Breaking the Code of Secrecy
by Peggy Vaughan
For many years I've struggled with the dilemma of how to help people recover from a spouse's affair while maintaining so much SECRECY about their experience. While I have scrupulously protected the privacy and confidentiality of all who have contacted me for help, I have nevertheless recognized that much of the difficulty in recovering is precisely due to the secrecy with which we all cooperate in maintainingâ€”what I have called the Code of Secrecy.
I've become especially frustrated by seeing that even those who do reach out for help often let the secrecy interfere with getting the help they seek. For instance, many of the people who contact one of our BAN Coordinators about a Local BAN Support Group are then too fearful of breaking the Code of Secrecy to actually attend a meeting. (For those who are not familiar with our effort to establish community-based support groups, please read the 6 pages about BAN, beginning at Beyond Affairs Network - BAN.)
However, the secrecy about affairs affects all those whose partners have affairs, whether or not they are interested in a support group. So I want to invite (and encourage) everyone to make a commitment to work toward Breaking the Code of Secrecy. In fact, it can't be done without all of society playing a role in developing more responsible honesty about this problem (which, frankly, impacts almost everyone at some time in some wayâ€”whether within your own family or among your friends).
I deal with this issue extensively in my book, The Monogamy Mythâ€”so I'm going to quote from those writings in hopes of helping everyone recognize their role in maintaining the Code of Secrecy.
Here are some excerpts from The Monogamy Myth:
THE CODE OF SECRECY
The most significant support for affairs in our society is the secrecy that surrounds them (and our infatuation with that secrecy). Because of the stories of famous people involved in affairs (and the way affairs are paraded before us every day in movies, television, and newspapers), there might not appear to be so much secrecy surrounding them. But where it really counts, in an individual's own life, there's still a tremendous amount of secrecy. In fact, there's a code of secrecy in our society that involves all of us and affects every aspect of this issue.
The basic attitude of the general public is that you can't talk about affairs. And closely aligned with this assumption is the belief that you shouldn't talk about them. Since many people see affairs as wrong, they feel that secrecy is appropriate. But by adopting this attitude, we are providing the kind of protection and support that actually increases the likelihood of affairs.
The code of secrecy provides a buffer from the world that makes it easier for a person to engage in affairs and to avoid dealing with the consequences, or even to seriously contemplate the consequences. We can't expect those who are having affairs to be more concerned about the effects of their behavior as long as the secrecy we all support serves to protect this kind of behavior.
There are a number of very specific ways secrecy protects the person having an affair: If their partner suspects, they're less likely to question them directly. If friends or co-workers know, they're less likely to tell the partner. If their mate finds out, they're less likely to tell other important people (mother, children, or the clergy). The person having an affair comes to count on this cooperation in maintaining the secrecy to which they are totally committed.
Never tell. If questioned, deny it. If caught, say as little as possible. This is the basic code of secrecy among those having affairs.
CONSEQUENCES OF THE CODE OF SECRECY
One of the major consequences of the code of secrecy is the way secrecy compounds the problem for people trying to cope with their partners' affairs. The secrecy leaves them alone with their anxiety if they suspect and alone with their pain if they find out. It's quite possible that this isolation threatens a person's sanity even more than dealing with the affairs themselves.
It's clear that the secrecy in dealing with affairs is a critical factor in a person's struggle to recover from the emotional impact of this experience. Most people keep their pain hidden, if at all possible. Some people become obsessed with the idea of keeping their experience secret from others. One man said this was his most pressing concern, that, in fact, he had become almost paranoid about other people "knowing."
The process of keeping this information from others increases the feelings of shame and embarrassment (because if it weren't seen as shameful, it wouldn't need to be kept secret). And the longer it's kept secret, the stronger the feelings of shame. So the secrecy and the problem with self-esteem serve to reinforce each other.
After getting beyond the immediate devastation and the pain of being deceived, the person whose partner has had an affair is likely to feel humiliated that others know about it (and may have known it all along). For most people, this feels like a public loss of respect. Their embarrassment may cause them to avoid public groups and public gatherings because they think everyone will be whispering about them. And it causes many people to hide from everyone while they try to regain some of their self-esteem.
This goes beyond humiliation in that it assumes more than just the self-consciousness of others knowing about the affair; it includes feeling that others are judging them as responsible for it. Since affairs are seen as "improper" and "dishonorable," a person whose partner has an affair feels tainted by the situation and ashamed of the fact that it happened. They may be overwhelmed with feelings of remorse and regret for having married someone who would have an affair, further damaging their self-esteem.
OVERCOMING THE SECRECY ABOUT AFFAIRS
Despite the consequences of abiding by the code of secrecy, it's seldom that anyone even considers doing otherwise; but ignoring the code of secrecy can lead to a very different outcome. In one instance, the wife of a prominent businessman, family man, and community leader caught her husband having sex with his secretary on his desk. Instead of taking it personally and hiding it while she licked her wounds and decided what to do, she proceeded to talk openly about what had happened. It was not a very large community and soon virtually everyone knew the story. As you can imagine, the impact (both on him and on her) was significantly different from what it would have been had she abided by the more socially accepted code. She avoided the "pitiful" stereotype and showed she was a strong, confident person who recognized this was not a reflection of her worth as an individual or as a wife. And her husband had to face the consequences of his actions and share responsibility for dealing with the situation.
This may be an unusual way of reacting to this experience, but it illustrates how a lack of secrecy can alter the way the issue affects the people involved and the perception of others. If people cannot count on the code of secrecy to protect them, they may change their thinking--and their actions. And the other party will certainly feel stronger and be able to recover more quickly since they won't have to hide their head in shame, hoping others don't find out.
Most people personally dealing with affairs will continue to be controlled by the code of secrecy until there's a change in society's attitude. We can't expect them to share their fears or suspicions as long as we consider their silence to be appropriate behavior. A careful look at the impact of our silence indicates a need to redefine appropriate. It's certainly appropriate to try to alleviate the pain and anxiety of those who are suffering alone as a result of our silence.
One reason it has taken so long for society to recognize the seriousness of this problem is because of the secrecy. It's hard to talk openly when you take it personally, and it's hard not to take it personally if you are closed off from outside sources that could help in getting beyond the strictly personal interpretation.
THE BENEFITS OF SUPPORT GROUPS
An important factor in rebuilding self-esteem is breaking this cycle of secrecy and isolation. The first step is to honestly discuss this situation with just one other person and talk to them about your feelings.
One of the most powerful benefits of support groups is their ability to break through the sense of isolation that many people feel who are dealing with affairs. Most people tend to withdraw from life and from interactions with others, and even the prospect of talking to others who share the same experience can be frightening. One woman described sitting in her car in the parking lot for 15 minutes before getting up her nerve to go in to her first support group meeting.
When she finally did go inside, she was surprised to find that thoughts and emotions she thought were uniquely hers were shared by others. For a long time she sat quietly listening to others in the group, then finally spoke up to say that she had been secretly convinced that no one had ever felt the pain she had felt, but now she knew she wasn't alone.
Others commented on how good it felt to talk to someone who had "been there." They found it comforting to have others say, "I know what you are going through. I've been there myself." This often creates a bond of common understanding that gives a person strength to face their own problems. Here's the way one person reflected on the healing benefit of this kind of group sharing.
As I look back on our meeting, I realize that not one of us said, "Do you know what I mean?" We all knew. What a relief, knowing that someone understands?? really understands.
Another benefit of the meetings is that a person can gain a perspective of their situation that isn't possible when dealing with it alone. They see other people at different stages of recovery; they see some who are at a similar stage to their own, some who are better off, and some who are having a much more difficult time at that point. Due to this variability, support groups provide an opportunity for people to give as well as receive. When people are struggling with a mate's affair, they tend to feel weak and powerless. Frequently, they can regain some strength and confidence by helping others who are going through the same thing.
Sometimes those who have survived this experience and want to reach out in supporting others are frustrated because there's no clear way to go about it. Even tentative efforts to open up the subject for discussion may be met with uncomfortable silence, if not outright resistance.
It's always hard when people are breaking new ground and trying to go against the prevailing norms. It's not easy to speak out about personal experiences when society is saying it's not appropriate to do that. If those who want to be of help are to have any realistic chance of making a difference, it's up to all of us to help create a climate that makes it acceptable to discuss these issues more openly. It's a delicate subject, but it's time we made an effort to support those who are willing to speak out.
It took me several years to begin discussing my own experience. I didn't just wake up one day and decide to pour out my whole story. It was a very gradual process of telling a few people and getting such positive reinforcement for the value of the sharing that I increasingly expanded my openness in talking about it. This open discussion has been an extremely satisfying experience. My efforts to help others led to increasing my understanding and perspective of what had happened in my own life. The common bond of recognizing similarities in individual feelings and reactions is a great help in overcoming the sense of being so alone.
(end of first set of excerpts from The Monogamy Myth)
This need/desire for secrecy has always been a huge problemâ€”and is based on the fact that people feel ashamed, embarrassed, "like a failure," etc. This is why I've always worked so hard to help people understand that:
--affairs are extremely prevalent
--affairs are not restricted to "bad" people or "bad" marriages
--affairs are caused by much more than just "personal failure"
--therefore, affairs do not need to be kept secret.
So now I want to increase my general effort to encourage more openness and less Secrecy. This state of mind that dictates "secrecy" and "staying hidden and anonymous" only makes a bad situation worse. As I've pointed out previously, when things seem "too awful to talk about" they often feel "too awful to get over." And the intense secrecy feeds right into this feeling, making it even more difficult for them to recover from the emotional devastation.
So I implore everyone to step up and take responsibility for supporting a safe environment for people to more openly share their experiences with this life-altering situation.
Here are some more excerpts from The Monogamy Myth:
WHY IT'S EVERYBODY'S BUSINESS
The most immediate reason we need to be informed about affairs is because no one is immune from having affairs disrupt their lives or the lives of those they care about; they happen to all kinds of people, in all walks of life. Traditionally our attitude has been that unless it touches us personally, we deal with it by ignoring it, denying it, or condemning it. Unfortunately, this does nothing either to help deter affairs or to deal with their consequences. If we're to be the kind of caring, compassionate society we aspire to be, we can't turn our backs on the countless people who are suffering alone.
THE MONOGAMY MYTH
The Monogamy Myth is the belief that monogamy is the norm in our society and that it is supported by society as a whole. The effect of believing that most marriages or committed relationships are monogamous is that if an affair happens, it's seen strictly as a personal failure of the people involved. This leads to personal blame, personal shame, wounded pride, and almost universal feelings of devastation.
We need to reject the Monogamy Myth, not to excuse those who have affairs, but to relieve the sense of shame and inadequacy felt by their mates. Since they keep their shame and anger hidden, they seldom get enough perspective to completely recover from these feelings, regardless of whether they stay married or get a divorce. Surviving this experience if it has happened (or avoiding it if it hasn't) is best accomplished by dealing with reality, not holding on to a myth.
NEW HOPE FOR MONOGAMY
Monogamy is something most people say they believe in and want for themselves. Every survey ever done on this question shows a high percentage of people think monogamy is important to marriage and that affairs are wrong. But a belief in monogamy as an ideal doesn't prevent large numbers of people from having extramarital affairs. We need to make a commitment to face the reality of affairs and address the issue in a more responsible way, both individually and as a society.
This means challenging many of our most cherished beliefs about monogamy and affairs. It will be hard to question some of our old assumptions--and even harder to give them up. Our attitudes about monogamy and affairs are so ingrained that we find it difficult to consider anything that deviates from those beliefs. But it's essential if we're to gain understanding and perspective about this very emotional issue.
(end of second set of excerpts from The Monogamy Myth)
To get more understanding of this issue, I encourage you to read the entire book.
It is available through most bookstores or can be ordered from Amazon.com.
We also have it available here on our Website in PDF format.
To purchase it in PDF for immediate download, see our list of eBooks.
To read about my own experience in "Breaking the Code of Secrecy," see:
My Personal Story of Dealing with Affairs.
And to read some of my Previous Questions of the Week on a related issue, see:
Isn't secrecy necessary to protect your teenaged children?
What about approaching a co-worker who is having an affair?
Also, you can gain more perspective about affairs in general by reading (or re-reading) the following articles:
The Prevalence of Affairs ("You're Not Alone")
Who has Affairs - and Why
Our Fascination with Extramarital Affairs
Peggy's Overview of Affairs
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