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Darling, Should You Maintain Your Privacy?

Honesty has ruined more marriages than infidelity.

"Honesty has ruined more marriages than infidelity." —Charles McCabe

"Goldfish in the privacy of bowls do it." —Cole Porter

We often have to compromise between our need for privacy and our wish to maintain an important close relationship. We cannot be close to someone without revealing some personal and often private information about ourselves. Romantic relationships mean sharing, and sharing means relinquishing some privacy. What should lovers prioritize: their openness or their privacy?

From the latter part of the 20th century onwards, openness—in particular, self-disclosure—and the limitation of one's privacy have been regarded as the hallmarks of intimate relationships. The gradual exchange of intimate information is considered the major process through which romantic relationships between people develop. Indeed, self-disclosure appears to decrease as relationships move through various stages of deterioration.

However, some people claim that self-disclosure and open communication are not all that important to couples in many stable marriages. They emphasize the importance of interdependence and personal space for close relationships. For such people, self-disclosure is differentially important in various close relationships.

Living in a society and having close emotional ties implies losing some privacy. By letting emotions play a central role in our lives, we assent to being exposed to a certain extent; we relinquish some privacy in order to be able to live emotionally. Yet this is precisely what our friends may value in our relationships with them—that we show a willingness to be emotionally drawn, to be vulnerable, to lose our privacy and reveal our secrets.

Friendship entails having less privacy. Telling our secrets to someone may establish a friendship, but it also exposes our vulnerability. Those who are close to us can hurt us easily, and we can easily hurt them. Some people actually avoid having friends for this reason.

The choice we face is to what extent we are ready to give up our privacy in return for close emotional ties. There is, then, an opposite correlation between emotional closeness and openness on the one hand and privacy on the other hand.

Concerns of privacy are less significant when we are in the company of complete strangers who are not emotionally close to us, and in a sense, do not care about us. As Garry Shandling said: "I'm too shy to express my sexual needs except over the phone to people I don't know." We can disclose intimate information to complete strangers since they play an insignificant role in our life.

There is, then, an interesting trade-off between emotional closeness and openness on the one hand and privacy on the other hand: Greater emotional closeness and openness imply lesser privacy, and greater privacy implies a decrease in emotional closeness and openness. The closer we are to a certain person, the more we want to be sincere and open by revealing intimate information; hence, our privacy zone is likely to contract. However, the closer we are to a certain person, the more stakes we have in the relationship, and intimate information is potentially more harmful to us; hence, we wish to expand our privacy zone. Accordingly, we need to find the right balance between emotional closeness, openness, and privacy.

Privacy is a context-dependent property: its boundaries depend upon the type of relationship and the kind of information revealed. Thus, we may reveal to a friend certain information that we may not want to share with our spouse. A woman may not tell her spouse about her sexual fantasies or extramarital affairs, while she may openly discuss such matters with her lover. A young man may find it easy revealing his homosexuality to his friend, but not to his family. But both the woman and the young man will be less careful about their privacy in front of their spouse or family in matters such as walking around half-naked or unshaven in their presence.

In face-to-face relationships, privacy conflicts with two major emotional features: closeness and openness. These conflicts are considerably weaker in cyberspace. The relative anonymity of cyberspace and the ability to reveal only those matters we would like to reveal provide an opportunity to guard privacy while increasing emotional closeness and openness.

Cyberspace is essentially an ideal private world in which each person controls the information that is revealed. In this world, the full identity of the person is not revealed, and the two people are physically remote from each other. Hence, it is much easier to keep private whatever areas the participants so wish. These circumstances do not lead the participants to remain completely mysterious—on the contrary, in many cases, they lead the participants to reveal much more about themselves than they would usually do.

When we can keep private that which seems to threaten us, we can be more open concerning other matters. The greater degree of openness generates a greater degree of emotional closeness as well. Accordingly, in online relationships, we can find both greater privacy and greater closeness and openness—this considerably reduces the common conflict between openness and privacy.

From the point of view of the privacy-openness conflict, online relationships seem to be ideal relationships. However, this relationship is perceived to be incomplete since it lacks the direct physical experience of being together. When an online relationship is satisfactory, the participants want to transform it into an offline relationship, at which point the conflict between privacy and openness emerges once again.

In a flourishing relationship, the importance of a significant personal space cannot be exaggerated. The existence of such a space enables each lover to have a fuller and thus more meaningful life. This space does not necessarily involve sexual freedom; rather, it involves a space in which the two lovers are able to be separate so that they do not become like Siamese twins, where each and every action of one requires the other's consensus. After all, each person has her own mind and body. In profound love, lovers may want to be with each other as much as possible, but they do not want to erase their own or their partner's identity and privacy. Love can only be sustained if it is between two willing and separate people.

The need for privacy may appear to be somewhat inconsistent since although most people jealously guard their own privacy, they often seek to invade the private space of others. Similarly, while the right to keep certain aspects of one's life away from the scrutiny of others is a basic freedom, we should also bear in mind that too many secrets are usually unhealthy, as they indicate that there are many aspects in our lives that do not bear examination by others. The appropriate measure of privacy depends on the context, but as with everything else, we should practice moderation when deciding to keep something private and reflect on whether we are being overly cautious and sacrificing openness for privacy.

This post was adapted from Love Online.

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