Saturday, May 18, 2019

The Virtue of Keeping Secrets

Of course, there are secrets and there are secrets. All secrets are not created equal. All secrets are not equally entitled to be told. Or better, as common language usage would have it: to be betrayed. Because if someone confides in you and you tell the secret you are betraying a confidence.

This being the case, the therapy culture does not believe in secrets. It believes that you should tell everything that is passing through your mind… especially to your significant other. What better sign of true love than being totally transparent, having no secrets from one you love.

Of course, not to be too obvious, but if each of you know all of each other’s secrets you are effectively both the same person. Keeping a secret signifies your separateness, your integrity. If you cannot keep some things from your true love, you are looking for a complete meld, not a relationship.

Moreover, would you ever trust someone who cannot keep a secret? Think about it. If your true love tells you everything, how do you know that said individual does not do the same outside of the home, with other people. You might believe that you should have no secrets in one part of your life and that you should keep some in other parts. Yet, if you make a habit of blurting out whatever in crossing your mind to one person, there is no reason to believe that you will not indulge the same habit outside of the home.

We all understand that this mania about not keeping secrets comes to us from Freud. When he prescribed free association he was telling his patients to speak whatever crossed their minds, regardless of how trivial or offensive it seemed. You might think that Freud merely meant that patients do this in session. Yet, why develop a bad habit, one which is declared to be therapeutic, and expect people to keep in inside the analytic session? Let's not be too naive.

Besides, Freud also believed that no one ever really keeps a secret anyway. He imagined that we are all open books, that our secrets are written on our foreheads. If not there, they are oozing out of our every pore. And thus, by his theory keeping a secret is a futile exercise.

Of course, this is nonsense, a rhetorical ploy to encourage verbal incontinence and social dysfunction.

So, we have two cases where advice columnists, one a therapist and the other not, advise people not to keep secrets. Naturally, they are both wrong. Yet, one is more wrong than the other.

Examine the latter case first, from a letter sent to Carolyn Hax at the Washington Post by a woman who has just become engaged to marry. We wish her the best:

I have significant abandonment issues because of my childhood. Now that I'm 30, I've grown past the worst of it.

My long-term boyfriend recently asked me to marry him, and I said yes — we are both extremely happy. However, I've been having irrational thoughts lately about his falling victim to a horrible accident and my losing him forever. I've never been particularly afraid of death or of losing anyone like this before.

How can I tell him I have these irrational ideations of his untimely death without scaring him away?

Here, the issue is whether or not to confide a fantasy. Here is some of what Hax has come up with. She thinks that telling the secret will test her fiance's love. Because we are sure that he wants to be tested and that he will think better of his fiancee when she does.

The way to learn whether you can count on your boyfriend for that is to tell him the very truth you fear will drive him off — because you need that confidence more than you need him.

I realize that will sound strange, as if I’m advising you to scare him off just to prove you can’t scare him off.

But the nuance is important. Testing people for the sake of testing them is terrible. But being yourself and telling and living your truth — and then paying attention to how a person responds to that, and deciding from there whether they’re healthy for you — that’s how authenticity works.

And a life without ever having to ask, “How can I ___ without scaring him away?” is what it delivers, if you’re patient.

The alternative is to hold a piece of yourself back in response to that fear, which will then keep him from knowing you fully for who you are. If he loves only the version of you that you dare show him, then he doesn’t love you.

Finding that out years into a marriage rips couples apart so much more often than horrible accidents do.

Plus, it’ll keep you from knowing how good it feels to be loved frailties and all.
So let him know you. If he’s a good fit for you, then he’ll be grateful you told him the truth — and he’ll stick around to help you through it. And if he’s not the right guy, painful as that would be to find out, it’s better to find that out now.

Aside from the basic point, how does Hax know that this is who the woman really is? We do not know? We have no idea where the thought came from? Confessing a fearful fantasy is not a sign of honesty or truthfulness. It is a sign of truthiness. Does this man, who just proposed marriage, need to hear that his intended is being consumed with thoughts about his imminent demise.

Hax does not consider the point, but it’s the only point we should consider here. The point is: when her fiance hears the point, how will he react? Won’t he ask himself why she is telling him? Is she warning him against marrying a woman who is on the verge of a breakdown? Is she telling him that she wants to see him die, thus, that her fear is really her wish? Or perhaps she is testing his love, giving him an opportunity to show that he loves her even though she is consumed by visions of him dying.

So, the correct answer is: perhaps share the thought with a professional. Otherwise, keep it to yourself. I have purposefully excluded the possibility that she is a soothsayer who can see the future.

As for the other case, reported by therapist Lori Gottlieb, it concerns a more difficult issue. A woman has married a man whose 38 year old son does not know that he has a half-sibling. Before the mother of the 38 year old married and had a child, she gave birth to another child and gave it up for adoption after five days. The son does not know. It is effectively none of the new wife’s business. She wants to tell the son because she believes that it will provide insight into why his mother was such an emotional wreck. Her husband, the boy’s father, does not want to tell. He does not think that his son can handle the news.

All things considered, it’s the father’s call, not the new wife's and certainly not therapist Gottlieb's.

Taking a page from Freud and Jung and even my old friend Christopher Bollas, Gottlieb claims that secrets are psychic poison and that the son knows it already, anyway. Thus, following Freud himself, no one ever really keeps any secrets. Besides, think of how therapeutic it will be, Gottlieb suggests, for the 38 year old to discover the root cause for his and his mother’s distress.

Dare I mention that she and the letter writer are assuming, even imagining that this is the root cause of everyone’s problems. We have no evidence to suggest that it’s true.

So, for your edification, here is Gottlieb’s poor reasoning:

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.

Are we really suffering because we keep secrets, or are we suffering because we no longer know how to keep secrets? That we have become busybodies, sticking our noses in other people’s business, and even their hair.

Note that Gottlieb assumes that the son knows without knowing. That he knows that people are not telling him a secret that will make very little real difference in his everyday life.

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.

Of course, we do not know the reasons for the mother’s distress. Surely, it distressed her to give up an infant for adoption. Of course, we know nothing about her or the circumstances behind her decision. Perhaps she should would want to know what the child became. We would understand such feelings… and yet, the mother has long since departed the earth, so the point is now moot.

If we want to help the son, we can teach him that the source of his problems does not lie in a situation that occurred decades ago. We should find a way for him to get into his life and to get out of the fruitless and wasteful search for the root causes of his distress. The son's problem is not that he needs therapy but that he is surrounded by fools who think that he does.


Anonymous said...

I think it's a bad idea to tell someone about death fantasies related to them. I optimistically think many therapists would advise against it. The least likely thing is for the fantasy-object to be very calm and supportive, proving their love. The most likely thing is that they will see a red flag and not like it. Keep it to yourself and figure out why you are so angry.

Sam L. said...

"A woman has married a man whose 38 year old son does not know that he has a half-sibling. Before she married and had a child, she gave birth to another child and gave it up for adoption after five days. The son does not know. It is effectively none of the new wife’s business. She wants to tell the son because she believes that it will provide insight into why his mother was such an emotional wreck. Her husband, the boy’s father, does not want to tell." It took me a while to figure out that the new wife was not the mother of the half-sib. I was afraid I'd have to break down every sentence to figure this out.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

The mistake was mine ... since corrected.

Ares Olympus said...

Sharing fearful visions seems weird, and I'm sure I'd not want to inflict my irrationality like that on someone I cared about.

Holding privacy about your past is trickier. If a wife asked "Did you sleep with X before we were married?" you can reply "Do you really want to know?" At least the question will slow things down enough for you to decide what you're willing to share.

jfmoris said...

I had a friend who I finally decided to avoid because of his gossip. The last straw was when he had a 5-10$ argument with another guy in our carpool, and soon after shared some malignant gossip with me - I figured: either this is nasty gossip (true or untrue), or he's betraying a confidence over 5$ = too dangerous to hang around with.

He was very talkative in general, and took the position that his right to free speech meant he could say whatever he wanted.

Seeing him explicitly pull his tricks on someone else finally got me to see the light. I think this relationship did a lot of social damage to me, to the point where I gave up on a lot of mutual acquaintances. My bad for over generalizing, and I regret that decision. I am too intolerant of unfriendly attitudes ( because I expect they will spread to others - LIKELY BECAUSE OF THIS TOXIC RELATIONSHIP).

His charm and social standing allowed him a constant turnover of friends, and this may be a sign of someone to avoid - angry former friends who don't quite dare? speak against him as much as he deserves. But that requires long and close observation, so it's not much use as a "tell".