Saturday, December 06, 2008

Overcoming the Code of Secrecy

Here's an article from dearpeggy.com that could be of help to many recovering and healing from one of life's deepest pains.

Peggy Vaughan writes:

"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 maintaining—what I have called the Code of Secrecy.

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 way—whether within your own family or among your friends).

I deal with this issue extensively in my book, The Monogamy Myth—so I'm going to quote from those writings in hopes of helping everyone recognize their role in maintaining the Code of Secrecy.

Below is a very long series of 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.

Humiliation
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.

Shame
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.

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.

This need/desire for secrecy has always been a huge problem—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.

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. "

Also, Peggy's own personal testimony may help you more to understand what she's trying to say:

" ... I've spent the past 28 years trying to help people (both men and women) deal with the devastating impact of a spouse's affair. The main reason for my commitment to this effort is that I've "been there" myself—and know how it feels. None of us thinks this will happen to us, and I certainly never imagined this issue becoming the dominant focus of my life.

But what happened to me was accurately described by a journalist as part of a positive review of my book, The Monogamy Myth," saying:

"When some women's husbands have affairs, they get a divorce.
Others stay married, but suffer in silence.
Peggy Vaughan's husband had affairs—and she made a career out of it!"

Here's my story...

My husband and I had been childhood sweethearts and married in 1955 at age 19. I assumed our marriage would always be monogamous—but my expectations of monogamy were shattered after eleven years of marriage. It was at that point that James started having affairs. When I first began to suspect it, I couldn't bring myself to believe this could happen. He was a pre-ministerial college student when we married, and we shared the same traditional values of marriage and monogamy.

James' affairs continued for seven years, and during that time my suspicions grew stronger and stronger. But I found myself incapable of confronting him. If it were true, I felt I'd have to get a divorce to save my pride. And I felt anxious and uncertain about my ability to make it on my own with two small children.

A lot of attention has been focused on the pain of discovering an affair, but very little on the pain of suspecting it. Only about twenty percent of those whose spouses are having affairs ever find out for sure. That leaves eighty percent of us who supposedly don't know and therefore "can't be hurt." But we do hurt. It becomes a silent, creeping cancer that affects everything we do. It's always there—the fear, the anxiety, the uncertainty, and the enormous drain on our pride. I felt alone and helpless. All this seemed like a nightmare. I went through all kinds of emotions: wanting to die, wanting amnesia, wanting to run away…

So the worst times for me were before I found out for sure—during those 7 years of suspecting (almost "knowing") but not wanting to face it. I was so embarrassed and ashamed that I was unwilling to confide in anyone. I did not tell my best friend or a family member or a counselor—or anyone. I kept it completely to myself. And one of the primary reasons (other than my fear of how I could do anything other than get a divorce, which I didn't want to do) was my overwhelming sense of failure. I felt that "I" had failed, that there must be something wrong with me or with my husband, or with my marriage, etc.

(See the bottom of this page for more about how the secrecy about affairs contributes to this sense of personal failure.)

On the other hand, once James told me about his affairs, I felt a sense of "relief." In fact, his telling me allowed me to feel a degree of "power:" now no one else knew anything about his actions that I didn't know—because I knew everything!

Fortunately, by the time he told me about his affairs (in 1974), I had grown strong enough to face the situation and see if we could work through it. By continuing to talk about everything related to the affairs and our feelings during that time, we were able to develop an honest, monogamous marriage again.

Nevertheless, 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.

We gradually began using our experience in dealing with affairs in some of the workshops we were conducting in our work as corporate consultants—to illustrate how honest communication can allow people to work through problems and differences, regardless of how difficult or seemingly insurmountable. The positive reactions to what we had to say gradually led us to begin writing a book about our experience, a process that took six years. It was 1980 when Beyond Affairs finally came out.

We appeared on about a hundred television and radio talk shows, from "Donahue" to "To Tell the Truth," to publicize the book. In fact, when we appeared on "Donahue," James and I were the first couple to appear on a daytime talk show discussing their personal experience in dealing with extramarital affairs and staying together as a couple. ("Donahue" was the only daytime talk show on the air in those days. Almost everything about that 1980 show was different from today's daytime talk shows. We were the only 2 guests for the entire hour.)

I didn't realize at the time just how unusual it was for a couple to talk personally about their own experience with affairs, but the reaction from the media was overwhelming. This allowed us to reach a large number of people. I was proud of the show and of what I think we accomplished by appearing on the program. While we had a strong belief in what we were doing, we were surprised by some of the reactions we received.

This decision to "go public" completely changed my life. It not only led to changes in my personal life, but led me to make this issue the focus of my life's work. Since 1980 I have written many books based on what I've learned from all the people who have shared with me. I'm convinced that the more we understand about affairs in general and our own experiences in particular, the better we can recover. And one of the keys to this happening is to work toward breaking the "code of secrecy" that surrounds the issue of affairs.

Here's an excerpt from The Monogamy Myth:

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.

The bottom line is that you are not alone—and I hope that my efforts to share my own experience and the expertise I've accumulated through the years will help each of you deal with your own personal situations. "