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July 21, 2014

Privacy and Secrecy

Privacy and Secrecy
Our local newspaper publishes a low-quality advice column. Recently, a woman wrote to the columnist about an incident in which she had picked up her husband's phone and attempted to enter the password. (The wife admitted that her husband hadn't given her the password; she had figured it out by watching him.) Her husband jumped up and knocked the phone out of her hand. The wife believed that her husband had overreacted and that his behavior was suspicious. In response, the columnist berated the woman for snooping and violating her husband's privacy. Yikes!

Let's be clear. It is sad that the wife couldn't (or thought she couldn't) just ask her husband for his password. However, the husband was completely out of line. Striking his wife's hand to keep her from using his phone borders on violence. It's an act that indicates either tremendous guilt or tremendous paranoia. None of us should have anything on our phones (or in our wallets, or on our computers, or shoved into the back of the closet) that must be kept secret from our spouses.

Of course, people -- even married people -- are entitled to privacy. Unfortunately, too many people blur the line between privacy and secrecy, using the first as an excuse for the second.

Privacy includes the right to spend time alone, to pursue your own hobbies and interests, to have some time to relax or work by yourself. You are entitled to have your own thoughts, feelings and opinions. You don't have to tell anyone who you voted for, how much you weigh, or what you dreamed about last night. It is reasonable to expect some quiet time while you work a crossword puzzle or trim your toenails. It is normal to need a little solitude, to be yourself by yourself.

No matter how intimate and safe we feel with a partner, we need some boundaries that help define who we are as individuals. We need physical and psychological space to refresh ourselves after dealing with the demands of the world. Private time, personal interests, freedom to think and to express our individuality -- these are needed to build and maintain a healthy sense of self.

At the same time, we are social beings who need connections with others. Close relationships provide the emotional and social support we need to have a high quality of life. Friendship and love bring us great joy and encourage us to fulfill our human potential.

In close relationships, the boundaries of privacy are different than they are with strangers or casual acquaintances. Typically, we disclose more personal information to people we trust and feel close to. The more we share, the closer we feel and the stronger our bond becomes.

Secrecy means hiding something. It often includes misdirection and lying. Within any kind of relationship, secrecy means withholding or misrepresenting information that is relevant to the relationship, or information that the other person has a legitimate interest in knowing.

The reason for secrecy is usually simple. People don't want to face the consequences of their actions. They don't want to deal with the other person's response, the likelihood that the nature of the relationship will be changed, or the possibility that it will be terminated altogether. They don't want their behavior to be exposed, and they don't want to face their own shame.

While a healthy degree of privacy is part of a balanced social life, secrecy distorts relationships. The secret-keeper has changed the terms of the relationship without the knowledge or consent of the partner. The partner is deprived of the right to make informed decisions about matters that may profoundly affect his or her life. Depending on the nature of the secret, the partner's finances, health, reputation, or emotional well-being may be at risk.

Concealing the truth creates problems for the concealer as well. A lie often requires more lies to maintain the cover-up, and each lie increases the chances of discovery. The liar has to remember the story, and often finds that it is no longer possible to speak freely about certain subjects for fear of letting something slip. The relationship suffers from a loss of openness that is usually noticeable and frustrating to the other person, who may gradually begin to feel that something is seriously wrong.

When the truth comes out, as it usually does, things get much worse. Often it is the lie, not the original deed, that causes the partner to end the relationship. Once someone has deceived us, we may find it impossible to trust them again.

So why did the husband in the story want to keep his phone away from his wife? Maybe he didn't want her to find out how much time he spent playing Angry Birds. Maybe he had lost the rent money to online gambling. Maybe he was sexting with an old girlfriend. Maybe he was childishly possessive of his electronic toys. Maybe he didn't want her to see the receipt for the birthday gift he had just bought her. And why couldn't the wife just ask him for his password or ask him to let her use the phone? Had he refused in the past? Was she suspicious of his behavior? Was she deliberately being provocative?

No matter what the explanation, this is a couple that needs to have some serious conversations about honesty, trust, and respect. Let us all have those discussions sooner rather than later, and come to an understanding before we find ourselves coming to blows over a phone.

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6 fabulous comments:

  1. I agree. There is such a difference between wanting to do some things on your own vs. lying about what you are doing.

  2. The privacy of people is both private and public. Unless permission is given it is as much as a man opening a woman's purse without permission - there is no lock but it has an intrinsic pass code - you are allowed to push someone out of an ongoing car as much, Until facts are fully known it is a story without proportion in value or social.

    1. Can't really tell what you are really trying to say in this comment, but I don't think we are ever allowed to push people out of ongoing cars. That would be attempted murder.

    2. My husband is welcome to look in my purse any time he wants. I don't think he wants to, though.

  3. Some people have to keep secrets, such as a lawyer with clients. Would the husband or wife get offended by not being told everything?

    1. Emma, thanks for your comment. It's true that some professionals have a moral and/or legal obligation to keep certain kinds of information confidential. When I talk about secrecy in a relationship, this is not what I am referring to. The kind of secrecy that hurts a relationship is when the secret information is relevant to the relationship or something that the spouse has a legitimate reason to know. If you're married to a lawyer and he doesn't tell you the confidential details of his client's embezzlement, that is as it should be. On the other hand, if you have a spouse who is putting your future at risk by spending huge amounts of money on things you don't know about, that is a problem.


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