Should I tell my wife that I know her family's dark secret?
November 12, 2013 7:28 AM   Subscribe

Sorry for the gothic novel vibe this seems to give off, but it is what it is. There's some unpleasantness in my wife's family's past that I know still troubles her, and that she's never told me about. I know what this secret is, but she doesn't know that I know. Would telling her lift a burden from her, or just stir up trouble?

About 10 years ago, before my new wife and I met, something awful happened. It was a dark and traumatic event that resulted in the death of both her parents. Years later, we met, and in the first date stage where you're asking things like "so, do you have any brothers or sisters," she just told me that both her parents were no longer living. It was clear from the way she talked around it that something out of the ordinary had happened, and she seemed concerned that if I knew the whole story it would reflect badly on her - to the point that I might not want to become involved with her.

From things both said and left unsaid, I was able to make an educated guess as to what might have happened. And I realized that, if my guess was right, it wouldn't have gone unnoticed by their small local paper. So I did some googling around, and learned I was right. But it had nothing to do with her, and I couldn't see why it should effect us at all as a couple. So I just didn't bring it up again. We've been married for about a month now, and everything is great between us.

She does still talk about it sometimes with friends who knew her at the time, and so know what happened. But she still doesn't talk to me about it - in fact she makes a point of making sure I'm not around to overhear phone calls with those friends when those events come up. So I can't help thinking that part of her is still convinced that, despite how solid our relationship is, if I knew the terrible truth it would somehow ruin everything.

So on the one hand, I'm thinking I shouldn't stir things up. Everything is great with us. Why mess with it, especially since I don't care at all about the big secret. Why not let her keep it and carry on as we have, as if nothing ever happened.

On the other, I hate the idea of her thinking that what we have could all be swept away some day if I ever stumble across her horrible secret. (I have no idea why she feels this way, but that's how she seems to treat the matter.)

So is it best to just let sleeping dogs lie in this case, or would I be giving her a gift if I just come clean and tall her I've known all along and it doesn't matter to me?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (46 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Let it go. If she tells you, don't tell her you already know (because you don't know her perspective, you just know what was in the papers). If she never tells you, that's her business.
posted by Etrigan at 7:30 AM on November 12, 2013 [4 favorites]

Leave it alone.

You didn't do anything terribly wrong with your googling, but this will very likely FEEL like snooping to your wife. Moreover, she is likely to react badly to the fact that you've known all this time and never let on.

1. When and if she decides to tell you, react as if you never knew.
2. Take the fact that you already know to the grave.
3. Never press or try to get her to tell you. She'll tell you if she wants to, and she won't if she doesn't.
posted by DWRoelands at 7:31 AM on November 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

You can't be sure of her reasons for not telling you.

It may just be that she wants to have a part of her life that's safe and intimate and also completely separate from the trauma of her past. She may want to share an emotional space with you that isn't all tangled up in what happened with her parents.

Unless she brings it up, I'd leave it be.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 7:34 AM on November 12, 2013 [18 favorites]

It's okay that you went looking, and it's okay that she doesn't want to tell you. I'd let her decide when (and if) she wants to tell you about this.
posted by xingcat at 7:34 AM on November 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

I completely disagree with the previous answers. I think you should tell her. It wasn't cool that you went searching for the answer, but is also understandable. She isn't open to you - her husband - about an apparently big-deal event in her past, which is understandable, but also kind of not cool. You know what this thing is, any further denial of that is just you perpetuating dishonesty. She doesn't have to talk about it if she doesn't want to, but I'd sit her down and just say: "We never have to speak of this again, but when we were first dating, I was curious about the situation with your parents; I googled it, and found an article about X. We don't need to discuss it, I just couldn't go on pretending that I didn't know. I love you."

Marriage is built on trust. Every day that you've kept this a secret is a day in which you weren't truly honest with your wife. You can't make her talk to you about it, but you can control what you do and whether you will continue to lie about your knowledge of this event.
posted by melissasaurus at 7:46 AM on November 12, 2013 [70 favorites]

I find it a bit unusual that your wife has not discussed her parents death with you especially since it was a "dark and traumatic" event. This is apparently a large part of who your wife is or at least who she thinks she is. I hope that one day soon you two are both comfortable talking about this. I think it is fine you went looking for it and I think your wife probably knows deep down that the Google gives up public family secrets.

I would talk to her about it, but not just yet. Wait several months for either her to tell you or for time to pass. The secret won't go away with time, but her reluctance to share it might.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 7:48 AM on November 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

Drop that subject like a hot rock, and remember this:

We've been married for about a month now, and everything is great between us.

She's in the drivers seat when it comes to this subject. She decides when and where and even IF she wants to let you know about it.
posted by John Kennedy Toole Box at 7:54 AM on November 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

I have to go with melissasaurus. Festering Things That Must Not Be Mentioned are really, really bad for a relationship. Especially when you are the only one among her family and friends who doesn't know. Eventually, even if you didn't search, someone would tell you.

Find a good time to tell her that you know, and also to let her know that she doesn't have to hide this, it doesn't change anything about your opinion of her, and you won't press her to tell you any details or feelings if she doesn't want to. But that she can trust you to listen and understand and care about her. Because you are her husband. That's your job! Why marry if you are going to be strangers?

If she reacts badly, then go slow, try to work it out, get counseling if you need to.
posted by emjaybee at 7:55 AM on November 12, 2013 [9 favorites]

Do you think it's possible that the real issue might be that the subject itself is just too traumatic for her to bring up to anyone at all? I am all for total honesty in relationships, but I'm not sure her reluctance to discuss this with you has anything to do with you or your relationship. Whatever happened might just be too much for her to process or deal with, and for that reason I think you should just leave it alone.
posted by something something at 7:58 AM on November 12, 2013 [4 favorites]

There is no reason marriage means you have to share everything that ever happened in your life. It's understandable you went looking, but if she wanted to tell you she would.

Let it alone.
posted by winna at 7:58 AM on November 12, 2013 [4 favorites]

My hunch is that there's a compromise approach.

I'd have a chat with her that you've noticed that she has tried to avoid talking about this with you; and then tell her that you hope that it's not because she feels that she can't trust you. And if that's what she feels, then tell her you'd like to fix THAT. Of course, if the reason she isn't telling is something else - that she just doesn't want to talk about it with anyone - then that's okay, and is entirely her choice.

You know? Don't tell her you know, but tell her that if there's anything between the two of you which is making her feel like you're not as safe a space as you could be, THAT'S the part you want to work on. But part of that is you accepting that she still may not ever tell you, and make sure that she knows that that's also still okay with you.

You know? The reason it sounds like you want to tell her is because you're afraid that she doesn't trust you. So if that's the case, then maybe just work between you on alleviating that, and don't even get into the thing she is or isn't trusting you about.

And yes, it is entirely possible she still wouldn't ever tell you, but there's also a way for her to talk about the "why" she's not telling you in such a way that reassures you, which also avoids the topic. You know? Divorce the behavior from the topic itself, and work on the behavior between you two.

If I'm not clear, lemme know - this is kind of a hard thing to explain.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:05 AM on November 12, 2013 [23 favorites]

But it had nothing to do with her, and I couldn't see why it should effect us at all as a couple.

According to the newspaper version of the story. The full, deeper, emotional story is bound to be more complex and maybe she has reason to think it would affect the way you saw her/your relationship.
posted by mikepop at 8:07 AM on November 12, 2013 [15 favorites]

What good could come of forcing your wife to talk about something that she is obviously uncomfortable about?

Whose needs would be served? Hers? Or yours?

Married or not, there is a reason that she is unwilling to trust you with this information. Clearly her reason has nothing to do with you, and it is her own reason. It is her right to have that reason. It is not your right to decide that her reason is invalid.

The best you can do in this situation is keep your mouth shut about the Big Bad Thing, but otherwise reassure her every day that you love her and that you are in this marriage with her for the long haul.

Eventually she may come around to feeling safe enough to talk about it. Or she may not. Either way, don't try to force it out of her. That way lies hurt feelings, and then resentment. The first harbingers of death for a marriage. Just don't do it.
posted by vignettist at 8:09 AM on November 12, 2013 [5 favorites]

You know... I'm of two minds about this. Generally, I am all about radical honesty in relationships, and I view any secrets/taboo topics/etc. as a bad thing... a barrier preventing you from being as close as possible to your partner (and why be in a relationship UNLESS you're gonna aim for maximum closeness, you know?).

On the other hand, trauma of that caliber is SO personal and awful and life-altering that I think anyone who's been unlucky enough to endure such a thing should be given a HUGE amount of leeway regarding if-and-when they discuss it. It's like an awful version of something sacred to them.

I think all you can do, really, is make your relationship with her a "safe place", and make sure she knows that she'll always be the one who drives the discussion, and that there's nothing you could learn about her that would change your feelings about her. I think it would probably be a good thing IF she reached a space where she could confide in her spouse on that level, but there's really no rushing it.
posted by julthumbscrew at 8:14 AM on November 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

We live in the age of the Internet and this was a big enough event to be in newspapers. If she thinks you've never Googled for this, then she's a little weird. Of course you know about it. Just come out and ask her why she won't discuss it with you.
posted by SkylitDrawl at 8:15 AM on November 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

As a married couple, you owe some degree of honesty to each other.

I would own up to the fact that you looked into her family secret, and disclose what you found. The remainder of your obligation from there is to (a) remind her that you love her and that this secret does not affect how you feel for her, (b) that you are there for her if and when she wants to discuss it further with you, and (c) that you're not going to talk about it again unless she wants to.

That's it. I would not force a conversation with her on the topic; let her come to you on her own time and on her own terms.
posted by mkultra at 8:24 AM on November 12, 2013 [8 favorites]

I'm ALL for finding a way to gently tell her you know and it is not an issue + you respect her privacy.

Maybe a handwritten note?

I agree she should not have the stress of keeping this secret on her shoulders, even if she never ever wants to discuss it with you outright.

Further, I don't know what the crime(?) was surrounding the death of her parents, but compassionately acknowledging your awareness of it to your wife stops the echo of this act from reverberating into your wife's future, at least where you are concerned.

Tell her.
posted by jbenben at 8:26 AM on November 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think you're right to wonder if there's something about you or your relationship that doesn't feel safe to her but I don't think that revealing you know her deep dark secret will address that in a healthy way. Maybe she knows on some level that you could easily find out if you wanted to, if she assumes you haven't already, but I wonder if your wife realizes that it makes you fear that she doesn't trust you or your relationship with the information. I think that's the approach you need to take. Pretty much like Empress and julthumbscrew suggest. Going forward, this is less about her prior experience and more about how you build your life together.

Make it very clear--and mean it absolutely--that she need not ever discuss the event or how it changed her life or how she's still processing it with you. But tell her how it makes you worry that she fears that her traumatic past could destroy your relationship. Ask her if she has that fear. Tell her you want to work to eliminate that fear from your relationship, whether that means sharing the trauma with you or not. Then as you have those conversations, you can figure out whether she knows you know and doesn't want to admit it and can figure out when best to tell her that it was in the public record and you have some basic details about what happened.
posted by crush-onastick at 8:30 AM on November 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

I stumbled across some stuff (treason! mutiny!) about my brother-in-law, originally via a book I'd gotten from a store's remainder table of all places, a couple years before he and my sister married. Same as you, I gave in to curiousity and Googled for details, which proved some of the things he'd said to the family about his background were total fabrications. I kept my mouth firmly shut anyway: he did his jail time, he's led a law-abiding life since and he's treated my sister well. No, we have never had an explicit "So.... what did your husband do in prison?" conversation, but from hints she's dropped in the last year or two, she might be open to it now, where she most definately would not have been early in their relationship.

Anyhow: I have come to the conclusion that we shouldn't do things like Google family members without specific cause; all too often, it just leads to this sort of we-both-have-the-same-secret standoff.

The Empress and julthumbscrew have it right: keep your mouth shut (with everyone!); this is her secret, and it's up to her to reveal it to you or not. Love her, make sure she knows she --- not her family or anything else --- is the most important thing to you. Eventually, when she's ready, she'll feel safe enough to tell you; although be aware that it might possibly be in tiny slow hints years later (like my sister is doing). Let her take the lead on this.
posted by easily confused at 8:38 AM on November 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

She does still talk about it sometimes with friends who knew her at the time, and so know what happened.

Somehow, you know this. That's what makes it a dilemma, to me. Mostly I feel like people tell you things in their own time and there's no reason not to respect the preference of at least one partner in the relationship. But if you are aware of conversations about things you are not supposed to know, that is uncomfortable regardless of what those things are. If this (conversations you know about but are not privy to) comes up a lot, I think it's something to discuss in itself.
posted by BibiRose at 8:40 AM on November 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Without the googling you wouldn't know it's traumatic, you wouldn't know the dark secret, you'd only know your wife walks out of the room and talks in whispers when talking with certain friends. Without the googling, this could be any secret, even an unsavory one like cheating or something. So if you didn't know what the secret was, all the advice in this thread would be to talk to your wife.

I believe a frank discussion is called for - she's keeping secrets from her husband, and now you're keeping secrets from your wife. Not good. Worse, you seem to be more ok with attributing motives to her than you are with asking her what her motives are. If the lies aren't enough of a burden, the lack of communication will be. Talk to your wife.
posted by headnsouth at 8:43 AM on November 12, 2013 [8 favorites]

Normally I am not a fan of secrets in marriages, but I am of two minds on this. This information is different from an ordinary "secret" in that it happened well before you met. But when I read " But it had nothing to do with her, and I couldn't see why it should effect us at all as a couple," it made me think that you are not looking at this through her eyes, but your own. (Which is fine, of course.) But before you go leaping to ideas that she doesn't trust you, maybe think that there might be some other reasons why she hasn't discussed this with you. As you say, this was a dark and traumatic event. Perhaps she views your marriage as something free from the troubles of the past, and feels that sharing her past with you will bring it back into the present. It may be freeing for her emotionally to be around people who *don't* know that story.
posted by ambrosia at 8:49 AM on November 12, 2013 [4 favorites]

This is tough. I would consider maybe asking her why she is keeping the story from you. If you said "We don't have to talk about this if you don't want to because I love you. But in not discussing your parents' death - and I'm not asking you to say anything about it right now - it would help me to know are you trying to protect yourself in some way, which is completely your right, or are you worried about hurting our relationship in some way?" If she says its for herself then say "That's fine and I totally support that and I'll never bring it up again. Just know I'm always here for you." And never speak of it again. If she says its for you, or your opinion of her, or to protect your relationship, maybe then you could gently let her know there is no need to worry because you know and it hasn't changed your love for her at all. Explain that you were also protecting her and trying to respect her feelings in not bringing it up before. Maybe it would be a burden lifted to know that she didn't have to carry it without you anymore. I definitely think it would be better to try and find some way you can both be honest with each other. It's sad to think of you both having a great relationship, yet this elephant is in the room and neither of you can talk about it. But I'd try and follow her lead as it obviously is so much more painful for her and her stake in not discussing it is so much higher. Good luck.
posted by billiebee at 8:54 AM on November 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

melissasaurus: ""We never have to speak of this again, but when we were first dating, I was curious about the situation with your parents; I googled it, and found an article about X. We don't need to discuss it, I just couldn't go on pretending that I didn't know. I love you." "

I like this script. I would probably add "I'm sorry" and "I love you no matter what."

I don't think you sound like you're afraid that she doesn't trust you. My reading of your question is that you feel that her hiding the incident is adding to her burden and you would like to offer to help lighten it.

I'm no big proponent of married couples owing each other radical honesty in all things, but I do think that things are so much easier when the need for not-your-business/personal space can itself be acknowledged. For example, if she doesn't want you to overhear her conversations about it, I think that's well within her rights. But instead of her having to skulk off and mmmhmm while she finds someplace private to talk, she could just give you the sign and you could willingly give her that privacy.
posted by desuetude at 8:56 AM on November 12, 2013 [4 favorites]

I disagree with the crowd.

I had something (sort of, not really) similar happen. I was dating a girl, and knew something about her past. I never mentioned it, then one day the topic came up, and it all came out - she told me, and I told her that I knew - and that was where the explosion happened. She was more mad that I knew and did not say then anything else.
posted by Flood at 9:02 AM on November 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

She might be mad, but if the rest of your relationship is on an even footing, a temporary bit of upset seems to outweigh decades more of hiding it. Ludicrous comparison, but there was a Mitchell and Webb sketch about a guy who's retiring when one of his coworkers finally tells him that he's had a bit of ham on his face for the entire time they've known him, and it's made things awkward for decades because they felt weird bringing it up when the initial moment had passed. Is it harder to admit that you know now, or forty years from now?

But you can tell her that you know while, as melissasaurus suggested, also making it clear that there's no pressure on her to discuss it with you or anything.
posted by Sequence at 9:08 AM on November 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am not your wife. I am a woman who would be furious, like never see you in the same way again furious, if my spouse decided he "knew" a "dark secret" about my past from Google and guess work and had the nerve to think he was entitled to discuss it with me.

Honesty does not mean full disclosure of everything that ever happened and especially not full disclosure on someone else's terms.

You have been married for a month - this does not mean you can tell her how to deal with her past.

If she wants to talk sometime, let her. If she doesn't, let her make that choice. (Bringing kids and their questions into the equation changes things, but that's likely a ways down the road. )

You do not know her "dark secret." What you know is how her parents died and that she doesn't want to discuss that with you. Her wishes seem like the more important information.

Can we assume, also, that your wife is aware of Google and people using it to find out about her family?
posted by Lesser Shrew at 10:36 AM on November 12, 2013 [6 favorites]

I wanted to say what ambrosia already said. Do you want her to have to think of that traumatic event every time she looks at you?
posted by windykites at 10:41 AM on November 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am of the same mind as EmpressCallipygos. I think there is a way to open the door to having a conversation about this -- should she want to -- without making it a Thing where everybody needs to disclose something.

Slight derail: You've known that she's keeping a secret, and what that secret is, for a long time. This puts you/your wife in a different camp than people who are all about 100% above-the-board honesty in relationships. It's working for you. There is no reason to change this based on how other people conduct their relationships.
posted by sm1tten at 10:46 AM on November 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Earlier in my life, I probably believed that unfettered honesty (particularly "the whole truth") was mandatory for true intimacy. It seemed that to withhold any aspect of one's self was in some way to violate the trust of one's mate.

Now, I don't subscribe to that ideal. People are complex, particularly as they get some years and experiences. They may be the product of their experiences, but that doesn't mean they want to live within them or even rehash them. The parts of wife's past that I know are painful belong to her, and it's up to her to decide if, how much, and when she chooses to bring up and relive those pieces of her past. I don't bother going into great detail about a few things in my past, not because I'm denying our relationship that intimacy, but because I don't feel like dragging them out and giving them power again. Time and a great relationship have made them less important, and I'd rather not change that.

I don't think you did anything wrong by looking it up, but she might read it as snooping. I think you just create an environment in which she knows she can share if it feels important to her.
posted by itstheclamsname at 10:46 AM on November 12, 2013 [6 favorites]

I agree with telling her.

I also think you violated no trust by looking into it, so don't apologize for that.
posted by yellowcandy at 10:58 AM on November 12, 2013

Oh, god, I am with ambrosia, Narrative Priorities, Lesser Shrew, and windykites here. I don't think you did anything wrong, but if you force the issue by bringing it up to her, you will. My guess is that you feel like a safe harbor away from all that awfulness. And with you, she doesn't have to be defined by that. It doesn't matter that you don't see her that way--this is about her. In her shoes, I would be devastated if you brought this up, react much like Lesser Shrew in the never see you OR our relationship in the same way devastated.

However, I do see one other possibility, which is that she didn't want to tell you about it early on and now it's become weird that she hasn't told you about it. And even if that isn't the case, she may want to tell you later. So you do need to make sure she feels she can bring up anything to you at any time.
posted by tiger tiger at 10:59 AM on November 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

I think you should tell her. I strongly believe that the main reason my marriage is happy is that there is 100% trust. I learned back in my dating days that (for me) keeping secrets of any sort leads to breakdown in communication and leads to pain. This is obviously an issue so while things might be good now a month in, I don't see where it can go from here. It seems better to deal with potential fallout now.
posted by heatherly at 11:27 AM on November 12, 2013

My guess is that it's so traumatic she feels like it's baggage that she doesn't want to bring into her relationship with you. Your relationship may be kind of a safe space where that trauma doesn't exist. If you're sure what happened doesn't actually have anything to do with her and she played no part in it, I'd drop it. I understand why you searched for it and I don't blame you, but I don't think forcing her to talk about this helps anyone. She might be mad if you do, as it seems like it's a painful memory for her. Maybe one day she will tell you, but I'd wait for that day to come if everything else is alright between you.
posted by AppleTurnover at 11:37 AM on November 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

Look, OP, as is pretty obvious from the answers in this thread, different people and different couples have widely varying opinions regarding privacy and secrets in their relationships.

But none of us know your wife and none of us know you.

That said.

If the only reason you want to talk to her about this is because you're worried the secret is eating her up inside, seriously, leave it be. Let her make her own decisions about her mental health and emotional well being.

If this secret is eating YOU up inside, well that's different. You have to balance the weight it's putting on you against your wife's desire to avoid talking about it, and decide for yourself which feels more harmful to your relationship.

But some people are just....private people. Not out of malice, not out of a lack of trust, just....a desire to control certain information about themselves or certain aspects of how they interact with other people. Other folks in this thread have suggested that she might be tired of how her past trauma tends to define her in the eyes of other people, and there may be something to that. She might have had problems in past relationships because of this that she doesn't want to risk repeating. She may not like the person she becomes when reliving these experiences. She may not want that part of herself to be a part of her relationship with you.

Do whatever you feel like you need to do, but trust your wife to know what's best for her.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 11:59 AM on November 12, 2013 [6 favorites]

It doesn't have to be binary: either pretend you don't know, or confront her about it.

I have a couple of friends who've handled situations like that with blasé side comments in passing. As an example: John has "quit" smoking, but occasionally sneaks a cigarette. His wife says, "Honey, if you're feeling anxious, maybe you need to take a walk. You can brush your teeth before we leave." (All in a non-judgmental tone.)

Before a movie with a tragedy in it, you could say, "There's a pretty violent murder scene in this - I don't want you to be caught off-guard with memories."

Tone is everything here. No snark, no "haha I know your secret" (not that you would do that); just a matter-of-fact "I know this bothers you, and I've got your back."
posted by IAmBroom at 1:05 PM on November 12, 2013

My take on this issue is that it really depends on the particulars of your relationship, particulars that we here do not know and which it would be difficult for you (or anyone in your situation) to express. You have to weigh some things on your own and come to a decision about how to proceed. Here are the factors that I see as being important:
  • How much does it actually bother you that your wife won't open up to you about this?
  • How much do you really think it would upset her if you confronted her about the matter?
  • How much do you really think it would upset her if she discovered that you already knew The Secret and that you'd gone digging in her past to find it?
  • Which do you think is more likely to drive a wedge between you two: your upset over her secrecy, or her upset over confrontation and/or finding out that you'd been digging?
  • If you confront her, and she gets upset (perhaps more upset than you even suspect) do you think that you'll be able to work through it as a couple and heal the wound, ending up stronger and more trusting than before?
  • If you don't confront her and try to put it out of your mind, do you think you can do that successfully or do you think it's something that will likely always bother you as long as you live together?
Only you (and your wife, but you can't find out from her directly) really know the answers to these questions. Depending on your assessment, you have a few options which have been detailed above.
  • You could try to let it go and allow her to disclose The Secret to you in her own time, recognizing the possibility that she may never do so.
  • You could gently mention to her that it bothers you a bit that she can't be open with you about this, and let her know that while you will always love and support her regardless, it would mean a lot to you if she could share this pain with you so that you can love and support her in this area of her life as well.
  • You could confront her about it, tell her that you already know, and deal with the fallout as best as possible.
  • You could confront her about it, not tell her that you already know, and see if she will open up. This is a more confrontational version of the second option. (Optionally, you could later tell her that you already knew.)
  • You could confide the situation to a mutual friend, one whom you know is aware of her side of the situation but whom you trust not to disclose your side of it to her (this is a lot to ask of a friend, and you may not know anyone you can reasonably do this with) to try to get more information about your wife's reasons for being closed about it and to see if your friend can try to encourage your wife to open up to you. This is risky because there's a good chance your wife would find out that you'd tried this strategy (no matter how solid of a friend this is) and might get extra upset (with some justification) that you'd "gone behind her back".
Those are what I see as being your options, and the factors that you need to take into account. This doesn't seem like the sort of situation where anyone else can really make the decision for you, but hopefully I have at least been able to clarify the situation somewhat for you, so that you can have an easier time making the decision.
posted by Scientist at 2:04 PM on November 12, 2013

I'm going to take a different approach. I do not talk to my husband of 24 years about my childhood. I was in foster care and then back to my family and it was traumatic and difficult. It made me somewhat untrusting of people even those whom I love. It's not that I don't mean to talk about it but it is such a hard topic and I don't like to answer any personal questions regarding it even though he and I knew each other from teenagers. Don't get me wrong, my husband knows the story but has never pressed me on it and eventually heard it when I was in counseling. Perhaps your wife feels the same. She may guess that you know but is comfortable with the radio silence regarding this topic between the 2 of you. I'd leave it at that and hope that someday she may broach it with you. She probably appreciates your support more then anything. I'm thinking if you read up on the psychology of why people keep secrets you may hit upon her reasoning.
posted by lasamana at 3:06 PM on November 12, 2013 [4 favorites]

She has actually already basically told you in the way she, early on, let it be known that her parents were both dead under less than ordinary circumstances. In fact, she sort of came it out with it early and gave you your chance to privately investigate, probe or run. This is different from, for example, her telling you her parents died in a car crash and then you finding that out to be untrue.

Realistically, you seem to be aware she has people she does talk to about it, so she is not alone in dealing with it. It is fine for people in committed relationships to not share every detail, marriage is not one long therapy session, a lot of healthy relationships have mutually understood never verbalized agreements not to get into some topics.

It is possible that, to her, the right moment has not come up. Maybe she has never spoken to someone about it who did not already know most details about the event and she is really not used to the vulnerable feelings that come with that kind of story telling or unsure of how to talk about it; that is more likely than the fear of implosion scenario you imagine. Switch your empathy to how you would talk about it if it were your secret - probably not easy words to find and not a simple conversation to bring up. Her not wanting you to overhear the conversations are an indication she is not ready to answer the questions they might prompt. However you do this, you need to let her be in control.
posted by skermunkil at 3:31 PM on November 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

She obviously doesn't want to talk about it with you or she would have already done so. Leave it alone. If you bring it up, you're just terrorizing her emotionally. She shouldn't have to be confronted by what sounds very traumatic. She's trying to build a life with you.

If I were her and you lobbed this at me and demanded I react, I'd never trust you again. Even if I suspect you knew or had looked it up.

Give her her space on this. It's not your information. You can't make demands on her like that.
posted by discopolo at 4:29 PM on November 12, 2013 [4 favorites]

Before a movie with a tragedy in it, you could say, "There's a pretty violent murder scene in this - I don't want you to be caught off-guard with memories."

If I got blindsided by a statement like that from someone about past trauma I'd not shared with them I'd never be able to feel the same way about them. 'Casually' sneaking it into unrelated conversation would basically be the worst possible way for me to find out someone knew things I'd not told them.
posted by winna at 5:27 PM on November 12, 2013 [10 favorites]

Before a movie with a tragedy in it, you could say, "There's a pretty violent murder scene in this - I don't want you to be caught off-guard with memories."

If I was your partner and you did this to me, I would be extremely angry. Angry that you were condescending to me, angry that you somehow found out something, angry that you were ruining a casual night out by bringing it up, really, just really fucking pissed.

I think this is your wife's story to tell in her own time.
posted by oneirodynia at 5:49 PM on November 12, 2013 [7 favorites]

Sadly, I actually have a very similar story to you, OP. When I met my husband, I was told by a friend he probably wasn't going to be ready to date as he was still dealing with the death of his younger brother. We started dating anyway. A few dates into it, he told me his brother had died but that was the only information he gave and I wasn't game to press any further.

My husband basically never spoke of his brother again as in, I didn't even know his name, he deliberately avoided using it. I started to feel self conscious that everyone knew this supposedly dark secret but me and kind of felt like I was being shut out of something that was clearly a big deal. More importantly, I was afraid of inadvertently triggering him but say, making a stupid joke about car accidents for example, without knowing that that was how brother had died and being an insensitive jerk without even knowing it.

Eventually I started to meet his extended family. After we got engaged, his uncle spoke about X, his brother, and confided in me the story of his death, surprised I didn't know already know.

We ended up getting married. One day (don't know how the topic came up) I said to husband that if he ever wanted to talk to me about his brother, I would be there for him. I told him I thought it was unusual that I was the closest person to him in the world yet he had never shared any details about his brother, happy or sad, at all, not even mentioning his name. My husband replied that the whole thing was just so so sad for him that he couldn't bring himself to do it. I said that was fine, but that one day he should probably talk to someone about it (such as a therapist) it didn't have to be me, and I would never push it. It could be helpful to get him to deal with his grief.

He agreed and said he would think about it. We've never discussed it again. Random memories of his brother have come up once or twice over the years but that's about it and to this day, I don't think he knows that I know the full details of his brothers death. Having said that, it's been 8 years, he probably suspects that by now someone has filled me in. Until he's ready to discuss it, I feel no need to bring it up. And that may never happen, who knows.
posted by Jubey at 5:51 PM on November 12, 2013 [9 favorites]

Ouch. I'm of half a dozen different minds on this.

I'd have Googled it, too, given the opportunity - stepping into a long-term or permanent relationship with someone is a big enough deal that not-knowing what *could* have been a deal-breaker is just not something I'd be willing to risk.

If the circumstances were in the paper, they were fair game. At some point, a friend or acquaintance is going to broach the subject with you - unless she's specifically told everyone not to. And then someone might still tell you, if they felt you should know.

The details, though - I'm pretty sure that I can't give blanket advice. To me, the specifics would make too big a difference in how I handled it.

For example:
Say her parents were killed in a (ice-related) car wreck. Unexpected, heartbreaking, hard to deal with, yes. (We're a month into dealing with a mother/son combo ourselves at the moment, close family to my guy, close friends to me, my sis, and my mom.) It's not fun, it's HARD, but it's also not something that we'd hide from the world.

Change that into the driver being impaired, and what do I come up with? No, probably still not that withdrawn about it.

A house fire? A boat sinking? Other things like that? Nah, pretty sure that I'd go with matter of fact, but didn't want to chat about it, if I didn't.

Murder by a random third party? It might not be a topic of conversation, but I wouldn't completely avoid it. Murder by another family member or close friend? Now, that's getting into iffy territory. Have to say that it read as sort of interesting that you were talking about
"brothers and sisters", didn't mention her response to that, just that her parents were dead.

Slide it the rest of the way in to some variation of murder/suicide... and that's where I'm guessing you're at.

There's all sorts of landmines with that one. A pact based on health issues? I'm doubtful she'd react like she has. Domestic violence or mental health... mmm, yeah, I could definitely see her being uncomfortable sharing it with you, especially if she was afraid you'd think she might be "like" him/her/them in whatever vital way?

In summary:
The further her reality is, down that rabbit hole I described, the more likely I think she'd be 1) dealing with it in the manner she has, 2) unwilling to talk with you about it, 3) extremely unhappy should you bring it up. As in, she's not just traumatized over what happened - she's terrified of your reaction to it. And you may not be unable to convince that your reaction is different than she believes it will/should be.

I think you're going to have to let this go and keep your mouth shut, though I'd suggest you consider potential reactions in event of unveiling, either deliberately by her, or accidentally by someone else, so that you could be as supportive as possible. It's probably too internalized for you to navigate, and there's a ton of ways it could blow up in your face.
posted by stormyteal at 6:36 PM on November 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Assuming you've made it abundantly clear that you're there for her if she wants to talk about it, and that you won't judge her or think less of her for whatever happened, then leave it alone. Do NOT tell her you already know.
posted by storminator7 at 8:49 PM on November 12, 2013

I will repeat some of the commenters here, but the fact that you read up on the events in the papers does not mean that you know the whole story, espeacially from her perspective. That in itself is not an indicator whether you should tell her or not. Just something to consider. What if you sit down for a conversation, admit you know the story and then she fills in with more details that you are not so fond of? Would you be able to deal with that? Or would she receive the reaction that she fears?
Also, I have been in the situations were I felt that people being 'honest' with me was actually people unwilling to carry the load by themselves and instead transfering it onto me. This may be not your case, I don't know. But just another aspect to consider. Sometimes the desire to reveal something you know is not caused by honesty, but by the wish to get rid of the burden of secrecy (in your case, the secret that you know your secret). By blurting out the truth, you don't have to keep the secret from her anymore. But where does that leave her?
posted by runningWater at 3:08 PM on February 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

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