Is privacy good or bad for your relationship?
Too much privacy can border on secrecy.
Too little privacy and you’ll feel engulfed in relational claustrophobia.
How can we be together without losing ourselves in our relationship?
These are the questions (and more) that I’m going to answer in this lover’s guide to privacy and secrecy.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SECRECY AND PRIVACY?
At first glance, it appears that privacy and secrecy are close cousins, so let’s begin by getting on the same page about what they mean.
According to Merriam Webster dictionary:
– The state of being apart from company or observation.
– The act of keeping information hidden.
So, privacy is about being on your own, with your own thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
The fact that you cheated on your grade 12 exams or that you had a threesome in your 20s are things that you might choose to keep private.
“But Bruce, why are those examples not secrets?” I hear you ask.
Because where privacy is about having a life that you don’t share with others, secrecy is about intentionally hiding information.
A telltale characteristic of a secret is that hiding it tends to be motivated by two feelings – shame and fear.
Shame, because we feel bad about what we have done.
Fear, because we’re afraid that revealing what we’ve done
may result in the loss of our spouse’s love, respect or loyalty.
So, if you’re feeling shame or fear about something you’re not sharing with your spouse, chances are good that the thing you are keeping to yourself goes beyond your private life and falls into the secret category.
For example, “I have a rainy day bank account that I’ve not told you about… ” would be a secret if you were hiding it for fear of upsetting your spouse.
By this definition, having cheated on your grade 12 exams might be a secret if you’re too ashamed to talk about it with your spouse.
By the same token, that threesome in your twenties might be a secret if you’re intentionally hiding it for fear of being rejected by your more sexually conservative spouse.
See the difference?
But what if your spouse wouldn’t care that you cheated on your Grade 12 exams? Is that still a secret?”
No, not in my books. It would have to be important information to your spouse for them to consider it a secret. How can you tell what information is important to them?
That’s easy… It’s important if they would be upset if they found out that you were hiding it!
So, now we have three characteristics of a secret.
So, are secrets bad?
I’m not a fan of labeling things good or bad. I prefer useful or not useful.
If you were a Jew in Nazi Germany and your life would be threatened by revealing your faith, then keeping it secret would be useful.
But we’re not in a war. We’re in an intimate relationship. And in my books, intimacy and secrets are like water and oil – they don’t mix well. 🙂
“The possession of secrets acts like a psychic poison that alienates their possessor from the community.”
– Carl Jung
After my TEDx talk, The Big Secret Nobody Wants To Tell became popular (you can watch it at the end of this article), I had the opportunity to speak with a ton of people about their secret lives.
All of them were burdened by the weight of carrying their secrets. The only people who believed that keeping secrets from their spouses was a good idea were the ones with secrets that directly impacted their spouses.
They’d say things like:
“He might not be able to handle it…”
“I don’t want to hurt her…”
“What good would it do sharing it?”
“Some things are better off kept unsaid…”
“We have a don’t ask don’t tell policy…”
Almost everybody else agrees that under most circumstances, keeping secrets from your spouse is not useful. It kills aliveness and promotes mistrust.
And for the record, don’t ask don’t tell is an awful idea if you value emotional intimacy and personal growth. It’s through knowing each other deeply that we grow as people and as a couple.
WHY YOU SHOULD HAVE PRIVACY & A PRIVATE LIFE…
We are all entitled to our privacy. In the west, it is one of your basic human rights (although that right is rapidly being eroded by our governments).
Privacy is also a basic human need.
Without a private life, we cannot possibly shut out the world, drop our social mask, and discover who we are when we’re not being observed.
Without a private life,
we cannot truly know ourselves.
In a marriage, because you share a home with your spouse and kids, your privacy is constantly under threat.
Without a private life (not a hidden life), the two of you will “lose yourselves”, merging into a WE. In the Romance Stage of your relationship, merging is perfectly OK. In fact, merging is a necessary part of falling in love.
However, when you outgrow the Romance Stage and graduate to the Power Struggle stage, being merged with each other becomes a big problem. I’ve lost count of the number of couples that seek me out for help saying,
“I feel like I’ve lost myself in this relationship.”
Having a healthy private life is how you “find” yourself without losing your relationship.
Having a private life is the healthy expression of your personal boundaries.
The challenge is that in order to fall in love, you have to merge your boundaries.
You can think of it like this:
HOW WE GO FROM ME TO WE
WE START OUT WITH SEPARATE LIVES
When you first met your spouse, you had separate lives, like this:
Two MEs with two sets of boundaries.
WHEN FALLING IN LOVE, WE MERGE AND FORM A “WE”
In order to form a close bond and fall in love, you had to merge together and surrender some of your individuality, autonomy and separateness in order to give birth to a WE. It might look like this:
In order to form a WE, you have to merge with each other.
BUT IF YOU STAY MERGED, YOU’LL END UP LIKE THIS…
and you’ll end up losing your Self in your relationship.
Who am I in relationship to you? We’re too close to tell each other apart.
SO, YOU NEED TO EXIST SEPARATELY WITHOUT LOSING YOUR “WE”
In therapy circles, this process of separation is referred to as individuation.
We remember who we are as we learn to exist apart from each other.
The individuation process can be a difficult time for couples.
Often, one partner struggles to allow their lover to have their own life and may feel insecure about being abandoned. I call this partner the Hailstorm because they commonly protest their partner’s individuation by becoming angry, demanding, critical or needy. Deep down inside though, they are terrified of being abandoned by their partner.
IF ALL GOES WELL, YOU END UP WITH THIS…
If individuation goes well (it’s a struggle for most of us), you’ll end up with a healthy sense of self and a healthy relationship that you both share, something that looks like this:
And then you can both have it all – your private lives and your relational life.
A private life promotes a fulfilling sex life…
Having your own private life will help your sex life!
As obvious as it may sound, we’re not sexually attracted to ourselves. We’re attracted to an “other” – someone separate from us.
When we stay merged and don’t individuate, that sense of otherness gets lost.
Merged couples often tell me that they feel more like brother and sister than vital lovers.
When I work with a couple who are seeking help because their sex life has died, one of the first things I seek to discover is how merged they are and then support them individuating.
Developing their individual private lives is one of the first tasks I assign them.
WHAT DOES A HEALTHY PRIVATE LIFE LOOK LIKE?
Here are some examples of what a healthy private life may look like in the context of a marriage. Please bear in mind that everyone has different needs and values, so an arrangement that works well for one couple may be a disaster for another.
- Some evenings, he spends time in his man cave where he plays guitar, maintains his motorcycle and meditates.
- She goes away for the weekend on a yoga retreat while he takes care of the kids.
- He goes camping with his buddies for a weekend while she takes care of the kids.
- She takes herself to the salon for 2 hours and gets her nails and hair done.
- They both shut the door when using the bathroom.
- They both have their own friends outside the relationship that they see and enjoy without the other (and occasionally together).
- He stays out until 2 am one night a week jamming guitar with his band at the local pub.
- She attends night school at a local university twice a week studying business.
- They both have hobbies and interests outside of their relationship.
- They may choose not to share every detail of what happened that day.
This is a very short list (mostly inspired by my own life). I welcome your suggestions in the comments section below about what your healthy private life looks like.
Of course, a high-functioning relationship also includes a healthy shared life with mutual friends, mutual activities, and mutual interests.
Speaking of shared lives, the next question I get a lot is…
HOW MUCH SHOULD I SHARE WITH MY SPOUSE?
Determining what to tell your spouse and what to keep to yourself is a bit of a balancing act.
I use these two rules of thumb to determine what to share and what not to share with my spouse.
MY PERSONAL POLICY IS TRANSPARENCY…
– Characterized by the accessibility of information.
In other words, when it comes to my private life, if my spouse asks me about it I answer truthfully.
I will never intentionally hide anything from her that she would want to know or feel angry or betrayed about if she found out from someone other than me.
If you’re still unsure of whether or not to share the thing you’re withholding, use this guideline:
If you’re feeling shame or fear around sharing it, or your spouse would feel angry or betrayed if they discovered this information themselves, share it.
NOTE: This assumes that you’re not in an abusive relationship where sharing your secret may result in physical harm to you or someone else.
IS THERE SUCH A THING AS TOO MUCH DISCLOSURE?
Your husband doesn’t need to know that your ex made you orgasm 10 times in a row. That will only lead to comparison and possible feelings of inadequacy.
Your wife doesn’t need to know about your bowel movements. That will just turn her off.
Some people argue that if you’ve got nothing to hide, why hide anything? Isn’t full disclosure the most honest way to live?
Perhaps, but it certainly isn’t the most exciting or sexy…
Sharing everything with your spouse removes any mystery from your partner’s perception of you… and mystery plays a vital part in keeping the spark alive between you.
Full disclosure will kill the spark between you.
ARE THERE THINGS I SHOULD HIDE FROM MY SPOUSE?
Believe it or not, not all secrets are bad.
There are situations and times when keeping things hidden is beneficial. For example, lies and deceit are the basic ingredients of a good surprise.
Knowing what to keep from your spouse is a grey area and largely dependent on the situation or context.
Here’s what I personally keep hidden from my spouse. If you have any worthy additions to this list, please share them in the comments section below and I’ll consider adding them to the list.
THE 4 THINGS YOU SHOULD KEEP FROM YOUR SPOUSE
I withhold from (and lie to) my spouse every time I arrange a surprise birthday party, surprise holiday or surprise gift for her. If I revealed my surprise plans it would ruin her surprise.
2. Other people’s secrets you’ve promised to keep
Imagine that a friend shares something with you in confidence. You’re not going to share that with your spouse, right? You’ve given your word to your friend to keep it between the two of you.
TIP: The only exception to this rule of thumb would be if keeping the thing hidden from your spouse would violate my two rules of thumb above.
Generally, when my friends ask me to keep secrets for them, I agree on the condition that keeping that secret doesn’t hurt anyone. This can be a grey area and requires wisdom and discretion to know when to share a secret you’ve promised not to share. That’s an article for another time.
3. Your private life that your partner doesn’t need to know
Your partner may not care that you masturbated this morning or that you find the plumber attractive. It’s not going to be useful to share your every passing thought or action.
Remember, privacy and secrecy are different. Assuming that you don’t have a secret porn addiction or that you are not secretly sleeping with the plumber, sharing this information may not necessarily benefit your relationship in any tangible way.
In this category, I also include sharing email passwords and handing over unlimited access to your electronic devices. Don’t do it. Assuming you’re not hiding anything, your partner does not need to know.
4. Your naked body
This one is a little experimental and is not directly related to keeping secrets, but I thought it important. Also, I have no science to back this theory up, only my own experience. Your mileage may vary.
Do you spend a lot of time at home hanging out naked together? Have you ever noticed that the more you see your partner’s naked body outside of a sexual context, the less exciting it becomes? I have.
My theory is that if we spend a lot of our time hanging out naked together, our spouse’s body (and being naked together) loses its novelty, it’s specialness, its element of surprise, it’s mystery…
In my younger years, I once spent a week at a nudist camp in France. During the first few days, seeing naked bodies everywhere was very arousing. By the end of the week, everybody looked the same and the novelty had completely worn off.
Moral of the story? If you’re naked together a lot, experiment with hiding your naked body. Nice clothes are like gift wrapper. They hide what is inside (which unconsciously builds excitement and anticipation in your spouse) and they are fun to take off.
WHAT IF MY PARTNER IS DEMANDING ACCESS TO MY PRIVATE LIFE?
If your partner is demanding, jealous, hyper-vigilant about monitoring your whereabouts and interactions with others or is prone to behavior that could be construed as policing, monitoring or spying, then they may have experienced a trauma of some kind.
I often see this kind of behavior when working with couples who are recovering from an affair and trying to restore the trust between them.
The betrayed spouse doesn’t know if they can trust the cheating spouse again, so they become hyper-vigilant and intrusive in their demands to information about their spouse’s private life.
Often, to keep the peace, the cheating partner hands over their phone, email passwords or banking passwords. However, this strategy of compliance mostly backfires because it doesn’t address the reason that the cheating partner cheated.
Usually, after reading every message on their spouse’s phone, the betrayed spouse feels worse, not better. When they can’t find evidence of the spouse’s betrayal, instead of being comforted, they look harder, convinced that there must be something they are not seeing.
This partner struggles to heal from their trauma and remains constantly alert for another betrayal. That’s because information alone cannot heal. We need comfort and empathy to heal.
So, if your partner demands access to your private life, you’ll need to set a boundary. Gently remind them that your private life is your private life, followed by healthy doses of comforting reassurance that whatever they are scared of is not happening.
The idea here is not to hide anything, but to set a boundary around invasive demands that are driven by fear (as opposed to requests where you can accept or decline without consequence).
- Privacy is essential. Secrecy, not so much.
- Secrets are distinguished by intentionally hiding information, feelings of shame or fear, and the fact that your partner would be upset if they discovered what you’re hiding.
- Develop your private life. Privacy prevents you from suffocating from too much closeness and helps keep your spouse attracted to you over the long-term of your relationship.
- If you’re not sure what to tell your spouse, use these two rules of thumb:
1) If your partner would feel angry or betrayed if they discovered this information themselves, share it with them.
2) If you believe that sharing the information will increase your partner’s understanding of who you are and how you came to be you, share it.
- Practice transparency. If your spouse asks, answer honestly.
I hope that you found this (long) article useful. It is by no means the last word on privacy and secrecy and is a constant work in progress for me.
If you have any useful ideas to add to this article, please do leave them in the comments section below.
* Credit to my teacher Ellen Bader for sharing the ME WE circles and individuation concept with me. Credit to my teacher Esther Perel for her work that popularized the connection between separation and desire.