How Much Privacy is Too Much Privacy?

Trust is a major issue that commonly comes up in couples counseling, especially in cases where one or both partners have experienced infidelity in the past. If we want others to trust us, then we decide to trust them, trust them enough to hide nothing from them. In particular, we trust that they will not react emotionally to discovering a certain piece of information related to us. Because we want extraordinary relationships, we choose to remain transparent. Because we want extraordinary relationships, we forego privacy, certain that we prefer being discovered over remaining hidden, certain that we prefer being known over remaining unknown.

We want familiarity. As such, we choose to have nothing to hide, even if we have something to hide. We want to be known and known completely. So, if our partner, for instance, wants to look at our cell phone or emails, we don’t make a big fuss about this. We simply let them. Might they react emotionally to something they see? Yes, they might, but that’s okay. We can give them permission for this. It’s better that we run the risk of someone reacting to our transparency, then guaranteeing that they will react to our privacy. Besides, whenever we demand privacy, this suggests to others that we are hiding something, which (oh by the way) we probably are. In extraordinary relationships, there’s nothing to hide. Everything can be completely out in the open, always. Why? Because we understand how important the truth is. The more truth is revealed, the more it can be discussed. The more we can simply communicate with others about the truth, whatever that is, even if a few feathers get ruffled along the way, the greater will be our familiarity with one another.  What comes with increased familiarity? Two things: First an increased ability to get along with one another (harmony) and an experience of closeness (intimacy).

Being transparent is always healthy, if not always easy. Ideally, we want others to know us, and know us completely. If they don’t, then how can they truly embrace us for who we are? If others do not know us, then how can they make an informed decision about whether or not they want to stay in a relationship with us? We don’t want to trick others to be our companions; we want them to choose to be with us. If we refuse to be transparent, we prohibit another’s opportunity to choose us. We prohibit another’s freedom and autonomy. If someone is suspicious of us, or even if they are not, we let them investigate us to their heart’s content, if they desire to do so. Sooner or later, if we just keep on being transparent, they’ll figure out that we are trustworthy, that we indeed have nothing to hide from them. We’re just being ourselves. We want them to either give us permission for that or not. And if they do not want to give us permission to be who we are, then we can still give permission to them for this too, though we may want to consider whether this person is genuinely someone with whom we want to share our life. Extraordinary relationships have an abundance of trust and transparency builds this trust faster than anything else. To take a stand for trust, to take a stand for the extraordinary relationship we desire to embody with another, we commit to being transparent.

What we don’t ever want to do is criticize someone for not trusting us. If someone doesn’t trust you, maybe you have something to do with this and maybe you don’t. As long as you are being fully transparent, you’ve done your part. Just keep it up. If this person’s mistrust continues, despite your transparency, then this is just information about the other person. You learn that they have difficulty trusting. Okay, you can embrace this too. You can recognize that this mistrust has nothing to do with you and continue giving them permission to be who they are, residual distrust and all.

Any suggestion that “You should respect my privacy!” is lunacy. Besides the fact that there are no shoulds, extraordinary relationships don’t require privacy. Privacy, at least as it concerns any desire on our part to protect information about ourselves, is just another boundary, something that will only create separation between ourselves and others. If we want an extraordinary relationship with someone, then not only do we not need privacy, we don’t want it either. Instead, we want to invite others completely into our lives. We want to be discovered fully. We want to be transparent, honest and vulnerable to occasional scrutiny. This is what we can control, the extent to which we ourselves willingly remain transparent.

What about when someone we care for refuses to be transparent with us? What are you to do then? When your partner insists on privacy, do you just trust them anyway? Even when it seems like they may be deliberately hiding something? Well, you have a choice. If your partner refuses to be transparent, if they insist on their privacy, then you can ask them why this is? For instance, Why do you never let me look at your phone? Or, Why do you always log off of your email account on our home computer? Or, Why do you clear the internet search history so frequently? Such questions are objective inquiry and non-aggressive. You’re just curious to understand something you may not know. Perhaps they never thought about it or even noticed they were protecting their privacy in these ways; perhaps these acts were just habits that they are readily willing to abandon in favor of a more transparent approach. Or, perhaps, they will become defensive, asserting that they have a right to privacy, that it’s “none of your business”, or lashing out saying something like, “There you go again. Never trusting me, same as always. You’re so insecure!”

If they still insist on their “right to privacy”, then one of two things is true: either they’re hiding something or they’re not. If they aren’t consciously hiding something from you, then their insistence on privacy simply stems from a lack of understanding that transparency is an available—and preferable—option for your relationship. In this case, you can awaken them to this possibility and invite them to share a fully transparent relationship together. If, on the other hand, they are hiding something, then the question becomes why this is. Are they hiding something that they know you won’t embrace about them? Are they “up to no good”? Maybe, but other reasons can inspire others to hide behaviors, reasons such as shame, guilt, or embarrassment. Indeed, sometimes people fear that, if they reveal themselves fully, others will abandon them or not accept them as they are. This was the fear one couple I worked with faced.

First let me say that I have never been more proud of two clients than the day I met with this couple and the husband, after years of protecting his privacy, summoned the courage to open up to his wife. He confessed that, for a long time, he had been hiding the fact that he enjoyed watching pornography involving transgender males. He explained how deeply embarrassed he was about this, how he didn’t understand why he did this, and how he didn’t want his wife to find out because he assumed she would be mad at him if she did. After the husband finally admitted this, his wife was indeed surprised, but she didn’t become upset. In fact, she showed him great empathy and thanked him for trusting her enough with this difficult information. His transparency said a lot to her about the state of their relationship, in a positive way. After all, the husband still considered himself a happily married heterosexual male. He just had this interest he couldn’t explain. Because of his own shame and confusion, the husband resisted being transparent. As trust in the relationship grew, through honest communication supported by giving permission, the husband eventually found the courage to be honest and the relationship evolved to a whole new level. They grew closer than ever before. What a triumph!

People hide things for all sorts of reasons. We can understand and forgive this. The choice we exercise is to do everything we can to cultivate trust in our relationships. We trust others and allow others to trust us. We choose transparency over privacy. This is the path of the extraordinary relationship. So, when your partner wants to see your phone, to them, “Be my guest!” When you’re done checking your email, keep it wide open. If your partner sees something they don’t understand, kindly and honestly answer any questions they may have. Be an open book. And inspire others to be the same way, knowing that you want to share the very best relationship possible with another. As you build transparency in these ways, you’ll be amazed at how much more intimate, and more comfortable, your relationship will become.