From The 10 Commandments of Dysfunctional Families by Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.
4. Thou shalt keep secrets from others.
Sample Situation: Daddy has a “secret” that only he and his little girl know. Of course, she can’t tell Mommy. If she does, Daddy will hurt you and Mommy might leave and never come back.
Application: A child’s most important duty is to protect the image of their parents and family in the community. Watch what you say and be careful not to act funny around other people either. After all, as family we have to protect each other. If you stay quiet, you’re loyal. If you can't, we won’t love you.
Motto: To really love someone is to show loyalty by protecting their “secrets” at all costs.
This is the “don’t air our dirty linen/laundry in public” rule taken a step further. And while the example here clearly alludes to sexual abuse of a little girl by her father, it has much wider implications.
First of all, this is the genesis of the DoNM’s feeling of guilt when she feels like sticking up for herself, when she feels ill-used, when she has even the most fleeting fantasy of vengeance or pay-back. When her natural self-preservation instincts come to the fore, she smothers them with guilt, thereby proving her loyalty and love to the family. And they show their love for her in return by not abandoning her.
Of course, there may never have been a conversation about this with her parents, no bargain struck. Over time and through making mistakes, listening to conversations about others, observing the treatment of others, and being given subtle but clear indications of what is expected…and what is at stake…children learn what is acceptable in their household and what is not. In the dysfunctional family, preserving the family’s external image by keeping the internal chaos under wraps is the primary job of each family member. She who will tell the truth—even to other family members—risks not only the wrath of the dysfunctional parent(s) but rejection and emotional abandonment, a terrifying prospect to a child.
There are, of course, children who speak up. I was one of those kids…my NM had already abandoned me, physically, when I was around two years old. I lived with my grandparents (her parents) for nearly two years until a reconciliation between my estranged parents was engineered, and then I was back to her. I was emotionally bonded to my grandparents and to my father, and for my brutal and ignoring mother I had nothing but fear. Whether it was inculcated in me by those who loved me or whether it was something inherent in my character I will never know, but I was passionately aware of and dedicated to “fairness” from my earliest memories, and indignant that my own mother so blatantly treated me so unfairly. It was not an environment calculated to instill a sense of loyalty in me…quite the opposite, in fact, because I was acutely aware that being rejected and abandoned by my NM was entirely possible—she had done it before—and that someone would rescue me as my grandparents had done. No, fear of being abandoned by my NM, fear of rejection, fear of losing her love—I don’t think any of those really informed my behaviour and feelings as a youngster because they were already a part of my life: she had abandoned me, she had rejected me, and it was clear to me that she loved my brother but not me. I knew this when I was five.
I went back and forth between protecting the secrets and revealing them. With the natural narcissism of extreme youth, my primary motivation was self-interest. I wanted to get away from my mother. I don’t remember wanting her to change, I suppose because I was unable to trust her and therefore unable to trust a change to be real. I simply wanted to be away from her. When she abused me I didn’t tell my father because she threatened me with further abuse if I did…after time, she didn’t have to threaten because I knew the penalty: if my father confronted her for abusing me, she would assume I had “tattled,” and the minute he was out of the house, there would be hell to pay.
But I did tell others, sometimes in plain language, sometimes in less obvious terms. In Sunday School, for example, I asked if the Commandment to honour your father and mother applied if they hurt you…an astute, interested adult would have picked up on the veiled reference in my question—nobody did. I quit telling when it became obvious that the response was almost always some variation of “What did you do to provoke your mother?” and nobody believed me when I said “nothing.”
Dysfunctional families have lots of secrets and sometimes the secrets extend outside the nuclear family and are even multigenerational. The secrets can be “open secrets,” like someone in the family is a raging alcoholic but nobody speaks of it or acknowledges it; or it can be a “closed secret” which is held by only a few family members…like sexual abuse in the family or physical abuse or illegal activities. Any secret that might make the family or anyone in it look bad must never be revealed to outsiders.
One of the secrets that virtually all dysfunctional families keep is the secret of the scapegoat. Nobody outside the family is to know that one child has been singled out as the receptacle for blame. If outsiders deduce for themselves or believe the scapegoat’s tale of mistreatment, the family rallies round and rationalizes whatever the outsider observed, often blaming the scapegoat further by calling her a liar, saying she has a “vivid” or “overactive” imagination, or creating a rationalization for the treatment that blames the scapegoat. A dysfunctional family will not even admit to itself that a scapegoat exists in its midst for that would be admitting unjust treatment of one of the members. They cannot acknowledge that one of the family members is a scapegoat, but if one member is treated differently from…more harshly than…the others, that is justified by the behaviour of the individual in question.
The fact of designating one (or more) of the children as a scapegoat plus keeping such a fact secret impacts not only the scapegoat child but the Golden Child as well. The Golden Child not only learns that it is acceptable to blame (and even punish) another for his transgressions and abuse, he learns that his victim should protect him from the consequences of his behaviour by keeping it secret. He further learns that his victim should remain loyal to him in spite of his mistreatment and that he can ensure his victim’s loyalty by threatening abandonment. Not only is this the world in which the Golden Child lives, it is his model for future relationships. But, insidiously, the Golden Child—who, at least in the beginning is just a child—also learns another lesson through this: Golden Child you may be, but blab the family secrets and you will be no better off than your scapegoat sibling. All support and love, privileges and entitlements will be withdrawn. Keep the family secrets or else!
In retrospect, I suspect this is what so firmly turned my brother against me when we were children: when my parents separated and my father asked who we would like to live with, I unhesitatingly chose him. I can still recall how indignant my brother was, like it was totally unthinkable that I would choose our father over our mother. But we were just children and my choice was based on a single very simple fact: she hit me every damned day and he didn’t. My brother behaved as if I had betrayed him, whereas I felt his preference for the person to abused me daily was betraying me. We became adversaries that day, and we have been estranged ever since. I can see my daughter in this as well—she has taken great umbrage at my blog for the very reason that it reveals those ugly secrets, and she has done exactly what Ns do in such circumstances: she has rejected me just as my NM did, calling me a liar and cutting all contact.
In a dysfunctional family, secrets abound. There are individual secrets, the ones kept from other members of the family, like drug use or promiscuity, affairs, destructive habits like gambling or shopping addictions; and there are family secrets, secrets the family conspires—and sometimes the conspiracy is tacit rather than acknowledged—to be kept from those outside the family or, perhaps, a faction of the family that isn’t privy to the truth behind the secrets. Protecting the secrets protects the family in that the silence keeps away those who might take action on some of those secrets, which would change the delicate balance of roles that allows the family to function. To allow an outsider to see the dysfunction is to risk destroying the family, changing it into something different, even forcing some members of the family to change their comfortable, well-known and beneficial roles.
Dysfunctional families exist in that form for a reason: somebody gets something out of it: at least one, but often both of the parents, although one or more of the children may benefit from the dysfunctional structure as well. To let the secrets out risks causing the dynamic of the family to change, which would mean a loss of benefit to those who gain from the dysfunction. That such a change would benefit the scapegoat child is immaterial—the scapegoat “…is the family member who bears the burden of being the cause of all the family problems. Instead of taking responsibility for their own actions, parents place blame on the scapegoat child. The scapegoat function is to distract from the central issue. Focus is shifted from the parents’ issues that are creating conflict to the scapegoat’s bad behavior and actions as the problem source.” It does not benefit the family to do something that could benefit the scapegoat and it changes—harms, in their view—the family to let the secrets out that let the scapegoat off the hook and brings focus to what it really going on behind those closed doors.
The secrets must be kept—it demonstrates your loyalty to the parents and the family and ensures that they will continue to care for you, even at the cost of the truth and your own sense of self. In the scheme of things, those don’t matter: maintaining the family façade is everything.
Next: Ten Commandments of Dysfunctional Families:
5. Thou shalt protect family secrets.
It is difficult to deal with a narcissist when you are a grown, independent, fully functioning adult. The children of narcissists have an especially difficult burden, for they lack the knowledge, power, and resources to deal with their narcissistic parents without becoming their victims. Whether cast into the role of Scapegoat or Golden Child, the Narcissist's Child never truly receives that to which all children are entitled: a parent's unconditional love. Start by reading the 46 memories--it all began there.