Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell – The Hidden Life of Family Secrets


Dr. Ron Cohen

This guest blog was written by Dr. Ronald Cohen, a psychiatrist from Great Neck, New York, specializing in Family Systems.

Family secrets impact individuals, and family functioning. Dr. Ronald Cohen discusses four types of family secrets: essential, sweet, toxic and dangerous.

“All human beings have three lives:
public, private and secret.”
—Gabriel Garcia Marquez

In life, we must respect all three.

What is life like growing up in a family where one of the most firmly adhered to rules is “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?” What do you do with significant information when you are inhibited from sharing it, the road block being either in yourself, in your family relationships, or in larger societal constraints? How is a secret different from healthy privacy, a safe and secure “Room of One’s Own?” When is a secret not a secret?

Evan Imber-Black, PhD has spent a professional lifetime investigating types of secrets and their impact on individuals and family functioning. She separates secrets into four, not necessarily distinct, categories: essential, sweet, toxic and dangerous.

Essential secrets create necessary limits and boundaries around a family and its sub-systems, delineating couples, children, parents and friends. They enhance closeness and connection, are protective of self, others, and relationships. By their very nature, essential secrets must be honored. Sharing without permission and/or consent creates devastating attachment injuries and violations of trust. Essential secrets are woven into the “second family” culture of adolescents and young adults. Honestly now, how much did we want our parents to know about our experimentation and indulgence in sex, drugs and rock’n’roll?

Sweet secrets are time-limited, created for someone else’s good, and usually have positive outcomes for the entire family. Sweet secrets are created for the fun of a surprise such as gifts, parties, unexpected visits and other celebrations.

Toxic secrets are often long-standing and damaging to relationships and personal well-being. They become harmful and destructive when they involve keeping information from others that they have a right to know. Over time, toxic secrets corrode relationships, destroy trust and create otherwise unexplained symptoms and increased anxiety. Abundant non-productive energy is expended on maintaining who’s in the know and who is outside the cone of silence. Toxic secrets include current extramarital affairs, irresponsible gambling, concealed illness, and undisclosed plans for divorce as well as an individual or family history of abortions, adoptions, DWIs, psychiatric hospitalizations, and incarcerations.

Dangerous secrets put individuals in physical jeopardy and/or debilitating emotional turmoil. They include plans for suicide and violence, life crippling drug and alcohol dependence, rape and incest, abuse and child neglect. Dangerous secrets require immediate disclosure and intervention to ensure safety and protect the innocent.

Secrets occur in context and live not just inside one individual but exist within the entire family system. For this reason the category and function of a secret depends on its context.

Embedded within, and extending over these categories is the concept of self-secrets, which are shared with no one (paradoxically the concept of a shared secret is not an oxymoron), and engender excessive guilt, shame, and embarrassment as one does not get realistic feedback on the consequences of the behavior and/or its disclosure. Self-secrets include concealed eating disorders (which can also be toxic or dangerous) and the shame of involuntary corporate downsizing.

The safe disclosure of toxic secrets and repair of damaged relationships require careful planning and deliberate behavior. Because of their long standing nature, there is usually no immediate requirement to reveal a toxic secret and there is time to consider how to open the secret in a safe way. Coaching from a well trained Bowen Family Systems Therapist can help one balance caution and candor when evaluating the potential positives and negatives of revealing the secret. It can also help determine where, when, how, and to whom the secret should be disclosed.

This guest blog was written by Dr Ronald Cohen, a psychiatrist from Great Neck, Long Island, New York, specializing in Family Systems. To contact Dr Cohen, please visit his web site: or at his email: or by phone: 516.466.7530.

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2 Responses to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell – The Hidden Life of Family Secrets

  1. Leah McGee says:

    Great read!

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