Is there good reason to cry over spilled beans?
April 29, 2014 8:16 PM   Subscribe

Throughout the entirety of my life, my immediate family has existed under a heavy shroud of secrecy. Within my current relationship, I cast it off for my boyfriend. Is this a decision I will come to deeply regret?

Growing up, my mother trusted very few people. As a result, my parents didn't mingle socially with other adults, and I wasn't allowed to do much or say much about our mostly mundane home life to outsiders. I'm now an introverted adult in a long term relationship that is seen as steadily chugging along towards the altar. I tried to explain my parents' unconventional behavior towards him to him at first, but I kept stumbling into and stepping over taboos. Eventually, I start spilling the beans. Not all of the beans, but in retrospect, some *serious* beans that weren't mine to spill and have the potential to ruin my relationship with my mother if she finds out I snitched. My relationship with my S.O. is fine now, but I've fairly recently discovered that he has a bit of a strong petty streak that runs through him and... markedly different standards of acceptable behavior/boundaries than I have when angry. What do I do now? I can't unsay anything, I can only hope he forgets/fails to discern the most potentially damaging thing.

If anyone here has been in my position, were you able to trust your partner, or do people often decide to "salt the earth" with things said in confidence... about other things presumably said in confidence in the midst of a messy breakup?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (24 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I've always chosen to trust my partners because I can't live with or love someone I have to keep a ton of secrets from. It's too stressful. I have pretty much always had this turn out just fine. But I also didn't grow up in a family of secrecy and shame about things, especially things that are actually quite ordinary (for my definitions of ordinary, of course).
posted by rtha at 8:39 PM on April 29, 2014 [7 favorites]

I think you're asking the wrong question here. You're asking about what your boyfriend might do, when really you are worried about what your mother is going to do about you "snitching." Here is what I think, as the child of a mom with a weird secrecy fetish that she demanded her children hold sacrosanct: You did what you needed to do to achieve normalcy. Your parents' weirdness does not need to be your burden. You do not need to feel guilty about your parents' hangups.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:46 PM on April 29, 2014 [75 favorites]

I wish I could tell you that I've never regretted trusting other people completely, and sharing my secrets with them, but it's not true. I have, and it has hurt a lot on several occasions.

My family was also mired in deep secrecy growing up- my mother trying to maintain a perfect facade while things were rotten behind closed doors- and I'm truly sorry that you had to grow up that way. It leaves deep scars and makes it very difficult to understand what is normal and healthy for most people. It's hard to learn how much to trust others, and until you figure it out, there's a tendency to overshare or undershare.

The only person I think ever heard the entire story is my former therapist, and that suits me fine- he is bound by the rules of his practice not to disclose what I say to anyone else. Mostly now, I don't feel the need to tell the whole story to everyone anymore. Therapy definitely helps a great deal with this exact problem.

It's seriously concerning that your boyfriend has such a mean streak, especially since you say you're heading towards marriage. I would definitely not want to marry someone who showed any signs of vindictiveness and created even more drama in my family of origin. It's going to be crucial for you to be able to trust your husband so you don't recreate the situation you had growing up.
posted by quincunx at 8:53 PM on April 29, 2014 [12 favorites]

Your experiences with your family of origin are yours. You needn't think that sharing your own experiences as snitching or betraying your family. Your parents have a very strange approach to being social and sharing with others. You don't have to play by their rules.

Of course, your boyfriend should be sensitive to the situation and keep what you've told him to himself and not blurt out things that your parents would find upsetting at family gatherings, etc. He also shouldn't use what you've told him as ammunition against you if you're having a disagreement. He should be respectful and sensitive toward your experiences with your family. If he's being cruel or using this information to hurt you in any way, that's not acceptable and I wouldn't marry someone who feels that sort of behavior is ok.
posted by quince at 8:59 PM on April 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

Hmmm. Without knowing the secret...

- It seems as if you fail to understand that as an adult, your story is yours to tell.

- Neither your mom nor your bf look like people you feel safe with.

- It looks like these two points strongly correlate with each other.

I can't tell if you are catastrophizing or not.

It seems absurd your bf might undermine your relationship with your mom because I trust you not to date someone like that!

Your poor mom. Hopefully you can find a script to repeat that doesn't blame her, but does affirm your ownership of your memories and experiences.

I really hope this turns out to be a non-issue, just a layer you are peeling back as you learn to be intimate outside of your family upbringing!

PS - dump him if he's really a meanie, OK? Cool.
posted by jbenben at 9:16 PM on April 29, 2014 [13 favorites]

Your mother's expectations that you would not share intimacies with a significant other are unfair and unrealistic. You didn't do anything wrong sharing your family background with him in order to give him some context for who you are.

That said, I'm concerned that you feel your boyfriend might use what you've told him to hurt you or your family if he is upset with you. Most people do not have to worry that telling their SO such things would result in the other person saving up the info and using it as ammunition in a fight. You shouldn't have to be worried about that! You should be able to count on him to have your back even if you are upset with each other.

Is there a possibility you now feel anxious and like you can't trust him because you were taught as a kid that other people aren't trustworthy? Or is it that he really isn't trustworthy? I think that is what you need to figure out here. But rest assured, you did not, de facto, do something wrong by sharing what you did with your boyfriend.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 9:25 PM on April 29, 2014 [21 favorites]

Eventually, I start spilling the beans. Not all of the beans, but in retrospect, some *serious* beans that weren't mine to spill and have the potential to ruin my relationship with my mother if she finds out I snitched.

You experience of your family life and growing up belong to you. Your mother doesn't have the right to say whom you can and can't talk about your experiences to; they are yours to disclose as you see fit.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 9:29 PM on April 29, 2014 [13 favorites]

He's not fighting fair; it's not a communication style that supports a loving relationship. You sound very equivocal about the marriage - think honestly about why.

If the secret is actually part of what's keeping you there, with reservations - that's if things feel 'ok' for now, but you're not confident in the peace; or if you ever decide to split and fear the outcome, it might be worth considering talking openly with your mom, to eliminate any leverage your partner has. I agree with quincunx that people don't often forget the most painful things, and if you really think he'll use them, I think it's better to have more control over how it comes out, although you can't predict the response. Maybe a third party could help you find a way to broach it, if you wanted to try.

If your childhood was shaped by events that happened directly to your mother - by her stressed responses, for example, or by decisions she made as a result of those events, which strongly affected you - that is still part of your story, as others have said.
posted by cotton dress sock at 10:00 PM on April 29, 2014

You're a grownup now, and you get to arrange your life the way you see fit.

I mean, if we're talking about you telling your S.O. that your mother committed a crime or used to be a spy or something, yeah, sure, that's bad news and you really need to do damage control on the off chance that your mother faces the consequences.

But assuming this is the usual family dirt ("my mom got pregnant with my brother before my parents were married"), who cares? There's nothing your S.O. can actually do with this information. it gives him no power over anyone, and the worst that could happen is that your family of birth finds out that you've decided to organize your own family differently in terms of this sort of thing.

FWIW, my mom's side of the family are fairly private people, and my maternal grandmother comes from the sort of family that, at least back in the 50s, had all sorts of Unspeakable Secrets (most of which are completely mundane in 2014). When I was a young blabbermouth who asked too many questions about things, my mother used to just say, "Nana doesn't like to talk about that," as a way to avoid revealing uncomfortable things in a way that could easily backfire. Once I was an adult, I got the truth.

I think if you truly don't think you can trust your boyfriend with this information, "My parents are very private and wouldn't want me to talk about it," is great.
posted by Sara C. at 10:48 PM on April 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yes - people do salt the earth in this way. The way I have dealt with it is to preemptively tell the person who might get angry at the disclosure that I have disclosed. At least then I have control over the situation and the capacity to prepare.
posted by Mistress at 11:59 PM on April 29, 2014

Your mom has failed you if she hasn't made it clear that there is very little that you could do to "ruin" your relationship with her. I can't imagine being that angry over my child making a mistake about what s/he told a close friend. This fear is something you don't deserve to have hanging over your head. You have the right to be angry about it and wish for something else.

Your boyfriend has failed you if he hasn't made it clear that things you told him in confidence will stay in confidence.

That said, are you expanding the circle of unnecessary secrecy to him? Meaning, do you expect him to never mention certain things again, no matter how relevant they are or what the situation is? Do you expect him to just "know" these things are totally off limits, no matter what? Those are unreasonable expectations. People talk about things they know about. If the argument you had was about, say, you being overly secretive and he said something like "you can't act like your mother, I deserve to know if [secret]", well, that seems relevant and not necessarily vengeful.

Conversely, did he genuinely make it clear that he would use a disclosure about your family to hurt you? If he seemed genuinely vengeful, then this is not a healthy relationship to be in. But that you were in a unhealthy relationship is no reason for your mother to stop loving you, or treat you badly!

I'm sorry. You got dealt a bad hand here in a lot of ways, and I wish you clarity.
posted by the young rope-rider at 3:56 AM on April 30, 2014 [5 favorites]

I can't tell whether your boyfriend really is the kind of person who would call your mum specifically to say "Hey Anonymous told me you had an affair once!" to get back at you in an argument (if he really might do that, run away very quickly, that's fucked up), or if he might just accidentally say something to your mum about Uncle Chris when Uncle Chris is the unmentionable family secret (in which case just tell him beforehand not to do that, but honestly slip ups happen in many families and form the basis for many retrospectively hilarious family tales, your mum would not literally cut you off permanently although she might be mad in the short term).
posted by tinkletown at 4:43 AM on April 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Only you are capable of determining whether or not your boyfriend is willing to keep your confidences.

However, completely aside from that specific situation, you need to make decisions in the near future about whether or not you are willing to continue a relationship with someone who deals with such things in a way that is far from acceptable.
posted by DWRoelands at 5:52 AM on April 30, 2014

You have two problems.

1. Your family is asking that you keep secrets. You don't have to, especially if it's hurtful for you to keep them. If your parents are weird about it, oh well. Either they get over it, or they don't.

2. Your boyfriend is the kind of person who when angry is mean, petty and doesn't think beyond his ability to score one off of you in the moment. This does not speak well of him.

You should be able to tell each other anything and everything, and to know that what you share is between the two of you, if needs be. You should also know, to the cellular level, that your loved ones won't use information you've disclosed against you or your family.

If you don't feel safe with your boyfriend knowing your family secrets, it's best to stop the train from chugging towards the altar until that gets straightened out.

If your boyfriend isn't working on not being petty, then you need to bail. Lack of respect for one's partner, no matter how it manifests, is a recipe for disaster in a relationsihp.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:02 AM on April 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

You have to trust your partner. If your parents want you to keep secrets, tough!
posted by J. Wilson at 6:12 AM on April 30, 2014

Your parents have put an unfair burden on you with all that secrecy. I also don't like the sound of your boyfriend's vindictiveness and wonder how much you are repeating patterns from your parents with your boyfriend-- that is, taking the burden of his dysfunction on yourself. I mean, you're supposed to worry about your mother if your boyfriend decides to act like a jerk? This is sort of classic adult child of alcoholics behavior, where you've spent your life feeling like you have to manage everyone. Now, if your mother's secret is such that she's going to do to prison or something if it gets out, well she's still the one responsible. As to the way your boyfriend is acting, it's easier said than done but maybe examine whether you gravitate towards people who replicate the relationship patterns you grew up with.
posted by BibiRose at 6:43 AM on April 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Unless the spilling of the beans is going to get your mom deported or arrested, there are ways to survive the spilling of the beans.

If it IS going to get her deported or arrested, well, that's a pickle your mom got herself into and is not your fault. Having children is the opposite strategy one would take if one wanted to keep a secret.

It sounds like your mom was, in fact, the first person to spill the beans, or you might not know her secrets. Or, she lived her secrets in front of you.

Either way, you didn't ask to carry her beans. It sounds like you're doing a lot of the heavy-lifting. Of beans.
posted by vitabellosi at 6:51 AM on April 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

Please don't marry this guy until you know you can trust him. Turn that train around that's rushing toward the altar and take a stop at "Figuring out if I can really spend the rest of my life with this person" station.
posted by Asparagus at 7:32 AM on April 30, 2014

I just don't understand why you are still obligated to keep the "secrets" that your mother wanted you to keep as a child. It's hard to say from what you have posted what the secret really is but unless it might cause her serious harm, you should not have to agonize over it or even keep your life as a child secret.

As to your boyfriend, he sounds like he is a "weapon keeper" and stores things in case he needs to hurt you. I would call him on that issue and make sure he understands that might be a deal breaker.
posted by OhSusannah at 7:36 AM on April 30, 2014

You could read a book about shame-based families. This may help you get some perspective on all the secret-keeping and fear that is going on.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:57 AM on April 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's very difficult to hold stuff inside for years. I recommend therapy, so you have someone to help you make sense of the secrets you have to deal with. Also, if your bf is someone who would knowingly spill the beans, affecting our relationship with your Mom, betray your trust, or even threaten to do so, yo might want to seriously re-consider the relationship. Again, a therapist would be a big help. What a lot you have to deal with, more than is reasonable. Good luck.
posted by theora55 at 7:58 AM on April 30, 2014

Step back, and ask yourself what your goal is.

If you do indeed marry this man, will you continue on with the family secrets that you have not yet divulged? Will you keep those secrets from / impose those secrets upon your children?

I agree that this question is less about your boyfriend (although I think you need to explore some trust issues with him, as he has over-stepped your boundaries) and more about your relationship with your mother.

It's time to decide if you will continue to keep her secrets, and continue to live this pattern she has created.

I'll tell you my story: my mother was very similar to what you describe in terms of not trusting others and not socializing, etc. She never talked about her childhood, but then would turn around and remark to people that I thought she had been born 30 years old. Kind of hard to picture her as a child when she never spoke of herself as a child...

Anyway, many of the family secrets came tumbling out when she was on her deathbed (I was in college). Suddenly so many things made sense! But what a waste, that she and I could not develop a closer relationship before she ever got sick, because she didn't even trust me, held me at a distance, and could not explain to me why she acted the way she did.

I made the decision that as long as her family of origin is still alive (her siblings) I will not speak of what I learned. It's not my place to tell their secrets. But I see how the consequences of those long-ago actions is affecting to this day not only my cousins, but now their children, because no one knows the real reasons about why our family does the things that we do and why we interact the way we do as a collective group.

And because of that, seeing people be seemingly blind to how their motivations have developed, I made the decision that family secrets will not exist in my home, with my family. It may be difficult, painful, shameful to talk about certain things or admit certain faults or mistakes, but I won't live with the weight and the distance that secrets create between people.

And that is why I say, you need to make a decision about how you will live your life. If it's simply too painful to address, that's perfectly okay, you need to protect yourself first sometimes. But you have to be aware that in protecting yourself you are making the decision to carry on with this pattern of behavior and distance that your mother created. It will affect the relationship between you and any significant other, whether it's this boyfriend or not. And that's fine too, as long as you go into it with your eyes open.

Once you decide which direction you want to go, you will know what to do about your boyfriend.
posted by vignettist at 8:10 AM on April 30, 2014 [5 favorites]

Something to consider - if you were raised in a secretive family and your boyfriend was raised in an open family, your *serious* beans may not seem as heavy to him as they do to you. It's all realtive as they say.

And if that is the case adn you think he would take your beans and throw them in your face, that's really a not nice thing, because it's done withthe intent and understanding thath it will hurt you because the beans are comparable to fluffanutter to his family.

Try to figure out how serious your beans would be to someone in the middle of the secret - open specturm and discuss with your boyfriend your fears about having beans on your face. You could be generating the fear of him doing something from within as some sort of guilty reflex for not holding your mom's beans.
posted by WeekendJen at 9:54 AM on April 30, 2014

Like other posters I see two problems, not necessarily related:

1.) I'm now [...] in a long term relationship that is seen as steadily chugging along towards the altar. .. I've fairly recently discovered that he has a bit of a strong petty streak that runs through him and markedly different standards of acceptable behavior/boundaries than I have when people often decide to "salt the earth" [...]in the midst of a messy breakup?

2.) "Growing up, my mother trusted very few people. As a result, my parents didn't mingle socially with other adults, and I wasn't allowed to do much or say much about our mostly mundane home life to outsiders."

It sounds to me like you're thinking very seriously about breaking up with your long-term boyfriend, and that you're afraid that without that relationship, you're going to have to turn back to your unhealthy, paranoid family. I know this is harder than it sounds, but are there any other people in your life you can turn to while you figure out how to deal with your SO? A trusted therapist, friends, less toxic family, that you can seek out instead of feeling like you're trapped between pleasing two people (your SO and your mother) who will go nuclear if you displease them? Because that's a hard, awful, lonely place to be.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 4:59 PM on April 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

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