based on a conversation with Dr. Elka Pinson
Q: I am asking this on behalf of my friend. She is annoyed that her husband tells her he is going out for a drive to relax and ends up at his friend’s house playing video games. He does this often. She claims, “We should be telling each other everything. Why won’t he just tell me that he is going to his friends; why does he lie to me?”
A: There is so much said, and perhaps even more unsaid in these few short words. Therefore, I’ll talk about the topic of privacy and secrecy in marriage in general, and then add a few words to address what I read here in these words.
Should spouses tell each other everything? In one word, no. While one spouse may be more comfortable disclosing than the other, she or he should not expect to hear every thought, action, urge or memory of their partner. We need different degrees of solitude to re-charge, regulate stress and nurture a sense of self – be it a solitary hobby or reading the paper alone.
In other words, some privacy.
In a trusting relationship, we have neither the need to check each other’s phone, emails, mail or daily moves, nor the obligation to disclose all. That is privacy.
And then there is secrecy. The distinction between privacy and secrecy is very important. Privacy becomes secrecy when there is conscious motivation to keep something unknown, hidden or unseen from one’s partner—something that directly impacts that person and the bond shared, often something that can harm the relationship.
Secrets can be motivated by betrayal, shame, fear, or anger. Secrets disqualify intimacy because they prevent authenticity. When someone is holding a secret, a part of them is not available for connection.
Is it privacy or secrecy?
Having private conversations with others without your spouse knowing all the details. Privacy. Healthy.
Having a secret conversation with someone of the opposite gender. Secrecy. Not healthy.
Not sharing how you spent every last penny. Privacy. Healthy.
Not sharing that you gambled away over ten thousand dollars. Secrecy. Not healthy.
One way to discern if it privacy or secrecy is to determine if the information is harmful to the marriage relationship – gambling, clandestine friendships are detrimental to a marriage. That is secrecy and not fair to your spouse or to your marriage.
So why does the husband in the above question lie to his wife? It is hard to tell with so few details. Here are some possibilities.
Perhaps, his wife’s asking him where he is going triggers memories of his overbearing mom always needing to know where he is. And he feels that as an adult he should not have to get permission or report his comings and goings. It’s really not about his wife at all; it’s more about his sense of independence.
Or, it might be that his wife would not agree to his hanging out with the boys, so he prefers to say a little ‘white lie’. She is OK with him being out of the house to unwind, just not being with the friends. So he thinks, “What’s the difference where I am if I am not home, I’ll just tell her that I’m going out alone and I’ll ‘end up’ at my friends.” What is happening here is that he is lying to avoid a conflict. Again, it is not secrecy or privacy; it’s conflict avoidance.
Another possibility, is that she is annoyed at herself for not being more assertive about spending time with friends and unwinding outside of the house. Instead of recognizing that, she gets bothered by his going out to friends and her complaint is really about that.
Maybe it is the way he grew up. He never had to tell anyone where he is going; he loved the spontaneity of just ending up somewhere. He isn’t withholding from her; he simply doesn’t know where he will end up going and then doesn’t call to let her know. It’s not secrecy or lying; it’s more about what he is used to doing. But, if it affects the family schedule, or he is not around for the family – then it does impact the marriage, and he should be sharing his comings and goings. If he doesn’t, there are communication problems.
Is it OK for her to ask him to tell her where he is going and what he did and who was there and and and …?
She has every right to be curious. She must also recognize that no one has the right to another’s thoughts and personal information. Even if they are married. Everyone has the right to privacy. As long as it does not impact the marriage. Of course, he could share if he thinks it will enhance their relationship, but he is entitled to privacy.
It might be worthwhile to view it like this: Start with the premise that you will know nothing unless your spouse chooses to share; be OK with that. When both ‘own the information’ ie: the marriage, finances, children, the details should be shared and discussed. Of course, this feels natural when both spouses have a healthy sense of self and deep trust in each other. They are secure in who they are as individuals and in their marriage.
So what is reasonable to expect to know about each other and to ask? It should be on a ‘need to know basis’. Think: What about that information is important for you to know? What is the point of knowing? What about that information is important for your spouse to know? What is the point of telling?
Lastly, if you are withholding information, think about why you are not telling. Is it a power struggle? Do you not feel safe to share; do you feel that you will be judged, ridiculed? Are you trying to avoid a conflict? Are you afraid your spouse won’t allow it? While it may not be in the category of secret, it still isn’t healthy. Examine the underlying dynamic and work through it.
Trust is key in marriage; and trust is not needing to know everything about each other, and being OK with that.