Lies and guilt — a family tradition

“But, please, you can’t tell mom!”
Or, sister brother dad daughter cousin cat.
Or all hell will break loose. The family will disintegrate, a person will be devastated, a relationship will dissolve, etc. The delicate balance of lies and guilt that ties the group together will come crashing down with momentous consequences.

Who hasn’t been party to one of these insider conversations, where dark secrets shared with some are shared with another because bearing them has become to great a burden. A burden now passed on to the newly ordained Keeper of the Secret.

Group dynamics — particularly family dynamics — often sort themselves out on who knows what. Select sharing of information creates an immediate subset of insiders and outsiders, and fractures the concept of group in the process. Mom and dad know stuff the kids don’t. Mom tells the oldest things that can’t be told to the young’uns. Parents vs children, Parents and oldest vs youngest, everybody vs the baby, mom and her sister against … the branches fork infinitely and with lightning speed.

While there are good reasons to delay communications: parents to kids, grandparents to grandkids, etc., there’s no reason to put it off beyond what is necessary — a personal call to be sure, but a CALL that eventually needs to be made.

It’s not meant to be antagonistic, but the consequences are inevitable. Once secrets are formed and shared, access is a currency, a bond and a weakness all in one. A secret has some of the feel of a valuable object: it’s heavy, and if you have it and someone else doesn’t, someone who probably would care about knowing, it’s like gold. If you cut it up and give it to everybody, it’s worthless. Regardless of the intrinsic value of the secret, the nature of it confers the gravitas.

Trust is the given currency of family. They are accorded the full level upon recognition of the concept. Life is a subtractive process for trust. You start out with 100 percent and wind up losing it, bit by bit, secret by secret, lie by lie, guilt by guilt.

Secrets are a great precursor to lying. In tight groups where communication occurs often and rapidly, having to avoid the subject of the secret often leads to misdirection and obfuscation in communications, conditions which themselves often give rise to suspicion and doubt. People who know each other well quickly detect deflection and evasion.

Well, some do.

Guilt arises when we are less than honest and forthcoming with people we expect to be that way with us. Short of being a complete sociopath, people acknowledge fairness as a semi-universal doctrine. “Do unto others …” and are quite aware — guilty — when they fail to live up to this all too basic standard of conduct. Bad enough with strangers; lying is intolerable within family.

Anxiety creeps in when our lies and evasions compound, as time is wont to bring about. Who can remember last month’s evasion? Oops, sometimes people do and we are trapped — hoist on our own petards — and consequences come into play.

“Oh, what a tangled web we weave …” is a platitude for a reason. It’s so true.

Life is gray, not chiaroscuro as the moralists would have it. Judgment is needed all the time. The day your brother’s cat is run over may not be the best time to tell him his best friend screwed his wife before she was his ex. Or, maybe it’s a great time … take his mind off the cat. You may never have occasion to share that secret. But in the long run, understanding reality is the clearsest way to learn how to grasp life, understand ourselves and deal with consequences in a rational manner. Why would anyone deny that to someone they profess to love or care for?

There’s more than a hint of superciliousness about making a decision over who needs to know what when.

Deciding to exclude some but share with a limited group is a comment on what you think of those who are excluded. It is using your personal star chamber to place distance and judgment from those excluded. How can this not lead to guilt and anxiety if you continue to relate to the excluded group? Or suspicion and estrangement once the whiff of exclusion is perceived?