Using Turner and West’s (2018) definition of family, this study examines the symbolic internal and external boundaries families establish in an attempt to maintain family secrets. Some of those secrets include intrafamily secrets, whole family secrets, and individually kept secrets. Some suggest that internal symbolic boundaries are constructed from the inclusion and exclusion of some family members in regard to secrets among family members (Turner and West, 2018; Caughlin, Golish, Olson, Sargent, Cook, and Petronio, 2000). In the preservation of family secrets, the family creates symbolic internal boundaries when they decide who knows what, how much they know, and who has the power to disclose that information to outside parties.
The focus of this study is to analyze family secrets in terms of their function and relation to a family’s communication dynamic. Furthermore, after studying literature previously written on the topic, this study examines the characteristics of a family secret and the secrets most likely kept according to their typology. It is predicted that family secrets are more likely to decrease relational closeness among family members rather than increasing it through the preservation of existing secrets. Knowing what previous research has found in studying family secrets, I posit that, reactions to mental illness and suicide attempts in families are similar to reactions to a non-related illness, depression and suicide attempts are labeled as taboo, therefore possessing characteristics of a family secret in terms of the function they serve and reasoning behind maintaining the secret.
In a study conducted by Caughlin, et al. (2000) analyzing boundaries within a family system in terms in terms of family secrets, 588 out of 615 participants were able to identify an intrafamily secret to refer to when answering the remainder of their questionnaire. In similar studies regarding family secrets, their function, and method of concealment, participants from those studies also able to describe secrets that already existed within a familial context (Afifi & Olson, 2005; Vangelisti, 1994). Because secrets exist in most families, it is crucial to understand the way those secrets influence the communication dynamic and relationships among family members as it relates to boundaries and privacy. Though some researchers suggest that family secrets contribute to the closeness of familial relationships and an increased level of family cohesiveness (Davis, 2009), others suggest that an increased number of family secrets may also account for decreased levels of satisfaction (Caughlin, et al., 2000).
In Guerrero and Afifi’s (1995) Some things are better left unsaid: Topic avoidance in family relationships, the authors suggest that individuals employ topic avoidance in familial relationships for fear of being rejected or becoming a disappointment. When considering potential reasons for topic avoidance among family members, one might find it relevant to address their findings from a family secrets perspective as many of those reasons contribute to one’s decision to keep secrets within the family. This study looks to analyze the extent to which negative associations of family secrets are evident in family life. After compiling the definition, function, and types of family secrets, an attempt was made to classify a suicide attempt within the family as a secret other members may keep from outside parties as the suicide accounts for two of Vangelisti’s (1994) five functions of family secrets. Because an approximate sixteen suicide attempts occur after one successful suicide (Miller & Day, 2002), research on attempted suicide as a family secret is necessary in explaining the ambiguity surrounding a family member’s suicide attempt.
Definitions of family secrets and categories. According to Ow and Katz (1999), a secret manages a piece of information that could potentially disrupt or cause undue stress within a family (p. 621). There are three types of family secrets relevant to this research: whole family secrets, intrafamily secrets, and individual family secrets. Using Karpel’s (1980) previous research on family secrets (as cited in Caughlin, et al., 2000), Caughlin, et al. (2000) defines a whole family secret as a secret kept by family members about the family or another family member from those outside the family. They go on to define an intrafamily secret in terms of keeping information about the family or family members from other members of the family (p. 119). Lastly, individual secrets are secrets kept from the entire family (Vangelisti, 1994).
When conducting research, Vangelisti (1994) categorized family secrets within three topics: taboo topics, rule violations, and conventional secrets. Taboo topics were categorized in terms mental health, affairs, substance abuse, money, and sexuality. After completing multiple studies regarding family secrets, the author found taboo topics to be most evident in regard to whole family secrets. Rule violations were defined in terms of premarital pregnancy, cohabitation, drinking/partying, sexual relationships and disobedience (Vangelisti, 1994, p. 120). The author categorized conventional secrets as secrets not discussed outside of close relationships including but not limited to death, religion, and grades (Vangelisti, 1994, p. 120).
Functions of family secrets. In Vangelisti’s (1994) Family secrets: forms, functions and correlates, the author identified six functions family secrets typically serve, all of which include bonding, evaluation, maintenance, privacy, defense, and communication. For this study, the most relevant family secret functions are maintenance and defense as they relate to later discussion. Maintenance referred to protecting the family or an individual family member from stress, and defense encompassed this idea of protecting family structure (Vangelisti, 1994, p. 123). In conducting research, Vangelisti (1994) found that specific types of family secrets correlated with individual functions of family secrets. For example, many of the intrafamily secrets were kept for maintenance while whole family secrets were likely kept in order to protect or defend the family.
Depression and suicide attempts. In a study conducted by Paukert and Pettit (2007), the researchers hypothesized that depressed individuals who attempted suicide were attributed with an increase in negative perceptions and rejection in comparison to depressed individuals who did not. However, their results did not support their original hypothesis; instead, they found the opposite. In asking participants to imagine interacting with a depressed individual who attempted suicide, Paukert & Pettit (2007) found that participants were more likely to interact and engage with individuals who attempted suicide. Similar research by Segrin and Dillard (1992) revealed that reactions to depressed individuals might vary depending upon the relationship the person had with them. In addition to their original findings, researchers found that the severity of depression along with an increased number of negative attributions correlated with one’s desire to engage with a depressed individual, though accounting for those negative attributions may lessen the degree to which depression influences the interpersonal nature of the mental illness (Paukert & Pettit, 2007; Segrin & Dillard, 1992). If reactions to a suicide attempt are more likely to be perceived negatively, then families may find it necessary to keep the attempt private.
Suicide as a family secret. In research conducted by Ow and Katz (1999), the authors analyzed Chinese coping mechanisms when presented with a stress evoking event and the implications that stress had on a family’s dynamic. The researchers took a sample of fifteen families to understand the ways secrets are kept within the family in regard to family illness. They found that keeping the illness a secret was more common because of the need to save face and the fear of stigma or social withdrawal (p. 624). In some cases, younger children did not disclose their illness or their sibling’s illness to others because they noticed that their parents also kept the secret from people outside the family. Using the data collected from Ow and Katz’s research, it one might find that if families keep an illness not pertaining to mental illness a secret in order to reduce the likelihood of social isolation, then a family member’s suicide attempt or depression diagnosis is more likely to be kept within the family in an attempt to protect the individual and members of the family from potential problems that could emerge as a result.
After reviewing research regarding responses to chronic illnesses and mental health issues, the second hypothesis stated in the beginning stages of this research was neither proven nor disproven. However, one might interpret the findings as inconclusive. Though previous research revealed that people show a willingness to interact with depressed individuals who have recently attempted suicide, the author’s findings also indicated a correlation between negative attributions and a decrease in willingness to interact with a depressed person (Paukert & Pettit, 2007). In Afifi and Olson’s (2005) research, the authors suggested that the choice to maintain a secret was dependent upon the severity of the secret in terms of its valence and the degree of intimacy, more specifically, individuals are less likely to reveal a secret when it is negatively valanced and relational consequences exist (p. 197). Disclosure of family secrets are connected to the individual’s perceived threat level when making the decision to disclose or maintain the secret. Mental illness is categorized as a taboo topic and taboo topics are typically stigmatized or condemned both by one’s family and the larger society (Caughlin et al., 2000, p. 121). Because of that categorization, an attempted suicide has the potential to become an intrafamily or whole family secret if the family perceives that information to be a threat to their social identity (Afifi & Olson, 2005; Vangelisti, 1994). For example, one may disclose their own suicide attempt to a person outside their family if they place less emphasis on protecting the family’s social perception. However, if members of a family place a greater emphasis on maintaining perceptions, a family may spend more time maintaining that secret in order to protect the family structure in some way (Vangelisti, 1994).
Ow and Katz (1999) identified three other potential implications for keeping family secrets: secrets perpetuate hierarchies within the family system, keeping secrets may contribute to increased levels of anxiety and guilt, and keeping secrets within the nuclear family could lead to social isolation by limiting access to outside support systems (p. 625). They also suggest that the acknowledgement of family secrets may reduce the tension and anxiety that result from secrets kept between parents and children (p. 626). Using Roloff and Johnson’s (2001) Reintroducing taboo topics: Antecedents and consequences of putting topics back on the table, individuals withholding secrets may find it beneficial to disclose family secrets similar to the way one might revisit a taboo topic: the individual might share a taboo secret after some time has passed or if a conflict is unlikely to occur upon one’s disclosure. Despite potential implications for secret keeping, Afifi and Olson’s (2005) research suggests that families still want to conceal secrets from other members of their family. If this is true and protection of the self or other is the primary function of keeping secrets (Vangelisti, 1994), future research might determine additional ways to alleviate the pressure to maintain family secrets or identify appropriate responses to kept secrets when disclosed. In doing so, family members keeping secrets may be more inclined to share negatively valanced secrets because others are less likely to respond in negative ways.
Moving forward, it is important to note that the research found regarding family secrets may not be applicable to all family types or cultures as families react differently to secrets and conflict depending on their own cultural perspectives (Afifi & Olson, 2005; Ow & Katz, 1999). For example, while families in individualistic cultures are more likely to disclose familial and individual secrets, members of a collectivistic culture are more likely to maintain negative secrets because they fear potential negative responses and the negative impacts the secrets may have on existing relationships (Afifi & Olson, 2015, p. 200).
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