“If you aren't revealing something because you don't want to, it's likely an example of maintaining privacy,” says psychotherapist Amy Morin, LCSW, editor-in-chief of Verywell Mind. “And if you're not revealing something because you are afraid of the consequences, it’s likely secrecy.”
While infidelity (or anything that inches close to it) is perhaps the most clear-cut example of a secret that's ill-advised to keep in a relationship, a whole variety of other situations could qualify as damaging pieces of information to withhold from a partner—like workplace mishaps that might put your job at risk, negative encounters with their friends, or any failure to uphold your end of the relationship bargain. Whenever you’re not sharing one of these things out of fear of the harm it might cause should it be exposed, you’re most likely keeping a secret, rather than simply upholding a sense of privacy, says therapist Hatty J. Lee, LMFT, author of The Indwell Guide.
How to pinpoint when you're keeping a secret versus upholding your privacy:
To start, consider the amount of effort you’re exerting to conceal whatever it is you’re shielding from a partner. “Secrets tend to rule our lives,” says Morin. “You’re likely to invest a lot of energy covering them up or hiding them.” Going to extremes like changing your regular schedule, stashing evidence, or roping in friends or family members to assist with keeping your partner in the dark are all red flags of secret-keeping.
“Secrets tend to rule our lives. You’re likely to invest a lot of energy covering them up or hiding them.” —Amy Morin, LCSW
You might also introspect a bit to identify any underlying emotions driving your behavior, says Lee. “Is it anxiety and fear? Is your behavior potentially harmful to your partner? Has it created distance or disconnection in your relationship? Then I might be inclined to believe you're keeping a secret,” she says.
On the flip side, if the feelings surrounding your concealment lack a negative charge, you could be squarely in the privacy zone. “Do you feel a sense of peace or of acknowledging your needs and wants? Is your behavior focused on honoring your boundaries? Then I’d be inclined to believe that you're upholding your own privacy,” says Lee.
Why the difference between secrecy and privacy matters in a relationship:
While secrecy may be harmful to a relationship, privacy is not only helpful, but necessary. “People often believe that you need to share everything in order to experience intimacy or closeness, but I tell my clients to listen to their bodies and consider whether you feel safe or comfortable revealing whatever it is you’re about to reveal,” says Lee.
Developing and discussing boundaries around what you’d like to share can you help anticipate points of tension, too. For example, consider whether you’d like your phone to be off-limits to your partner; if you expect them to knock on a closed door; and if you’d like to keep conversations with your friends private, suggests Morin.
Having these kinds of boundary talks up-front can also keep one partner from feeling boxed-out or jumping to conclusions whenever the other partner takes their privacy to heart. “In that case, it’s helpful to clearly communicate that you are simply honoring your privacy by saying, for instance, ‘I’m just a private person, so I hope you don’t take it personally that I’m not sharing this with you right now.’ Or, ‘I will share more when I feel ready to.’”
Once that groundwork is laid, it’s essential not to abuse it in order to conceal a secret, which is, again, anything that could hurt your partner if exposed now or at a future point in time. Although the size of the secret will be proportional to its potentially damaging effect, any degree of secrecy can etch away at the trust you’ve built, leading to disconnection and distance, says Lee.
Because trust is what allows for vulnerability, as it diminishes, both you and your partner may be less likely to confide in each other, creating a snowball effect of more secrecy and less intimacy with time. That's precisely why it’s so essential to avoid masquerading secrecy as privacy, and to bypass the former altogether. Not only can secrets harm a partner, but also the time and energy they take to maintain is simply time wasted, says Morin. And it's time you might be better off spending on building or bolstering the foundations of your relationship.
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