Department of Family Therapy Dissertations and Applied Clinical Projects

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences – Department of Family Therapy


Christopher F. Burnett

Committee Member

Robin Cooper

Committee Member

Tommie V. Boyd


Family secrets can be a driving force, whether explicitly or implicitly, for many seeking therapy. Despite this, there is little qualitative research examining how individuals experience and make sense of their family secrets. Through this study the researcher examined the phenomenon of family secrets amongst five individuals from different families. Qualitative research using Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) along with a Bowen Family Systems Theory approach was used to explore multigenerational family secrets. Purposive sampling was used to select that participants and data was collected through semi-structured interviews. A genogram was also drafted to identify multigenerational relationships and the history of family secrets.

By exploring and mapping the functions of multigenerational family secrets, the researcher examined in detail how participants make sense of their lived experience with holding a family secret. Through semi-structured interviews, the researcher was able to extract the meanings found within keeping a secret and the functions that secrets serve within families. Six superordinate themes were identified: what’s in a secret, living with a secret, finding meaning, anxiety and differentiation, multigenerational transmission process, and functions of family secrets. The data collected and analysis reflecting the experiences shared by the five participants add to the existing literature on the phenomenon of keeping family secrets and details the implications for the emotional system and marriage and family therapy. By mapping the hidden, a new conversation on the taboos of family secrets can lead to new hope for individuals and generations to come.

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