One of the great concerns in many romantic relationships involves secrecy vs. privacy. One partner thinks that he or she deserves a bit of privacy; the other views this desire as secrecy. Which is which? How can we know the difference between the two? And how should we navigate between these two extremes?
- Privacy is best defined as the state or condition of being free from observation and disturbance by other people. For instance, when you leave a public event and return to the privacy of your own home, the person who sat next to you at the public event can no longer stare at, talk to, or otherwise annoy you. In general, keeping certain things private involves setting and maintaining boundaries that align with your individual needs, values, and beliefs. When your privacy is violated you might feel angry, and rightfully so, with a desire to pull away from whoever spoiled your privacy.
- Secrecy is the active state of intentionally keeping information hidden from one or more people. In general, beyond professional requirements for confidentiality, if you keep something secret it’s because you fear the impact (on yourself or others) that the information might have if it were openly known. What often underlies secrecy is a fear of judgment and/or reprisal. When your secrecy is violated, you may feel as if you’ve lost control over the information and how others respond to it. Thus, you might feel afraid, anxious, concerned, and angry, and want to pull away.
Using the above definitions, the difference between privacy and secrecy seems relatively clear, but this isn't always the case: Consider, for instance, a husband who finds his wife’s sister very attractive, though he has no intention of ever acting on that attraction because he loves and respects his wife. This man might consider his attraction to his sister-in-law private. His wife, however, might consider it a secret. As an outside observer, it’s hard to say that one belief is more accurate than the other.
Why is this distinction is so important? We’re just playing with semantics, right? Except we’re not. There is a huge difference between privacy and secrecy in terms of the degree to which hidden information can impact an intimate relationship if or when that information is made known. If a husband surreptitiously reads his wife’s Cosmopolitan when he’s sitting on the toilet and feels a little embarrassed because he enjoys a magazine aimed at women, he might keep this fact hidden. And if his wife finds out about it, their relationship will probably not be impacted in any sort of lasting way—other than her teasing or his new openness to weigh in on her fashion choices. This is an example of privacy. However, if that same man were to masturbate while looking at his wife’s Cosmopolitan, he might seek to keep that fact hidden, too. If his wife were to find out, she might well get angry about it or feel less attractive. But she might also laugh about it, if she finds his behavior amusing. Either way, the fact that he’s not telling her because she might feel angry or hurt makes this an example of secrecy.
This leads directly to my next topic—infidelity. After more than 25 years as a therapist specializing in sex and intimacy disorders, I think I’ve heard every possible opinion about cheating. Along the way I’ve learned that defining infidelity can be a highly subjective endeavor except for one constant: Infidelity always involves the keeping of important sexual and/or romantic secrets—and the reason those secrets are kept is fear. Here is an example of both secrecy and infidelity:
“If I tell my wife I loaded the Ashley Madison app onto my phone and looked at profiles for three hours yesterday, she might get really mad, even though I didn’t actually try to hook up with anyone, so maybe I’ll just keep this information to myself.”
Of course, many people in committed long-term relationships are able to convince themselves that secrecy is really privacy:
- “At lunch I left work and hooked up with a guy I met online, but I don’t need to tell my husband about this because it’s private and it doesn’t affect our relationship. Besides, what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him.”
- “When I was away on business last week I spent $800 at a strip club, but my wife doesn’t need to know about this because the money came from my private savings account and not our joint account.”
Both of these individuals have convinced themselves they’re merely keeping information private, but they’re actually keeping secrets.
If you’re wondering whether a certain piece of hidden information involves privacy or secrecy, ask yourself a simple question: If the person I am keeping this information from knew the entire truth, would he or she be hurt or angry? If the answer is yes, you’re keeping a secret. Looking at porn, cruising for prostitutes, and going to massage parlors are behaviors that many people keep secret. Similarly, snooping, following, and eavesdropping (what I call “doing detective work”) on an intimate partner are also behaviors that many people keep secret. The first set of behaviors qualifies as sexual infidelity; the second is a common response to infidelity. Both are examples of secrecy.
The primary problem with secrets in intimate relationships is that they undermine trust. And we know for a fact that the healthiest relationships are built on mutual trust. This means no secrets, but it does not mean you can’t have any privacy. For instance, my social media passwords are private. My spouse is perfectly welcome to peruse these pages to see what I post, but my login information is mine and mine alone. What's important is that we talked about our social media accounts and mutually agreed to a boundary that aligns with our unique set of morals and values, instead of one of us simply deciding what is and is not private in our relationship.
Of course, this sort of mutual give and take about the boundary between secrecy and privacy involves a lot more than Facebook access. All aspects of a relationship can be openly discussed and debated, with these discussions and the mutually agreed-upon boundaries strengthening rather than weakening a couple’s intimate bond.
Consider, for instance, the initial example I gave, in which the husband is attracted to his wife’s sister. Many couples, if asked to set a boundary about something like this, will agree that there is no need to share information about an attraction unless you have thoughts of acting on it. A wife might say, “If we go to the movies and you find an actress really hot, you can tell me about it or you can keep the information private. However, if you have a hot new co-worker and she’s flirting with you, I want to know about it.”
Couples can even discuss and agree upon boundaries for sexual activity. For instance, some might choose an “open relationship” with certain limits, also noting whether sex outside the relationship needs to be disclosed and, if so, under what circumstances. The simple truth is that clearly defined agreements and boundaries about “acceptable use” of things like porn, strip clubs, anonymous sex, flirting, and the like can and do work for many couples, so long as both parties are able to fully participate in the boundary-setting process.
Couples can also discuss and agree on ways in which disclosure takes place. Some couples might agree that if one of them has done something that might upset the other, as long as the guilty party comes clean within 24 hours and doesn’t repeat the behavior, whatever it is they’ve done will be forgiven without a big blowup. This sort of agreement helps to eliminate secrets and build relationship trust. Essentially, partners learn that neither of them is perfect, but they both care enough about each other and their intimate bond to be honest instead of keeping secrets. And that is a powerful and very comforting thing to know.
Being honest and emotionally vulnerable in a romantic relationship is a form of both personal and relationship integrity. Sometimes people think they’ve only violated their integrity if they flat-out lie. Secrets, however, are lies of omission, and they’re just as damaging to relationships and personal integrity as those we say out loud. Countless individuals don’t understand this, or maybe they just fear it. As such, they keep important secrets in their relationships, and they never quite develop the level of trust and emotional intimacy they desire.
I am senior vice president of national clinical development for Elements Behavioral Health and the author of several highly-regarded books; visit my website at robertweissmsw.com or follow me on Twitter, @RobWeissMSW.