NCE – Family Secrets


In an old assignment for my family therapy class we discussed Evan Imber=Black’s discussion of secrets.  Imber-Black defines secrets as information which is withheld from someone that produces distress and shame as well as create symptoms of dysfunction in a family. Keeping secrets requires a degree of heightened tension and anxiety. Communication is less open and individuals are less emotionally present. For the secret-keeper a feeling of shame perpetuates the secret and an anxious worry that “if you knew you wouldn’t love me anymore” pervades their thinking (Family Secrets, 2006). In contrast the person unaware of this secret, exists in the family as an outsider within the system. At some level they are aware of this fact and that there is a problem, but they feel they are not supposed to notice. (Family Secrets, 2006). In addition to worry and confusion, individuals left in the dark begin to doubt their own intuitions. Over time, family secrets develop into a systemic problems that affect many generations. Imber-Black (Family Secrets, 2006), describes relationships as booby-trapped, waiting to explode symptomatically as a result of the ongoing secrecy. Triangles, betrayal, and hidden-alliances as just a few symptoms of secrecy in families that can develop over time (Family Secrets, 2006). In the end, nobody is able to live as a whole individual in full acknowledgment of the truth (Family Secrets, 2006). In time boundaries are laid down in which those who know and don’t know become divided (Family Secrets, 2006). Symptoms of these secrets are maintained and supported by efforts as by family members to maintain secrecy for the sake of a systemic homeostasis.

Secrets Supporting Symptoms

Imber-Black states that “knowing, but acting like you don’t know and pretending you are what you are not” are key components of secret keeping (Family Secrets, 2006). With this in mind, what exactly is meant by Imber-Black’s assertion that “secrets support symptoms” (Family Secrets, 2006)? The maintenance of family secrets requires a concerted and coordinated effort by everyone in the family. These efforts can involve the closed communication systems, rigid boundaries and emotional distance. By keeping a secret, the family is able to maintain homeostasis, although change is unable to happen for the better. For this reason, I am in agreement with Imber-Black’s therapeutic stance regarding the Reiger family secrets. While Imber-Black is supportive of whatever decision the family makes, and allows them to move at their own pace, she makes her position clear (Family Secrets, 2006). Secrets restrict the free flow of information, harming everyone involved. The secret keeper, is left with distress and shame and unable to live life outside this reality (Family Secrets, 2006). At the same time, this secret violates a person’s right to know, and “affects their ability to freely [process all information] about their lives” (Family Secrets, 2006)

Understanding The Positive Outcome

​What factors attributed to a positive outcome in this particular case? Not all instances of revealing family secrets, are likely to go as well as they did within the Reiger family. Fortunately several important factors were working in their favor. Firstly, I feel it helps that Dr. Imber-Black was the therapist. As an individual who has studied, written, and researched extensively on this issue, she was able to delineate several symptoms of family secrecy in the video. Additionally, I do feel it helps that some time has pasted since the tragic circumstances of Jerry’s death. The emotions surrounding these events are a bit “less raw”. I also think the strength of Ray and Liz’s marriage helped them work through this issue together. They appeared willing to listen and support each other throughout this process. Finally, while Liz’s parents and Jerry’s family had strong opinions about their marriage at the time, fortunately they were able to move past these issues. It seems they were open-minded enough to see things from Galen’s viewpoint, and how this secrecy was a dis-service to him.
​In cases where things do not go very well, I would expect to see a family divided, as a result of this new information. The mourning of a lost relationship is strangely similar to a death “of sorts” as family members stopped communicating. The end result is a long process of “radical acceptance” and “forgiveness” in order to begin moving forward. The toughest thing in such cases is the realization that you can only have control over your own actions and behavior.


Family Secrets: Implications for Theory and Therapy [Video file]. (2006). ​ Retrieved October 15, 2015, from The Collection.
Imber-Black, E. (1999). The Secret Life of Families: Making Decisions about Secrets: ​when Keeping Secrets Can Harm You, when Keeping Secrets Can Heal You–and ​how to Know the Difference. Bantam Dell Publishing Group.

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