My friend died about 15 years after her injury. Her son is now 38, and a few years ago, his dad and I married. My husband and I have talked about whether or not his son should be told of the existence of another half brother—my husband has two children from a first marriage, with whom this son is very close—and his inclination is to say nothing. He wonders about the effect the news could have on his son, who is quite a sensitive person, and also whether, if this half brother were found, he (my husband) would feel morally and/or financially obliged to him, given the connection to his late wife.
My husband and I are the only ones who know this story. My question is this: Does my husband’s son have a right to know he has another sibling? Would telling him serve any purpose beyond unburdening us? Given that we don’t know whether the effect on him would ultimately be positive or negative, is it worth the risk?
Here’s something important to understand about family secrets: They’re rarely as secret as people think they are. Children especially are attuned to what’s unspoken in their households, in the sense that they “feel” the secret, even if they don’t know its content.
The psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas wrote about what he called “the unthought known,” referring to something that a person knows on some level but can’t put into words. Secrets are like that: The child knows that there’s something to be known, but doesn’t know what. The secret might be that a parent has been having a long-standing affair, or that the child was adopted but never told, or that a death wasn’t an accident but a suicide—and the information is highly guarded. The secret, of course, is kept with the intention of protecting the child, but instead it makes the child feel unsafe, on edge. There’s always the disorienting sense that something is off.
This is why Carl Jung called secrets “psychic poison”—they’re emotionally corrosive, especially in families, where the truth is being hidden from us by the people we’re supposed to trust the most.
But secrets aren’t just corrosive for the person in the dark; they’re also corrosive for the bearer of the secret. Over time, secrets can wreak not just emotional havoc (leading to anxiety, depression, addiction), but physical illness as well—stomachaches, headaches, and more. They also tend to travel through generations. Children from whom a secret was kept may end up, as adults, keeping secrets from their own children. They may also have trouble trusting partners in romantic relationships without understanding why. It must have been so hard for your friend to hold this painful secret, and it’s very likely that her son has been, in a sense, holding it too.
All of this is to say that telling your stepson the truth about his mother wouldn’t just unburden you; it would also unburden him. In fact, the only thing worse than knowing about something difficult is knowing that something difficult is being withheld from you.