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:

PRIVACY

— The state of being apart from company or observation.

SECRECY

– 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 Shame, because we feel bad about what we have done. Secrecy is motivated by fear. 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.

TIP: 3 WAYS TO SPOT A SECRET

1. You’re intentionally hiding something. 2. You feel shame or fear about sharing it. 3. Your partner would be upset if they discovered that you were hiding it.

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. Carl Jung's photo “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: Me vs. WE before you meet each other and fall in love. Two ME’s 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: Lovers merge In order to form a W 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. If you don't individuate, 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. One way to begin the individuation process is to develop your private life. 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 The Hailstorm and the Turtle 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. Individuation is the primary goal of the Power Struggle stage of relationships that I’ve written about in my article on the 5 stages of relationships and my article on the Power Struggle stage.

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 own lives and your relational life with each other. And then you can both have it all – your private lives and your relational life. A private life promotes a fulfilling sex life… A healthy 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. If you can relate to feeling like you’ve lost yourself in your relationship, and you’d like some help individuating, join my 7-week online relationship repair course. You’ll get more than 10 hours of access to me on our weekly Mentoring Calls. You can learn more here (opens in a new tab)….

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.

playing guitar on stage Playing guitar with my band is part of my personal private life.

  • 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.

FIRST RULE OF THUMB:

If your partner would feel angry or betrayed if they discovered this information themselves, share it with them. This almost always includes sharing any information that may impact your partner’s…

  • Health
  • Finances
  • Children
  • Family
  • Friends
  • Relationship with you, or
  • Their ability to make informed choices.

Here are some examples of information that falls under the first rule of thumb:

  • That you had unprotected sex in your 20’s and you’ve never been tested for STDs.
  • That you blew $1,000 from your joint account money in the casino.
  • That you dinged your partner’s car by reversing into a pole.
  • That you have a secret porn habit you cannot control.
  • That you made out with the plumber the other day.
  • That you have a secret Tinder account that you still use.
  • That you were fired from your last 3 jobs.
  • That your cousin is a pedophile.

SECOND RULE OF THUMB:

You voluntarily share the things that you believe will help increase your partner’s understanding of who you are and how you came to be you. This may include sharing how you were raised, or traumatic experiences from your childhood, or experiences from your previous relationships. Sharing these things promotes empathy in your partner because it helps them make sense of your history so that they can better understand why you do what you do in the present. For example, you might share that you:

  • were bullied at school and became “tough” in order to survive.
  • used to suffer from erectile dysfunction which still causes you to be anxious during sex.
  • cheated in an exam in school because you secretly believed that you were stupid.
  • that your mother used to tell you that you’re worthless and you’ve struggled with feeling “lovable” your entire life.

MY PERSONAL POLICY IS TRANSPARENCY…

According to Merriam Webster dictionary:

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?

Absolutely. 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 CAN SAFELY KEEP FROM YOUR SPOUSE…

1. SURPRISES

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. puzzle of the word Trust 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).

IN CONCLUSION

  • 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.

WATCH MY TEDX TALK ON SECRETS

If your partner keeps your relationship as private as their «Close Friends» list, it can be hard to find a balance in how open you are about your relationship. Whether they’ve always been on the shyer side or just prefer to keep things low-key, your SO may not be one for PDA or giant group gatherings. However, if you’ve been seeing someone for a while and still haven’t met any of their friends and family, you may start to wonder if your partner is keeping your relationship a secret. After a few months of dating (or a few years, like Marianne and Connell on Hulu’s Normal People), you may start to wonder why you haven’t been invited out with your partner’s friends or to their weekly family dinner. But even if your sister or best friend may have met their partner’s friends two weeks into dating, Dr. Joshua Klapow, Ph.D., clinical psychologist, says there’s no set timeline for going «public» with a relationship. «It’s not time as much as the depth of the relationship,» Dr. Klapow tells Bustle. «It should be feeling management versus time management.» According to Dr. Klapow, there’s no magic number or set rulebook on when you’re «supposed» to meet the people in your partner’s life. Like all «next steps» in a relationship, you get to make your own timeline, based on whatever you’re feeling. Of course, if you’re upset or annoyed that you haven’t met your partner’s friends, Dr. Klapow says it’s time to check in. «If you are ready [to be public] and they are not, it’s important to ask about it,» Dr. Klapow tells Bustle. «It may be a great chance to understand more how they feel about you and address some miscommunications.» According to Dr. Klapow, there could be many reasons why your boo is keeping your relationship on the down-low. Maybe they’ve been through some messy breakups and are extra cautious about who they let in on their love life. Perhaps they have super nosy friends and like to ease in when it comes to introducing new people. They might be worried that their roommates will make a tactless joke or embarrassed about their family’s political or cultural beliefs. On the other hand, they may also be feeling a little nervous about your relationship or not really sure what they want moving forward. Regardless, there’s no way to know why your partner hasn’t introduced you to people until you flat-out ask them about it. «The real test here is how well do the two of you communicate about these issues,» Dr. Klapow says. «Tell your partner that you care about them, you want to meet their family and friends, and you believe it’s time.» While it can feel intimidating to confront your boo, it’s important to openly address your feelings. When you try to «play it cool» or act like something doesn’t bother you, you’ll likely end up feeling resentful and more confused. «Dancing around the topic and not addressing it straight on sends mixed messages,» Dr. Klpaow says. «The more you push this to the side, the bigger the issue it is going to become.» If you’re unsure how to start the convo, Dr. Klapow suggests asking your partner what their concerns or holdups are. Whether they’re nervous that you won’t like their friends or feeling unsure about where your relationship is headed, being transparent about your needs is the only way to guarantee that you and your boo are on the same page. «You may not like the answer, but you will know where you stand,» Dr. Klapow says. Experts: Dr. Joshua Klapow Ph.D., and clinical psychologist When you are in a dating relationship all kinds of questions come up, especially at the beginning. I get asked a lot of questions about this and so today I have some new relationship advice to offer.

The Start of a Dating Relationship

The start of a dating relationship can be a wild time as you are both just trying to figure out all the details. Things like:

  • How/when do you tell other people about your relationship?
  • When are you going to make time for each other?
  • Falling hard for someone really quickly

Let’s Start off with Amy who asks the first question, «I’ve been seeing a guy for about a month now. Neither of us has told anyone about the relationship I sort of want to, but he does not.»

Why Does My Boyfriend Feel the Need to Keep Our Relationship a Secret? Should I Be Worried?

Anytime there is secrecy involved in a relationship, there’s a cause for worry. Some people like to keep a relationship private when they’re not sure where it’s going. Still, others want to keep a relationship secret because they are also involved with another person, or not completely over their previous relationship. I’m not sure what the exact situation is with your boyfriend, but he may be using you, or he may even be worried about being embarrassed. Either way, his secrecy should give you concern. Someone who truly cares about you should be proud to tell other people about you.

Secrecy in Relationships is Cause for Concern

Relationships should be about joy, happiness, and love…not secrecy. If I, were you, I would tell him how much you’re enjoying your relationship with him, but how difficult it is to not be able to talk about it with those who are closest to you. Ask him if you could tell your best friend about the relationship and see how he reacts. On the other hand, maybe it’s okay to not to push your secret boyfriend to immediately «define» your relationship. Some people feel they have to tell the world when they are dating someone. This can be frightening to guys who are often afraid of calling something a relationship before they are really sure what it is. Time and communication are going to be your two best friends in this situation. In the end, if he really cares about you, he’ll want the world to know. Tasha brings us the next new relationship question:

What Should You Do When You Fall Hard for Someone and In a Really Short Time?

What you’re dealing with is a lot of fantasy and not a lot of reality. What you’re experiencing happens to a lot of people. It’s called infatuation. Infatuation is the emotional feeling of romantic love. It feels like love. It acts like love. But it does not pass an important test: the test of time. There is nothing wrong with being infatuated, most relationships start there. But you just can’t build a lasting relationship with looks alone. You are probably feeling a great deal of attraction, even though you don’t know much about him. I would be very cautious if I were you because you’re dealing with a lot of emotion and fantasy, and not a lot of reality. You’re most likely living off of the thoughts about «how great it would be to have this person love me and care for me» and the emotional high when he begins to show signs, he really cares for you. Over time, you’ll find a whole lot more of who he really is, not what you dream he is. While it’s difficult to do, you need to slow down your emotions. It’s a very confusing time, and you might be tempted to say or do things you will later regret. Get to know him as a friend and let him get to know you. In this situation, time is one of your best friends, because over time, you’ll find a whole lot more of who he really is, not what you dream he is. You will be able to make a better decision about whether or not to get more involved with him at that point. In this case, let your head tell you how to act, as opposed to your emotions.

Avoiding Heartbreak

I hear from a lot of people who are struggling with a broken heart. Some of my most read blogs are about getting over a broken heart. Not every broken heart is avoidable, but the two questions I was asked above to point to ways to protect yourself. Don’t jump in too fast and beware of secrets. Relationship decisions are a big deal. That’s why I am asked so many questions about them. So I would always encourage you to pray to God about any relationship you are entering, especially if you have some concerns. Ask God if this is what he really desires for you. «If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.» James 1:5 God wants the best for you. So, ask him to help you make the best decisions with your relationships.


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