Secret or Private? On Openness in Relationships

Secret or Private

As healthy romantic relationships progress and trust is earned, we eventually open up more and more. And while boundaries are vital for maintaining healthy relationships based on mutual respect and valuing, we are sometimes unclear in how much we should or want to share with our partners. We all have a right to privacy. We all get to decide for ourselves what to share with whom and how much to open up. Privacy is essential for self-development, growth and autonomy.

Some of us open up a little too much too soon or offer too much information, which can be seen as inappropriate. Others are very closed and hardly share anything personal at all. Many of us share appropriately based on the other person having proven safe to open up to. Safe people are usually those, who will listen to us in a non-judgemental and non-shaming way. When someone listens to us like that we will feel heard and accepted for who we are.

In relationships we can experience different levels of closeness. We may be with someone who is comfortable with less closeness than we’d ideally like or we can feel pressured by someone to share something personal which we don’t feel prepared to share. It is then our responsibility to set clear boundaries.


How Much Should I Share?

Difficulty often arises when we are not sure whether our level of openness is appropriate or not. Am I too open? Am I a boundary-pusher? Am I too secretive? Do I avoid closeness? Our comfort levels of sharing ourselves with others are impacted by our conditioning, past experiences and the people who we communicate with. We may find it easy to open up to one person, but feel very uncomfortable sharing even the most superficial of details about us with someone else.

We usually share our most intimate details with our romantic partners. We create a special bond that allows us to be known in very different, very personal and intimate ways. We want to be known and accepted and we want to know and accept. This kind of knowing creates a strong attachment and usually a strong sense of trust and belonging.


The Cost of Holding Back

When we feel that someone is holding back, the relationships begins to suffer. While we all have a right to keep some of our information to ourselves, research in 2012 found that when one partner holds back, the other partner loses trust and often begins to self-inhibit as well. This leads to an inevitable decrease in emotional intimacy and will take a toll on the relationship in the long term. It is near impossible to feel connected to someone, who is not emotionally open and honest with us.


Why Do I Hold Back?

In our past we may have had experiences that taught us that sharing ourselves with others is not safe. We may transfer our past experiences all over new experiences even if those are with different people. What started out as a safety behaviour that protected us from potential judgement, ridicule and rejection in the past often turns into something that limits and negatively impacts present experiences.

This is not something to criticise or berate yourself for. Instead, use this increased self-awareness to notice your fearful and limiting thoughts and to move towards more trusting ways of being so you can allow yourself to open up to experience connection.


What Do I Keep Private?

What we keep private and don’t share with our partners is a very individual choice. It is not necessary to share every thought, feeling or experience. It is perfectly natural to keep everyday occurrences to yourself, to not talk about everything that has happened to you in detail and to take time for yourself. It is a sign of mutual trust to not expect our partners to snoop, go through our belongings or read our diaries – and not do this to them either.

Healthy adult relationships thrive between two individuals, who balance their individual needs for connection and autonomy well and are attuned to their partner’s needs. It is vital to respect our partners’ needs for privacy and their own space. Disrespecting this will lead to trust and control issues and decrease happiness levels of both partners while giving our partners space demonstrates goodwill, trust and faith.


Secret Or Private – What’s The Difference?

Keeping things private does not take anything away from your relationship and adding that information would not necessarily improve it. Secrets, however, hurt our relationships.

“The difference between privacy and secrecy is that privacy protects whereas secrecy hides and deprives.” M. Tillhon

If we do not share that we don’t love our partner’s favourite film, books or meal, it is not something that would damage our relationship with them. There might even be a benefit to keeping this private.

If, however, we do not disclose anything that also affects our partners we call that a secret that deprives our partners of important information they would use to make an informed decision about us or our relationship.

A secret hides something from our partner that we do not want to take responsibility for. Keeping important information from our partners that would influence them in some way is a form of manipulation. Keeping secrets diminishes trust and destroys opportunities to enhance connection and intimacy. We also deprive ourselves or opportunities to experience acceptance and validation.


Some Examples of Secrets

  • Flirtations or romantic encounters with someone outside the relationship if this was not previously upon
  • Infidelity, which can include porn usage, affairs and any other kind of sexual gratification (such as masturbation replacing sexual intimacy with a partner, visits to strip clubs etc.) outside the relationship if the relationship is based on monogamy
  • Financial issues
  • Employment
  • Illnesses or conditions such as infertility
  • Past issues with addictions, abuse, etc.
  • Secret friendships or relationships
  • Past sexual problems or experiences that affect the present or could be exposed by others
  • Past lifestyles, professions or experiences (i.e. having worked as a prostitute, having been to prison etc.)


How Do I Share?

First of all we must ensure that we share only what we want to share. If we share because we feel pressured, we may grow resentful towards our partners. This is an excellent opportunity to check our boundaries and make them known.

What we then share is strongly impacted by our communication skills. Sharing ourselves is not done in any kind of accusatory, blaming or demanding way. Sharing ourselves is a gift to our partner. It nourishes the stability and closeness of our relationship.

Timing is equally important. It may feel like a great opportunity to use timing as an excuse to put sharing off, but it usually does not end well when we broach potentially difficult conversations before bedtime, when we feel exhausted or in low moods, when either partner is drunk, tired, stressed or already dealing with other problems.

We can make sharing an opportunity to create more closeness and trust between us and our partners. When we are in a peaceful state of mind, we will find the words to convey what it is we want to share so that it will be received as a welcomed gift. In relationship we do not pay for it by decreasing our sense of self. We learn to give of ourselves.


Marlena Tillhon

Marlena is a progressive psychotherapist and relationship coach and passionate about helping people connect with their innate wellbeing.

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