From A Previous Question - and Response
by Peggy Vaughan

Isn't secrecy necessary to protect your teenaged children?

I understand the need to be more open about affairs, but when you live in a small community and you are trying to protect your teenaged children by keeping them from finding out, then secrecy is necessary, isn't it? I feel that they don't need to share this burden.

Peggy's Response:
The above question refers to an article I have posted here on the website. (If you haven't read it, it's Breaking the Code of Secrecy.)

The concerns expressed in this question are understandable and legitimate, and I do NOT want to try to convince any particular person to go against their own judgment as to what's best in their own situation. But I do hope to have more dialogue about the pros and cons of more openness about this issue.

It's easy to see secrecy (especially as mentioned above in relation to teenaged children) as "necessary;" however, it's important to recognize that it's actually a choice that each person makes. And all choices involve consequences. And while it's easy to see the potential problems in being more open, we often fail to recognize the potential problems in not being honest. For instance, "family secrets" have a way of coming out at some point in the future, and the resultant turmoil becomes less about whatever "incident" was kept secret as about the dishonesty and deception involved. (This is all the more ironic in that the very basis of all affairs is a willingness to be dishonest and deceptive.)

Even more important, we fail to recognize the potential advantages in being more open and honest. For instance, the overall impact on our teenagers was a renewed appreciation for the importance of honesty. Our relationship with our kids had always been based on honesty, and this just put that commitment to honesty to the test. Our kids were 11 and 13 when we told them about our experience. They were 16 and 18 when we wrote a book about our experience back in 1980. (Of course, we were far more open than most people would be due to the fact that we wrote the book—and talked about it in the media.)

In fact, when a reporter from our local small-town newspaper came to our home to interview us, she was fascinated when our 16-year-old son entered the room, and wanted to ask him about his reactions. Here are some quotes from the article she wrote:

"Andy said, 'I guess Vicki and I were both aware that something was happening between our parents. It didn't shock me or anything when they told us. Vicki and I have always had a good relationship with our mother. We've always been able to talk to her. After they told us, I just figured they were still our parents, and we kind of went on from there.' Peggy said she and James felt they related well to their children because they were willing to freely communicate with them. 'That means telling them honestly how we feel as well as listening to them,' Peggy said. 'Most people are not exposed to an open, honest, growing relationship when they themselves are growing up."
(end of excerpt from Hilton Head Island Packet, July 1980)

In 1998 I was interviewed for another article that includes quotes from a phychotherapist about the potential "positive impact on the children" from disclosing an affair. See: Talking Honestly With Your Children. (As alluded to in this article, it's possible that giving kids a more realistic understanding of the risk of affairs may help them avoid having this experience in their own lives—which might be the most potentially positive benefit of all.)

There are, of course, other considerations (in addition to concerns about the children) that need to be assessed. Here are some excerpts from The Monogamy Myth that shed light on some other potential benefits of more openness:

    Some Benefits of Speaking Out

    There are several important messages being sent when you speak out about your own experience. You are rejecting the idea that the affair was caused by a personal inadequacy. (And, if you're still married, it shows you also understand it was not strictly a personal failure of your spouse.) This causes others to rethink their own attitudes. People expect you to feel embarrassed and ashamed; when you don't, it causes them to stop and wonder why.

    Another important benefit of being open about your own experience is that it diminishes the sense of aloneness felt by those people who are still suffering silently, thinking an affair is only their personal problem. For instance, at the time we wrote Beyond Affairs, our daughter was a senior in high school. Her best friend asked the English teacher for permission to use our book as the subject of a book report. The teacher agreed--and read the book as well.

    A few days later the teacher appeared at my door to tell me that she had known for some time that her husband was having an affair, but had not been able to talk to anyone about it. She knew her relationship was unrecoverable, but she hadn't been able to bring herself to take action. Learning about my experience helped her break her silence, prompting her to begin to face her own situation... Sometimes, all a person needs is to know they're not alone in order to break the code of silence for themselves. And all of us can participate in making this possible.

(end of excerpt from The Monogamy Myth)

The bottom line is that this issue may be a little like any major effort to change societal attitudes. The assumptions about affairs (that they only happen to "bad" people" or in "bad" marriages) are so ingrained that the first people to challenge these assumptions by openly discussing their own experiences may be unfairly challenged. While I don't mean to put this on the level of the civil rights issue or the women's rights issue, it may take that kind of commitment to change the old assumptions. As it is, people really don't know much about affairs—primarily because of the Code of Secrecy.

For my initial article on this issue, see: Breaking the Code of Secrecy.

P.S. As mentioned earlier, we were far more open than most people (in that we "went public" with our story), so our experience was not necessarily representative of the reactions to simply being open with those close to you. But for those who want to read about our experience in Breaking the Code of Secrecy, see: Reactions to Going Public.

A much more thorough understanding of the material covered in these
Questions is contained in my book, The Monogamy Myth.

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