Haunted Mansion: Secrets and Ghosts in Client Families



Even the most astute and thoughtful advisor can lose sight of issues which, if unaddressed, threaten to destroy the stability of the family enterprise. This article by Gerry Donnellan of Big Leap Family Business Advisors and Brandeis University addresses  “ghosts in the room” and “secrets in the family” which threaten to undermine legal, financial, family harmony, business and ownership considerations.

Haunted Mansion: Secrets and Ghosts in Client Families
Gerard J. Donnellan, PhD

Many things, including secrets in the family and ghosts of lost relatives, haunt our clients.  These “hauntings” make themselves present in the client’s un-ending family conflict, lost riches and decline of the family business. This article explores what these ghosts are, how they are manifest and what we might do as advisors to help our clients move ahead.

Each family we work with has its own unique history. Buried deep in that history, many times, are family secrets, the “ghosts of the past.” These ghosts, be they the long-shadow of the founder, lost, disinherited or forgotten members of the family or long-decayed family values and culture, have unseen and powerful effects on the family system. These spirits take many forms and guises, but they all share one common element: they hold power and sway over otherwise mostly normal people.

In this brief article we will explore the magnetism and influence of these ghosts with our client families: what they are, how they become manifest and how they influence the families and us.

How to think about this

  1. Something from the past, i.e. a dead relative, a story, emotions, family secrets, or memories, influences those living in the present.
  2. This something manifests itself in some manner. That manifestation may be disguised as physical or psychological symptoms in the family or a member of the family system; or the inability to get through an issue and reach resolution, even when the answer appears simple, rational, evident and clear.
  3. The link to the past can be rather foggy, remote, out of focus and in the shadows of awareness to those in the present. For example, the substance abuse of one family member has some meaning or significance to that person and others in the family. Perhaps one person (or all) was emotionally abused  or abused in some fashion. This unresolved, sticky emotional conflict underlies and fuels the person’s current-day drug problems.

        Some ghosts and secrets:

  • Alcoholism and substance abuse
  • Sexual abuse and incest
  • Emotional abuse
  • Past family lawsuits
  • Historical Ghosts in the DNA
  • Bankruptcy, loss of fortune
  • Spousal infidelity
  • Illegitimate and adopted children
  • Mental illness
  • Death of a close family member

Three types of families

To frame our discussion, let’s consider three types of families.

  1. There are ordinary families that have developed their own methods for dealing with conflict, bad feeling, disappointment, loss and heartache. They seem robust and resilient in the way they deal with each other as family members. These resilient families are good-enough: they have problems and issues, yes, but they find ways to resolve them, move on and remain connected to each other as a family. They will always find the way to have Thanksgiving dinner or holidays together. They care about each other, love each other (more or less), are connected to each other and are committed to working things out, because they want the family to stay together.
  2. Other families are more conflict-ridden and emotionally entangled. These high-conflict families are characterized by ongoing, unresolved emotional discord; they always seem to be in the thick of it. Nothing really gets resolved. Things get dropped from lack of energy or inability to see any resolution. They just go ahead, not getting issues resolved, because this is what they know — nothing changes and nothing gets better.  They themselves are depleted; they wear us out as advisors.These are the families in which, for example, a family member is permitted to work in the family business, even though he has been an active alcoholic for many years, is unproductive at work and is a drain, financially, emotionally and to the health of the family. Nobody knows what to do, so he stays and no one is happy.
  3. The third type of family is one in which the members are emotionally disconnected from each other. The family is barely alive.  They move away from emotional engagement; they would rather resolve problems through legal documents rather than direct, open communication; they can look good on the surface, but just below they are a collection of unhappy, narcissistic individuals. If there were conflict, they would rather hire someone else to deal with it than dirty their own hands. Their emotional disengagement belies longstanding, troubling and deep emotions that do not get expressed directly. They are more ghost-like than either of the other two families: they are, themselves, nebulous and somewhat not real.

Each of these family types represents a particular way the family has dealt with the secrets and ghosts of the past.

A perspective

The characteristics of the Good Enough Family are: 

  • They negotiate conflict: they work it out
  • They deal with the present
  • They use the family resources to strengthen themselves
  • They know what is important to them and try to live accordingly
  • They are dynamic, interesting and, many times, fun

They know what is important to them and try to live accordingly

In contrast, we can characterize more troubled families thus:

  • They don’t resolve conflict
  • They are shackled to the past
  • They attempt to resolve personal or family conflict through legal and financial modes and tactics
  • They are not focused on important things in the business and family
  • They are demanding of those around them
  • They are depleted: they weaken themselves by all of the above

They attempt to resolve family conflict through legal and financial modes 

Implications for our work as advisors

Often, as advisors, we are concerned about the family dynamics that roadblock movement forward in the business. Even with the best of training and years of experience, we get stuck in the work with some families. While in the midst of our engagement, it may be difficult to gain a perspective on “what is really going on.”

In light of our discussion about family secrets and ghosts, here are some suggestions for countering that pull:

1. Watch out for the deadly trio:

The deadly trio consists of:

  • Unhealthy, destructive behaviors
  • A culture of entitlement
  • The lack of value creation, coupled with incompetence, laziness, and lack of commitment in the family

This trio is deadly because it can result in:

  • Splits and fractures in the family, spilling over into the business
  • Deep-seated and decades-long resentments, i.e. bad blood
  • Living in the past, with a resulting inability to attend to the real business challenges, or family issues, facing the family
  • Lack of both focus and strategic thinking, resulting in poor decisions

2. Seek advice, supervision and input from colleagues and peers. We all can benefit from getting another perspective. Seek out trusted colleagues and peers to “bounce things off of.”

3. Take a look at yourself and your own particular dynamics – what you “bring to the party’ when you work with families. What in your own family history is a “hot button” for you? For example, a passive, disengaged father in the family not taking a stand when it is called for, perhaps, may be a reminder of your own experience and can interfere with your objectivity.

Reminders of the past are all around us

4. Remember that the past is embedded in and living in the present. Ghosts, secrets and memories influence the roles family members play and their dynamics with each other.

5. A collaborative/team approach to the work can help counteract the stickiness of the relationships with the family and help add some perspective. Team members can share experiences and insights with each other.

6. Don’t blame yourself. The family is doing what they do.  The difference is that they have allowed you to be a participant-observer who is there to help them. They need the hope that they can change.

7. Be the champion of hope: Your clients want to believe that you are confident and hopeful that they will get through this, that they will succeed and that you are with them all the way. They may have mixed feelings about the current situation. Your positive outlook will help them enormously.

A final note

Remember: the past lives on in the present and that the present is embedded in the past. When conversations, negotiations, or family meetings get stalled this simple reminder can help us to step back and ask, “What is really going on here?”

[1] Many thanks to Patricia Annino, Esq, for our conversations on families and secrets.

About the Contributor

Donnellan,GGerard J. Donnellan, PhD, president of BIG LEAP, Boston, is an organizational psychologist, psychoanalyst and family business consultant. He is an Adjunct Professor at Brandeis University¸ International Business School, where he teaches the course The Family Enterprise. He is a fellow of the Family Firm Institute, and member of the think-tank Psychosocial Dynamics of Family Business. Gerry can be reached at [email protected].

Stay tuned next week for another issue of The Practitioner.

Yours in Practice,

The Practitioner