Dr. Peggy Drexler
November 10, 2013 3:00 pm

Glynnis has a secret. A big one. When she was 17, she had a child that she gave up for adoption. Over the years, she came to terms with that, with a confidence that—as painful as it was—it was the right thing to do. As an admittedly immature teenager in an already troubled family, she knows she would have been spectacularly unprepared to raise a child.

But the secret has seeped back into her life. She has a husband, who shares her secret, and two daughters who do not. “I’m really torn,” she told me. “Part of me feels that a mistake I made years ago does not need to barge into my children’s lives. But the older they get, another part of me feels they have the right to know—because I don’t like hiding things from them, and because they have a half brother out there. And I guess I’m also afraid of their reaction to knowing that their mother was irresponsible enough to get pregnant and then give her baby to strangers.”

The pain of revealed secrets has been headline news with a steady stream of politicians and celebrities, and the media—from tabloid to mainstream—has created a thriving industry in revealing what public figures desperately want others not to know. And time and again, part of the spectacle is the pain on the faces of the betrayed.

The pain is especially excruciating when the secret is dragged out into the town square by the media. Cate Edwards, daughter of John and Elizabeth Edwards spoke in a Today interview for the first time this year about learning of her father’s secret life with Rielle Hunter. “I was devastated and disappointed,” she said. “I mean these are my parents. I had grown up with a lot of love in my family.”

Glynnis’ fears about risking that same disappointment are well-founded. It’s said that a secret spoken finds wings. And we never know what direction those wings might take. It’s possible her daughters will process the news, ask some questions, catalog it as part of mom’s past that doesn’t particularly affect their lives or the family, and move on. She may find support—as John Edwards did when Cate stood by him in court on campaign corruption charges through hurtful details of the affair. But it’s also possible that her past will change your present. You might question her advice about boys and dating. You might wonder how she could give away a child. You might question if you really know this person  who has been a part of your whole lives.

What is a person with a secret to do?

In Glynnis’ case, there is a practical consideration. A Search Institute study reported by The American Adoption Congress found that 65 percent of adopted American adolescents wanted to meet their birth parents. So there is a chance—as with many secrets in the age of universal information—she might find one day that her secret is on her Facebook. The same might be true of the surfacing of a long-ago arrest record, or an Internet mug shot.

But even with the confidence that a long-buried secret will stay that way, there are considerations that go beyond the odds of it being revealed.

One is what happens to the keeper of the secret. Internalizing emotions can cause illness—ranging from headaches, digestive problems and, as in Glynnis’ case, a corrosive anxiety.

A major family secret that has not been shared can also set up an alternate reality. A family is built largely on trust. The members need to believe. If you find out that part of your belief—say, that dad wouldn’t break the law—isn’t true, then the solid platform of trust can shatter. If this is a lie, then what else is? That open question can lead to suspicions and resentments that can follow you through life.

What is the right time to be told?

When you were young, it was probably best to wait, since you would not have been able to fully understand what you were being told—just that it was bad, it’s about mom or dad, and it somehow involves them or you would be told about it. By adolescence, and depending on your age you should have been able to understand what you were being told, why you were being told, and why you had not been told before. By the time you have reached adulthood, the issue of need to know becomes entitled to know—even at the risk of shaking the foundations of your beliefs about your family that has shaped your life.

In Still Life With Elephant, which centers on a woman struggling with her husband’s affair, Judy Reene Singer wrote: “Secrets are like plants. They can stay buried deep in the earth for a long time, but eventually they’ll send up shoots and give themselves away. They have to. It’s their nature.” Eventually they grow into “a fully bloomed flower perfumed with the scent of deception.”

We can’t change the past. But we can take charge of its ramifications. It’s tempting for parents and partners to keep their failures safely buried. But for their own health and the trust of their loved ones, and when the time is right, it’s best for everyone involved to expose secrets to the light of day.

Featured image via Shutterstock

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