What family has not known brokenness within itself? Rifts between spouses, parents and children, among siblings or extended-family members too often come with the territory. Many of the rifts are trivial and quickly heal themselves, like clumsy bruises or scratches. But there are other events that do much greater damage, that can infect or cripple relationships within a family for years and even lifetimes: marital and parental abuse, infidelity, addictions, incest, sibling jealousies and in-law warfare.

But however destructive the issue, denial and silence can prove even more so.

 It has been said that “one is as sick as one’s secrets.” That truism applies to families as well. What stays unspoken is rarely if ever healed. Closets are not hiding skeletons as much as they are hiding buried-alive feelings. Mom’s pill addiction, Dad’s gambling, kids’ pot smoking, drug dealing and sex-play are only a few variations on themes that play out in too many families whose reluctance to admit and put words to their feelings persistently enable such behaviors.

I remember years ago working with a family so hurting they attacked each other instead of the problems they refused to name. Out of my own frustration but sensing their trust of my caring, I changed places with a 19-year-old daughter, asking her to be her family’s “therapist” while I became her.

I had barely settled into her place when she challenged her parents and younger sister with the truth of what was dividing them, including her own failings, by pinning them on me role-playing her. What happened in the next 15 minutes or so delineated a workplace that eventually brought healing to all of them.

Another time, work with a conflictual couple had me refereeing their issues for weeks until I discovered, in a series of separate sessions, that every fight was really about an affair the husband had had early on in their marriage that was never dealt with directly and thus had no closure. By finally dealing directly with the issue and putting words to their feelings, the couple found a kind of understanding and forgiveness. 

Only two examples. But how many families choose never to open their closets to confront long-term conflicts (never forgotten, never forgiven) and deal with the pain they inflict? Another truism, “the pain that is known is better than the pain that is not known” usually becomes clear once such brokenness is admitted and dealt with. Healing is always a better feeling than constant hurting.

The beginning of such healing can often be as simple as someone who is in such pain asking, “Can we talk?”