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One of the great concerns in many romantic relationshipsinvolves 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: