Privacy vs. Secrecy in a Marriage

WheImagere is the boundary between appropriate privacy as an adult within a marriage and secrecy such that it’s undermining the marriage itself?  A sticky issue, to be sure. My blog entry on whether spying on your spouse was ethical turned out to be one the most hotly contested blog entries I’ve every written and it touched on this issue — it’s the common thread:  Just because I’m married, do I have no expectation of any personal privacy?  Of not just deed, but of thought?  Or my personal things?  Can I have any measure of privacy without appearing to be dishonest?  Couples often struggle with knowing what can be held back and what should be revealed between each other. There is sometimes confusion between a desire for privacy and a feeling that one’s partner is hiding something from us.   “Privacy” and “Secrecy” are often confused by people, but they are different concepts.

This issue has brewing in my head for a while and was sparked recently by noticing that some of the referrals to this blog were made by an on-line company who spies on a person or spouse’s phone and computer, tracks their every keystroke and URL visited and provides the results to the spying spouse via the web. I had never heard of this company and I was horrified that someone was being spyed on by their spouse who  came here to read my blog.  I realized how bad things can be in a relationship that someone has resorted to these tactics.  And no I will not give publicity to this on-line business. I think it’s horrible that people use it.

So what is the difference between Secrecy and Privacy?

Secrecy is the act of keeping things hidden — that which is secret goes beyond merely private into hidden. While secrecy spills  into privacy, not all privacy is secrecy. Secrecy stems from deliberately keeping something from others out of a fear. Secrets consist of information that has potentially negative impact on someone else-emotionally, physically, or financially. The keeper of secrets believes that if they are revealed either accidentally or purposefully,  the revelation may cause  harm to the secret-keeper and those around him or her.

Secrets often contain an element of shame that private does not. We may keep something private for all kinds of reasons, but most of the time, we keep something secret out of fear and shame of what others would think if they knew. We keep something secret because we believe the cost of telling is so high that it’s virtually not a choice at all. Privacy is voluntary; secrecy is not.

Not all secrets are created equal.  It’s difficult to discuss this concept without acknowledging that there is not a “one size fits all” answer.  Some secrets of thought are minor. You might think, “I really don’t like the way he looks in that type of shirt. I wish he would change his style,” or “gosh, she’s starting to put on a few pounds” — but these are minor secrets of thought.    Nobody should blurt out every thought they have in life — it would be bad for your personal relationships.   Humans fortunately have an “edit function” between brain and mouth (most of us, anyway).  Some secrets are small (but dangerous), but others are very large (and still may not be dangerous to the relationship).

Some secrets seem small but slowly erode trust.  Fear of a spouse’s reaction can cause us to begin to hide something that we purchased or to say that we were at the office when we were with friends. A distance will begin to grow between us and our spouse bit by bit until we are looking across a huge chasm at him or her.

Other secrets can wreak havoc on the very foundation of a relationship. These secrets are actions, beliefs or parts of ourselves that we deliberately keep hidden out of fear of its impact on ourselves or our partner or what the revelation will do to our relationship. Affairs, drug and alcohol use, sexual orientation or fetishes are examples of secrets that one fears could have disastrous consequences if revealed or discovered. Secrets of this nature erode trust and security and create a chasm that makes it difficult for a couple to feel close and truly connected.

A person who is holding secrets will begin to create a false persona that they will hide behind in order to keep the secret hidden. Over time this mask begins to take on a sense of authenticity to the secret holder (this is who I show the world that I am so this must be who I really am). When secrets of this nature are discovered or revealed they shake the underpinnings of a relationship and create feelings of betrayal, vulnerability and insecurity in one’s partner. It is difficult and sometimes impossible for couples to recover from revelations of this kind.

Few people would argue that deep, dark secrets about our true selves that actually undermine a marriage/relationship are a good thing. They are not.

But secrets are not the same as privacy.  Privacy on the other hand is “the state of being alone: the state of being away from other people, hidden from public view.”   Private matters are those traits, truths, beliefs, and ideas about ourselves that we keep to ourselves, as well as to extent to which our physical privacy (body, things, whereabouts) are kept to ourselves.   They might include our fantasies and daydreams, feelings about the way the world works, and spiritual beliefs, as well. Private matters, when revealed either accidentally or purposefully, give another person some insight into the revealer.

Some people feel like they need to know everything about every element of their partner’s life. They want to know what their partner is doing, who they are with, and so forth, every second of every day. To be in a relationship like this feels stifling to many people.  It is an invasion of their sense of “privacy”.  You’re too far in their “personal space”.  It feels more like control than sharing. It’s enforced sharing and not freely given. It can cause resentment. And resentment is a cancer on any relationship.

Being in a marriage does not assume that we are a complete “open book.”  We as adults still get to choose how “private” we choose to be.  Privacy is the inner space that is like an inner sanctum protected from all others, including to some degree, maybe even our spouse.  What we choose to keep to ourselves may be things that we want only for ourselves. We may be in a marriage, but there should still be boundaries.  I think there needs to be.  Rifling through your partners things, searching through their cell phone, email, tablet, etc — all to me are not only violations of personal privacy, but disrespectful.  If your partner invites you to do these things, have at it, but we’re not talking about that. We’re talking about when you violate a person’s boundaries in order to seek out evidence against them, or out of a basic nosiness.

Some say, “well, if you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to worry about!”  Not only do I think this misses the point, but is a poor justification for violating someone’s privacy and trust. The comeback to this cliche of course should be this: Because I value myself.  Privacy is a basic human need: Implying that only the dishonest people have need of any privacy ignores a basic property of the human psyche, and sends a creepy message to the recipient.   You may have nothing to hide, and still not want your spouse rifling through your things — essentially spying on you.  Who would?  It’s demeaning. It’s being treated like a child.  It’s pure disrespect.  Fundamentally, this slogan is a weapon. It is used to intimidate and confuse you; to force the receiver to bow down to the authority of the person who said and to be as cowardly and compliant as the person using it.  I guess those people also would have no problem with the Government spying on you, on your phone calls, your emails (re: Anyone heard of the NSA scandal under the current Administration?) — because afterall, if you have nothing to hide, then you shouldn’t worry about the Government prying into your life, right?  Few people would agree with this and want to set an appropriate boundary with the Government.  But then erase the boundary with their own partners due to their own insecurities and trust issues.

The real value of privacy is not because it allows us to hide things, it’s that privacy allows us to develop independently – according to our own natures.  In other words, privacy is an essential tool for personal development.  Privacy is a positive good, not merely a tool for hiding things.  To develop ourselves healthfully, we must develop ourselves by ourselves, without outside pressures.  The less we are able to choose freely, the less we are really ourselves, and the more we become what other people want us to be.  The positive value of privacy is that it stands between us and manipulative outside forces.  Privacy allows us to grow according to our own natures, not according to the demands of another person — even a spouse.  Privacy is a tool for becoming what we authentically are.

Creating privacy in a relationship is a way of setting boundaries around that part of us that yearns for time alone to develop a deeper sense of Self. We all need time to ourselves, time to listen to our inner thoughts, time to relax and refresh from the busyness of our lives. Privacy is an important component of relationship and should be built into all relationships to strengthen the bonds between partners.

Boundaries need to be discussed not assumed.  People have different ideas of what constitutes appropriate boundaries and personal privacy.  The lack of discussing this important area (like others), can lead to trouble.  A discussion with your spouse about a need for privacy is necessary in order to help you both to determine what is acceptable to each of you.  Some people will say, “we have no privacy. No boundaries!”  Great.  But that’s because you agreed to this. If you don’t discuss it, you won’t come to an acceptable level that you are both comfortable with. Some people are simply more private than others. There is no answer, nor should your force your desires onto your partner.  Some people have no boundaries at all – my sister-in-law and husband have no problem using the toilet with the door open and the other present (to me, that’s ewwwwwwwwwww!).  But they have agreed to their personal boundaries.  Agreement is everything.  That being said…..

The less privacy, probably the better.  Sharing private matters with one’s partner will expand the knowledge and understanding that you each have for the other, which creates trust and deepens security. The more we know about our partner the stronger the emotional bond that exists between us. The more one is willing to share their most innermost secrets and thoughts, the more intimacy is created.  No doubt. But these revelations must be voluntary — not forced, not “stolen” through unethical methods — but given over freely.

Privacy, secrecy and infidelity.   I know some of you were waiting for this part.   Yes, infidelity DOES change the concept to some degree. I think if you are to recover from an affair, the former cheater must now live in a very transparent and honest way.  It’s the only way to recover the trust that was flushed down the toilet by the affair. I totally agree. At least for a period of time, offering up one’s phone, passwords, answering all questions put to you, assuming your things are being gone through to uncover evidence, to be electronically tracked by your spouse, to have to answer for every waking minute of your day, etc, may very well be a necessary and vital step in recovery.  You have to assume this and tolerate it.  Without resentment.

However, I also think that these types of humiliating measures have to have a sunset if the marriage is to recovery. Once forgiveness is given, once trust is rebuilt, these types of measures need to go away, or the former cheater will get discouraged. And begin to resent you. And I think that if you are to do these things to a former cheater, remember that if you don’t hold yourself to the same standard of honesty and openness, then you are now the one with something to hide. The one who is the liar.  The one who may have to answer questions you don’t wish to.  Spying on your spouse, violating their privacy, is the opposite of “love, forgiveness and trust.”  You have to put these weapons away at some point if you wish your marriage to surive. Only a foolish spouse without other options will tolerate these measures indefinitely.

Like many things in a relationship, I do believe it comes down to basic trust.  If you trust the person, you won’t need to violate their personal privacy. Period.  If you don’t trust them to the extent that you need to do these things, why are you in a relationship with them. When there is no trust, there is no real “marriage.”  You’re now the Parole Officer and they are the prisoner.  This is not a partnership based on love and trust.  If you have to verify your partner’s honesty by violating their privacy, then you simply don’t have a true marriage.  It is only within this lack of trust that suspiciosness arrives.  I would never dream about going through my wife’s phone. Or searching through her personal items when she’s not around. Why would? I trust her. If I have a question, I ask her.  I respect her boundaries as an adult and an equal partner.  I don’t treat her as a child, and I expect the same courtesy back.

Privacy is different then secrecy in that it is an agreement between partners about what will not be discussed, not be done.  Keeping a potentially damaging secret is quite different than a basic measure of personal privacy in that it could potentially damage your relationship if it was revealed.  Decide with your partner what you see as secret and what you see as private. Make this something you discuss today, and avoid any betrayal or hurt.  This could be one discussion that has a long term affect for both of you.

There are “healthy boundaries” within a relationship and then there are secrets that are about deceit and damange.  Know the difference.