It is frequently said that we don’t know what goes on behind closed doors and this, of course, is very true. A family can appear happy and stable in terms of how they present themselves to others outside the family, yet hide dark secrets. For example, the family may be affected by domestic abuse, alcoholism, incest, physical abuse, emotional abuse (especially the subtler forms of emotional abuse), covered up suicide, mental illness or a combination of these.
When my parents divorced when I was eight (divorce was more taboo then than it is now) I hid the fact from school friends and was terrified that they’d find out. I felt ashamed. Then, as I got older, I was afraid to invite friends back to my house as I was afraid my unstable mother would shame me. Later, my mother invited her boyfriend to move in with us; it was an invitation he accepted with alacrity, not least, I suspect, as he was living in his car at the time (a car which turned out to be stolen, but that’s another story). Unfortunately, he was an alcoholic which gave me yet another reason the feel ashamed of inviting school friends round. This was not only because he might be very drunk but also because I would have been too embarrassed to explain he was my mother’s boyfriend (again, such domestic arrangements were more taboo then).
Indeed, it is feelings of deep shame that make it necessary for all family members to be complicit in keeping the family secret and perpetuates the family dysfunction as it prevents them from seeking appropriate help from others, including therapists. We are all familiar with very extreme cases when we read in the newspaper that a seemingly ‘normal’ family has been massacred by one of its members, as occurred in the case of the Jeremy Bamber family murders.
Not only can the family keep secrets from those who are outside of the family but also from themselves. For example, in the case of an alcoholic father, it may never be acknowledged or spoken about by anyone within the family and everyone may act as if no such problem exists. Such a family might be described as hiding the truth from themselves because confronting the issue is too frightening and shameful for them to cope with. Again, such family complicity prevents help from being sought or offered.
Families may also keep their inner feelings secret. For example, a ‘stiff upper lip’ policy may be implicit within the household so that one has to go around smiling even in times of distress or justifiable anger. In extreme cases, a suicide attempt by a family member may seem to ‘come out of the blue’ because s/he was too ashamed and inhibited to discuss his/her personal unhappiness with anyone. Indeed, when I was showing obvious signs of depression as a child, I would be ridiculed for being ‘morose’ and ‘sullen’ as if it were a personal failing. In this way, the fact that I was an obviously disturbed child went unacknowledged. This meant I got no help, help that could have saved me an awful lot of psychological pain in adulthood.
Although family members may act as if everything’s fine on the surface, their true feelings are likely to communicate themselves through body language, intonation and facial expressions. For example, whilst my step-mother was generally polite to me when I was a child, the politeness was cold and distant and I did not need to be especially perceptive to sense the hostility and resentment of me that she harboured just below the surface. This had the effect of inescapably entangling me in a double-bind.
Implications For Therapists
For therapy to be effective it is necessary, where possible, for family members to open up about what is going on beneath the surface of family interactions so that the root problems can be identified and addressed. Understanding the subtext of family communication is key to resolving the fundamental, problematic issues.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).