How much privacy is healthy in a relationship?

Intimacy and honesty are arguably two of the most important factors in a close relationship. But being honest with your partner doesn’t mean you should share every thought that comes into your head.

Privacy in a relationship is healthy so long as it doesn’t cross the boundary into secrecy. Knowing what, and what not, to share is an important skill to learn.

Difference between privacy and secrecy
Privacy and secrecy are close cousins, so how are they distinguished?

The line is ultimately a subjective one, but secrecy is the act of intentionally withholding information due to the fear of it negatively impacting your relationship. Privacy is about being unobserved and having parts of your life that are for your eyes and ears only.

Keeping a secret of almost any kind undermines trust. There’s the rare exception of course, for example, that surprise birthday party you’ve been planning for months. But generally, secrets contain information that will cause harm to another person.

Read: Living a nightmare, but too scared to escape

Privacy, on the other hand, tends to enhance relationships. We need those moments of solitude throughout the day or week to reconnect with ourselves. We nurture our identity and individuality in our private life, which is ultimately what our partner initially fell in love with.

What should you share in a relationship?
“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 skilful way,” advises relationship expert Christy Whitman. “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.”

Sometimes, things we should share can be difficult or awkward to bring up but that doesn’t mean they should be ignored.

For example, early on in the relationship, you should disclose your sexual, mental, and overall health status (including addictions).

It could also be beneficial to talk about previous committed relationships. Not only will you both gain a wider understanding of what you want in a relationship, but it could make you closer. 

“If you’ve had some sort of traumatic experience, it is important for a partner to know,” says Logan Levkoff, a psychologist who specialises in human sexuality and marriage. “Your story is important, and this information will help a partner know what your boundaries are.”

Additional information that should be discussed includes excessive and unmanageable debt, past imprisonment, major legal issues, previous marriages, and children from past relationships.

Read: How to say no without providing a grovelling explanation

What should you keep private?
“This is a very personal and individual decision that each couple must navigate for themselves,” says Ms Whitman. “In general, though, many couples choose to keep bathroom and grooming habits, personal fantasies, and fleeting judgements or petty annoyances about their partners private. This is done for the sake of preserving respect, goodwill, and sexual attraction within the relationship.”

What if one partner wants more privacy than the other?
Each partner has the right to privacy in a relationship and can ultimately decide what they want to talk about.

Different privacy needs can cause some conflict. Each partner should strive to accept the other’s need for privacy and be sensitive to any struggles this boundary causes.

If you are upset by your partner’s silence or can’t understand why they don’t always tell you what they are thinking about, take a step back.

Resist the urge to keep asking and let them know how it’s affecting you. If their silence worries you or makes you feel lonely, reach out and tell them. This doesn’t mean you’re entitled to know what they are thinking every second of the day, but it might encourage open and honest communication around the subject.

What’s classed as an invasion of privacy?
“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 Dr Levkoff. “Without a doubt, going through someone’s phone, messages, or drawers without permission is a violation of someone’s privacy.”

Read: How can I get my marriage back on track?

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.

Privacy in a relationship
Privacy builds trust in a relationship. Giving your partner personal space sends the message that you trust them to be faithful to the relationship, even in moments of solitude.

“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 Ms 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.”

If either partner is particularly insecure or sensitive to rejection, it’s especially important to discuss it.  When people are aware of their partner’s insecurity, they can do more to alleviate it, while still maintaining their own privacy.

Relationships work best when partners work together to manage their privacy boundaries. Being receptive to your partner’s needs, even when they are different to your own, is key.

How much privacy do you expect in a relationship? Why not share your thoughts on the topic in the comments section below?

If you enjoy our content, don’t keep it to yourself. Share our free eNews with your friends and encourage them to sign up.

Written by Ellie Baxter