similar stories in the media and professional articles. The result is a book, "The Secret Life of Families" (Bantam Books $13.95), that was published in paperback last month.
"Once I got drawn into it, it's been endlessly complex and fascinating," says Imber-Black, who has also written a professional text on secret-keeping for fellow therapists.
So complex, in fact, that there is no simple answer for when and how secrets should be revealed. According to Imber-Black, the decision varies from situation to situation. The important thing to keep in mind, she says, is that a secret-teller must take into account the impact the revelation will have on others.
"You have to examine your motivations," she says. "When telling is more for your own gratification than for doing anything good for others or for your relationship with the other person, and when it's not appropriate for a child's developmental level, you had better think twice."
Some secret-telling is good. In years past, subjects like alcoholism, eating disorders or suicide threats were so taboo they were never discussed, she says.
"These things were so in the closet, when people needed help they couldn't get it," Imber-Black says. "Certainly, there are still families where that's true. Many of the things that were so taboo in the past are much less so today."
Some people are burdened by secrets. One of Imber-Black's patients, a 31-year-old devout Catholic, was estranged from her family, unhappy, and unable to sustain a relationship because she couldn't talk about the abortion she'd had in her 20s.
Eventually, she realized she had judged herself more harshly than others would. She shared the secret with her sisters, returned to the church, and came to understand the incident as a "private matter rather than a shameful secret," Imber-Black writes.
Adoption and fertility treatments, Imber-Black says, reveal the conflicting nature of secret-keeping. When is it appropriate for an adopted child to learn about her birth mother or for a child to be told how he was conceived?
And despite social changes, gays and lesbians are constantly faced with decisions over whom to tell or not to tell about their sexuality. "We're in better shape on that front than 20 years ago, but there's still that issue," she says.
Some secrets are destructive to individuals, but still must be revealed carefully. Imber-Black calls them "toxic secrets" and includes extra-marital affairs or life-threatening illnesses. Worse are "dangerous secrets" like spousal abuse or incest that require swift action and don't necessarily allow for careful consideration, she says.
Harriet G. Lerner, a fellow psychologist and author, says she can recall being 12 years old and sensing there was something terribly wrong in her family, but not knowing what it was. It turned out to be a secret -- her mother had been diagnosed with cancer -- but since she didn't know, she thought she had done something bad.
"Families tend to hit polarities -- either the lines of communication are shut down, or everything spills over and children aren't protected enough from adult anxieties," says Lerner, who works at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas and is the author of "The Dance of Deception."
"This is a long-term process," she adds. "I can't tell you how often I'll see someone who gets in touch with a deep grievance, [then]jumps on an airplane to see a family that normally talks about sports and weather, in order to bring up a hot issue in some confrontational way.
"When their parents get defensive, they get back on a plane, go home and tell me, 'My parents can't listen.' "
Dr. Donald A. Bloch, a New York psychiatrist, says he frequently has to warn his patients that some secrets aren't appropriate even to tell a therapist. When secrets of a marriage are routinely shared with a therapist and not a spouse, the therapist is in danger of becoming a third point in a relationship triangle.
"Certainly, there's not a universal benefit to saying things one has been hiding," says Dr. Bloch, a past president of the American Family Therapy Academy.
Imber-Black says the modern tendency to reveal secrets has even spilled over into dating. It's not uncommon for couples to share secrets on a third date rather than wait for a lifelong intimacy, she says.
When young people feel they have to tell their partner every waking thought, experience and emotion, "it generally leads to boredom."
When do you know it's time to reveal a secret? Imber-Black suggests that when a secret is causing you substantial distress, interfering with an authentic, caring relationship, or when the information is owed to others, it may be time to tell.
Another gauge is to ask yourself some questions: Who does this secret belong to? If I open to one family member, will I have to share it with others? What impact will it have on our relationship 10 or 20 years in the future?
"Whether you are making a secret or breaking it, you have to take responsibility for the long-term consequences," she says. "Not everything in life can be resolved after the next commercial break."
Myths about secrets
Family therapist Evan Imber-Black says TV talk shows give viewers these misconceptions about family secrets:
* Painful secrets can be opened without regard to committed relationships.
* Telling a secret is automatically healing.
* Any issues contained in secrets are resolved instantaneously.
* There is no legitimate sphere of privacy.
* Pseudo-intimacy and pseudo-community can replace genuine connection.
* Strangers have a right to judge and criticize you without knowing your full story.
* Telling your secret on TV will make you an instant celebrity.
* Relationship obligations, loyalty, and personal and social responsibility are of no importance.
* The historical context of a secret and the potential future consequences of opening it can be disregarded.
* Age-appropriate boundaries for secret-telling can be ignored.
Source: "The Secret Life of Families" (Bantam Books, $13.95)