When and How to Tell Family About Marital Crisis

When should I tell the members of my immediate family – my parents and siblings – that my marriage is on the rocks? My wife and I have been struggling for a long time, and we've recently begun to talk about a possible separation. We're seeing a counselor and we both want the relationship to work, but so far things aren't getting any better. I've purposely kept our difficulties from the rest of the family, feeling that this would be in the best interest of our marriage. But the direction things are moving, I don't know how long I can or should continue to do so.

The general rule of thumb is to dispense information only on a need-to-know basis. If, however, a physical change in your family structure and living arrangements is imminent – then immediate family members are going to have to know about it sooner or later, and it would be best if they got the word from you first. You certainly don’t want them approaching you for confirmation of reports they’ve heard through the grapevine.

This doesn’t mean that you have to share all the details with them. Since you’re already seeing a counselor, we recommend that you save the hard and hurtful parts of your story for therapy sessions. We’d also urge you to continue in counseling, even if you decide to live apart for a while. From our perspective, separation shouldn’t be viewed as a prelude to divorce, but rather as a “time out” during which you can clear your heads and initiate the healing process. The goal is to save the marriage and come back together again after a predetermined period.

Meanwhile, we wouldn’t necessarily dissuade you from confiding in someone besides your counselor, but we would suggest that you exercise discretion and wise discernment in this area. Discuss your deepest concerns only with people you trust implicitly and regard as thoroughly healthy and safe – a pastor, for instance, or a long-time same-sex friend or church elder. Everybody needs a strong support system – a group of people he or she can turn to in times of trouble. Ideally, we all want extended family to part of that network. The problem is that family members are often too emotionally involved, too biased, and too invested to maintain a helpful and objective point of view. You alone are in a position to determine where your parents and siblings fall along that spectrum. If you believe that your family members have the capacity to listen compassionately to what you have to say, and if you’re convinced that their only motive in doing so would be to offer you good, solid, objective, and disinterested advice, it might be worth your while to open your heart to them.

If you’re still not sure who to talk to and how much you should say, it may be helpful to give some thought to the difference between secrets and confidentiality. Generally speaking, secrets are a bad thing whereas confidentiality is good. When someone who needs to know something doesn’t, that’s an indication that you’re keeping a secret. Don’t fall into that trap. On the other hand, when the people who need to know do know, and the rest of the world doesn’t, that’s a sign that healthy confidentiality is being maintained. When everyone gets in on the action, regardless of who they are, that’s what we call gossip. And gossip isn’t in anyone’s best interest.

Call us. Focus on the Family has a staff of trained family therapists available to speak with you over the phone. They can also refer you to reputable and qualified marriage counselors working in your area. Don’t hesitate to get in touch for a free consultation.


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