Secrecy and Privacy — One Is Necessary, the Other Has to Go
The key to good relationships is to recognise them both and handle them accordingly
“I have been stalking you on Facebook, I have to confess”. When he said it, with a coy smile, it sounded sweet and it didn’t sound intrusive. I took it as a sign of great interest, and I was happy about it. We have just started our soon-to-be-disastrous relationship, and at the time I was bouncing with joy from every sign of love. It should have been a red flag, just as many other things should have been.
He confessed he loved me way too soon — but I was over the moon about it. He requested all of my time — but I couldn’t have been happier, as I didn’t want to spend it without him anyway. He wanted to know everything about me, the good, the bad and the ugly — and I was convinced that it was a good sign. He wanted to know me, he loved me, he loved me not only despite but because of my past, my mistakes, my previous experiences. Or so I thought…
Little did I know at the time that when he said he was stalking me on Facebook, he really meant stalking. He was going through all the posts I ever published, the list of my friends, our common connections, the comments people left on my posts — everything. At the time, I didn’t think that it was creepy. I had nothing to hide. I wasn’t ashamed of my previous life. I wasn’t giving too much thought to long-forgotten comments. I didn’t care about being tagged in others’ posts. After all, it was just social media — not my life.
But it turned out that he wasn’t just trying to get information through social media, he was stalking me in other ways too. He was going through my files on my computer that I left open (lesson learnt, never again). He was going through my phone when he borrowed it to look for something online (lesson learnt, never again). He went through my drawer, looking at photos from ages ago — family pictures, high-school photos, photos that I never wanted to show to anyone because I looked awful.
His stalking wasn’t about love. It wasn’t about being interested. It wasn’t about getting to know me. He was violating my privacy — big time.
He never directly told me about it. He never asked me to show him old photos so that he could see me when I was eight — that would have been okay, giving me the choice of doing it or refusing it. He went through them all when I left him alone in the room.
He created stories in his head about my personality based on the photos we had taken with some friends at university. He figured out my mental state based on a few ugly pictures from high-school. He analysed my family dynamics after seeing my mum sitting too far from my dad at a birthday party. And then he used all of it against me.
I became a slut — for sitting between two guys on a school trip. I became an insecure fat person, and a people pleaser because I looked chubby compared to my friend in one picture. I became the wounded, damaged daughter because obviously, my parents’ marriage was shit.
He violated my privacy and when I brought it up and asked him not to do it ever again, he turned against me and accused me of being secretive, of having something to hide, of probably cheating on him.
I have never been secretive. I didn’t know I should protect my privacy from him — because I couldn’t imagine that someone would use these things against me. I didn’t have anything to hide, but after his numerous scenes where he was continuously referring to something that wasn’t for him to see, I started to question whether I have been too open about my life with him.
The same thing happened with my past experiences. Not just the photos, but the stories I told him. Whatever I shared, he found a way to hurt me with it later. My parents’ divorce became the source of my loose morals. My dad’s death became the fault of an uncaring daughter. The relationships I had in the past — just the mere existence of them — became proof that I was a worthless slut.
He became abusive, and he blamed me for the abuse — according to him, I deserved to be treated that way. The fact that he was digging in my past became nothing compared to my mistakes — all the stories he made up from bits and pieces of information. But I was in love, and I wasn’t in a position to defend myself, to draw the line, to adhere to my boundaries — as I didn’t really have boundaries.
I thought that there should be no secrets in a relationship. I thought that love conquers all and that he would accept me the way I am. I thought that withholding information or not sharing everything is as bad as lying.
I was so very wrong about so many things. I was wrong about him as a person. I was wrong about love and its power. I was wrong about my boundaries. And I was dead wrong about the idea of sharing information within a relationship.
And I made a terrible mistake by confusing secrecy with privacy.
We all have past experiences, we have all made mistakes, some of us have experienced trauma — and it’s okay, we are shaped but not defined by our experiences and thoughts. And our past and experiences have to have a place in our lives but it’s not mandatory to bring it all into a relationship.
Privacy means that you can choose what, when and how to share information about yourself and the things that are related to you within a relationship. Privacy means that you are entitled to leave out things that are not directly affecting the relationship or that don’t have anything to do with your partner. Privacy means filtering the information so that you can keep your dignity or your healing journey intact.
The intent of privacy is for the integrity of the individual — if you choose not to share everything, you are doing it for yourself, not for or against the relationship.
Secrecy is different from privacy. It is omitting information that would be crucial in a relationship or lying about things that are directly influencing your intimate connection. Secrecy is about the intent — not the information. Being secretive means that you deliberately keep the other in the dark about information that would be important for them and for the whole of the relationship.
The intent of secrecy is about hiding and avoiding — which can undermine the relationship or destroy it.
Depending on where you come from, what models you grew up with, what was accepted in your previous relationships, you and your partner might have very different views about the line between secrecy and privacy.
For some, sharing or withholding information is signalling the level of trust — while in some cases, no matter how much you trust your partner, you still might not be ready to share some parts.
You are not obliged to share every detail of your childhood, of any of your traumatic experiences, of the lessons that you learnt from — unless not sharing them will directly and negatively influence your relationship. Each of us is a complete being within a relationship, and as such we are entitled to decide when and how we share about ourselves — if ever. Sometimes we are not ready to share and in some cases, we will never be ready. Sometimes we consider several pieces of information irrelevant or redundant. And in a lot of cases, we simply forget about things. None of these means that we are deliberately keeping secrets and violating the expected trust.
You are entitled to wait and build more trust, or test them with different types of information before jumping into the crucial or difficult ones. You can decide not to share at all. Just because you are in a relationship with someone, they are not entitled to learn about every thought or emotion that ever crosses your mind. A good example here is therapy, when you choose a neutral third person to share your deepest fears with instead of your partner — for the therapist can provide better support, from a more objective point of view. Or a life-long friend who understands your decade of trauma can lend a better ear than your spouse who doesn’t know about your conflict with your sister.
You get to decide but you also have to communicate clearly about it. Privacy can be confused with secrecy if you don’t assertively communicate your boundaries. You can say that you are not ready, you can decide to share only a part of the whole, you can talk about how sharing makes you feel. The most important thing is to feel safe to share — without being cornered into telling everything and without being manipulated.
Trust and safety are key pillars of a relationship, as are boundaries. The one who will be worthy of your trust will never manipulate you into sharing what you don’t want to share, and with the right person, your clearly communicated boundaries will not be violated.
I learnt about my privacy boundaries the extremely hard way — my experience taught me that sharing is dangerous and it pushed me over the edge towards being secretive about everything. My ex-partner didn’t deserve my trust and he abused it. But I also overreacted it — not having any other means of coping.
Recently, I faced a triggering situation within a new relationship, where instead of closing him off completely, I chose to discuss my understanding of privacy and secrecy. As this time the other party was listening to me and wanted to know what my triggers were, we managed to establish a firm understanding between us — without scenes and arguments.
As always, it is about communication. But it is also about finding a person who is willing to listen and understand. Be careful about the information you wish to share. Don’t waste it on people who don’t deserve it.