Bianca Bagnarelli

Editor's Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

Many years ago, a close friend confided that she had been pregnant at age 16, and that after being with her baby for five days, she was obligated to give him up for adoption. When she told me, she was in her mid-40s and married to a lovely man with whom she had a 7-year-old son. She was clearly still anguished over this secret, which she had never told her husband.

I urged her to trust that he would be supportive, so she told him, and his response was to offer his full support in finding the child if that was her wish. She ultimately decided not to, for reasons she didn’t really explain to either of us. My friend struggled with depression and alcohol dependence most of her life, and I’ve wondered whether those problems were related to the trauma of being forced to give up her child.

When her second son was about 14, she suffered a brain injury as a result of a surgical procedure and was left seriously handicapped. Our friendship continued, differently, with meaningful communication made very difficult. Her son, who had been extremely close to his mother, has said several times in the years since that he wished he understood why she was so tormented. He sought therapy in his 20s to try to deal with the effect that her alcoholism had on him.

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?

Deborah
Calgary


Dear Deborah,

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.

Of course, bringing this secret out into the open will affect everyone involved. You say that one reason your husband seems hesitant to tell his son the truth is that he worries he’ll have some obligation to his son’s half brother, and maybe he doesn’t want to complicate his life in his old age. But it could also be that, like his late wife, your husband has some shame about this secret, and it will be important for him not to let those feelings get in the way of offering the missing piece of the puzzle his son has been trying to put together for years, answers he’s likely been seeking even before he began directly asking questions about his mother’s distress.

As for your stepson’s reaction, it’s true that you don’t know how he’ll receive this information. He may find the news shocking, or he may find it not all that surprising, a simple filling in of the blanks that he’s been craving all along. Either way, people have a right to know the truth of who they are, and part of who he is was shaped by who his mother was, and continues to be shaped by the fact that he has a sibling out there whom he hasn’t met—and may very well want to.

Consider, too, that the sooner you tell him, the better, not only because doing so will relieve him of the “unthought known” he may have been struggling with for decades, but also because his father and you, who knew his mother well, are currently available to answer the questions he’ll have. (Another problem with waiting is that the more time passes, the more likely the scenario that his half brother will have died before your stepson could meet him.) If, on the other hand, you put this off and don’t tell him while you’re both alive and able, he might discover it on his own, which would leave him with nobody who knew the secret to discuss it with. And in that scenario, adding to whatever pain this information may cause him will be the pain of the betrayal he’ll feel if you both go to your graves having hidden something so significant from him: a chunk of his identity.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.

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