Finding The Line Between Secrecy And Healthy Privacy In A Romantic Relationship

We did a breakdown of what information partners should keep to themselves, what they should divulge, and what constitutes an invasion of privacy.

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From a very young age, most of us have a fabricated image in our minds of what the perfect romantic partnership looks like. Perhaps it’s an amalgamation of all the best qualities we’ve witnessed in relationships around us. Or maybe our ideal partnership is inspired by what we see portrayed in literature and the media, helpfully rounded out with a handful of examples for what not to do (insert one of many Friends storylines here). Whether your idea of a perfect love involves adventure and travel, quiet days spent absorbed in books side-by-side, a huge family, or a child-free home, there’s one constant must in any relationship: trust and open communication. While the line between secrecy and privacy is a subjective one, we’ve reached out to a handful of relationship experts to find out what’s okay to keep to yourself, what you ought to share with your partner, and what constitutes an outright breach of privacy.

What sort of details should you share in a relationship?

Let’s begin by diving into the things we should be sharing. Not just because we owe certain information to our partners—and yes, there are a handful of things we absolutely should divulge—but because doing so can actually strengthen your partnership. “Anything you are keeping from your partner that could have a detrimental effect if it came out is something that should not be held in private but should be expressed in a skillful way,” advises Christy Whitman, a relationship expert and two-time New York Times bestselling author. “Privacy arises out of a desire to maintain personal boundaries, which enhances our sense of autonomy and self-respect. Secrecy, on the other hand, is an act of hiding something about ourselves or our lives out of fear that our partners will not like or accept it if they were to find out.” For example, early on in your relationship, you should disclose your sexual, mental, and overall health status (including addictions). Even if it’s difficult or awkward for you to relay this information, your partner deserves to be fully aware before making a decision to move forward. To help soften the delivery of such information, outline the ways in which you’ve got a handle on things, whether that includes medications, weekly appointments with a therapist, or a health game plan devised by you and your doctor.

“Your story is important, and this information will help a partner know what your boundaries are.” —Logan Levkoff, psychologist

It’s also to your advantage to share information about previous committed relationships. Not only will this help your partner have a more complete picture of where you’ve come from, it can prove to be a true bonding moment and help you both define the qualities you’re looking for, and not looking for, in a relationship. “If you’ve had some sort of traumatic experience, it is important for a partner to know,” says Logan Levkoff, PhD, a psychologist who specializes in human sexuality and marriage. “Your story is important, and this information will help a partner know what your boundaries are.” Additional information that falls into this category includes excessive and unmanageable debt, past imprisonment, major legal issues, previous marriages, and children from [linkbuilder id=”6687″ text=”past relationships”]. Levkoff says that this information doesn’t have to be relayed on the first or even second date. However, the second you realize that you want your relationship to develop into something formal or marital is the time when serious discussions should occur. You can even preface these hard-to-have conversations with something like, “I see potential between us, and want to be completely forthright.” While it’s ultimately up to each person to decide how much to divulge and when, an open partnership that allows for honesty and free-flowing communication is typically more fulfilling. And again, a great rule of thumb is to disclose any information that could have a detrimental effect if your partner were to find out from someone other than you or if they discover it very far into your relationship.

What kind of stuff should you keep private?

Switching gears, let’s talk about things that are not just okay to keep private, but that could actually improve your relationship if you simply don’t talk about them. “Again, this is a very personal and individual decision that each couple must navigate for themselves,” says Whitman. “In general, though, many couples choose to keep bathroom and grooming habits, personal fantasies, and fleeting judgments or petty annoyances about their partners private. This is done for the sake of preserving respect, goodwill, and sexual attraction within the relationship.” Think back to that Sex and the City episode that focuses on “secret single behavior.” We all have stuff that is perfectly acceptable but not necessarily something you have to share. For example, if your partner is out of town for a week and you decide to binge an entire season of Orange is the New Black in a matter of 24 hours while eating nothing but gas station food, that is information your partner doesn’t have to know. In the same vein, if you have a bi-weekly waxing appointment for your out-of-control mustache, you have every right to keep those details to yourself. Outside of grooming habits, fantasies, and pet peeves, there are some other things that our experts say are okay to keep to yourself. “Divulging previous sexual partners and encounters could lend to unnecessary conflict and insecurity. Also, journals and diaries are your private thoughts and a way for you to work through things. They don’t need to be shared,” says Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, NYC–based licensed clinical neuropsychologist. Additionally, Hafeez recommends keeping comparisons to past relationships to yourself. If there are things about your partner that don’t work for you, respectfully communicate that, but refrain from phrases like “My ex used to do that, why can’t you?” or “My ex would never do this!” Those are hurtful jabs that slam the door on opportunities for meaningful, important conversations. While we’re talking about potentially hurtful details, Lisa Concepcion, a professional dating and relationship expert, adds that it’s also probably not best practice to go around talking about how sexy other people are, even if you feel like you’re “just being honest.” “There’s no need to admit how hot you think the server is at the restaurant you frequently go to for business lunches. It’s disrespectful,” she says. “Also, keep casual conversations or general conversations with an ex private if they are still in your life as a friend or as a co-parent. You don’t really need to report every single conversation you have.” While the above advice is sound, it is, of course, subjective. In the end, we must each determine what constitutes “keeping a secret” versus what constitutes maintaining healthy privacy boundaries. If you ever have trouble finding that line, Whitman says to ask yourself what, if any, effect it will have on your relationship if you keep something private or divulge. Let your answer to that question be your guide.

What constitutes trespassing upon a partner’s privacy?

While each partner ultimately decides which details come out of their mouths and which don’t, snooping behind the other’s back is a completely different story. “An invasion of privacy can be ‘measured’ by intention. If you intend to find, gather, or collect information without asking someone for permission, it is an invasion,” says Levkoff. “Without a doubt, going through someone’s phone, DMs, or drawers without permission is a violation of someone’s privacy.” Other things on that list include going through someone’s computer, emails, social media accounts, or physical belongings and spaces, including pockets, journals, cars, offices, and bedrooms. It’s the permission aspect that determines whether there’s been an invasion of privacy. Levkoff notes that the above behavior speaks to either a clear lack of trust in a relationship or to the insecurity of the snooping partner. Whatever the case, it is very hard to be in a relationship where one or both partners don’t trust what the other says, or worse, when they don’t bother to ask questions but go digging on their own instead.

“If we feel someone isn’t trustworthy, trusting our instincts and moving on is key.” —Sanam Hafeez, PsyD

Is your relationship absolutely doomed if it goes through privacy breaches? Not necessarily, but it’s something that needs to be sorted out quickly and with the utmost seriousness. “It’s important for a person to get to the bottom of why they feel insecure. Is it due to fear based on the unfortunate outcomes of a past relationship where there was a betrayal? When fear and insecurity remain, these feelings can destroy a new relationship when unnecessary suspicion creeps in. In this case, our inability to trust is more our issue than the other persons,” says Hafeez. On the other hand, “If we feel someone isn’t trustworthy, trusting our instincts and moving on is key. Some people would rather become a detective than leave a relationship.” Again, getting to the bottom of any insecurity is integral in the success—or lack thereof—of your relationship. There is one gray area we were curious about: exercising Google-fu to dig up dirt on a potential new mate. The truth is that we live in a time when this isn’t only possible, but it’s pretty commonplace. Further, sometimes checking into details like this is a safety precaution, especially if you’re using online dating apps. “People want to protect themselves and research someone, especially in the early stages of a relationship,” says Hafeez. “It’s okay to look at a few social media profiles, to google them, look at LinkedIn, etc. However, to do so in an obsessive way where you’re going through every photo, as if you are looking to find something disparaging, is more about your fears and insecurities than just doing a simple, quick check on them.”

“Violating another’s privacy is a clear indication that we are not feeling whole within ourselves, but wounded, and that we are seeking some kind of external reassurance in order to feel secure.” —Christy Whitman, relationship expert

There’s a line between checking someone’s criminal background and public employment history versus spending hours digging through old pictures of them with their ex and making yourself feel insecure. It’s important to remember that our social media lives rarely represent actual reality but are rather a careful curation. You’ll never get the whole picture of someone’s life by simply swiping through years-old images and status updates. It’s much more worthwhile to engage in one-on-one discussions with your partner about their past experiences versus coming to conclusions on your own.

For a healthier relationship, do this.

The moral to this story is that healthy relationships require the participation of two whole and complete partners who trust each other and are interested in furthering their relationship via open communication. “Violating another’s privacy is a clear indication that we are not feeling whole within ourselves, but wounded, and that we are seeking some kind of external reassurance in order to feel secure,” says Whitman. “The damage we cause to our partnership might take the form of a sudden blow up as a result of getting caught in the act, or it might manifest as a slow draining of confidence and trust. Either way, it is each partner’s responsibility to heal the parts of ourselves that are wounded or insecure and to approach the relationship from a foundation of knowing that we are complete and whole just as we are.” No relationship is perfect—not even the ones that seem to be—but a thriving, fulfilling partnership can be possible by following these pieces of advice.