Privacy is a Fundamental Right in Relationships

Privacy. That thing where you get to choose how much of your personal life is on display, yeah? Privacy is pretty critical to one’s emotional well-being and sense of safety. We depend on those close to us to keep our confidence, and there is a reasonable expectation of privacy when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable in intimate moments with a close connection, friend, or partner.

But there’s an unfortunate approach to privacy by many in the greater non-monogamous community. I see a lot of questionable behavior being championed and supported that, to me, flies in the face of reasonable expectations of privacy.

What the heckity-heck am I talking about?

Oh, you know:

  • “My spouse and I have an agreement that we can go through each other’s phones and private messages upon request. This is how we build trust. This is our version of transparency and open communication.”
  • “Oh, I have access to my partner’s email, Facebook, dating profiles, and phone, but I’d never actually look at those things. Sometimes I see them by accident though.”
  • “My partner shares all of their sexual exploits with me because that’s my kink and it turns me on.”
  • “I have an agreement with my primary that they tell me every time they have sex with someone else.”
  • “I expect to know every milestone my partners reach in their other relationships so that I can emotionally process those.”

I don’t really need to continue, do I? Of course not. You’ve either recognized these as pretty common tropes, or you feel personally attacked. If it’s the latter, never fear – we all start somewhere; hopefully you’ll take this opportunity to examine your values as they relate to privacy. 

I won’t even knowingly date people who have these agreements with their other partners.

This privacy gray area is born of hierarchy and entitlement, and no, there isn’t a gentle way to say that. Particularly in situations where someone feels insecure, or there’s been a previous breach of trust, folks feel somewhat entitled to information that does not belong to them about folks they feel superior to. They often feel this is justified by their personal feelings of security being a priority, and this information falling into a category of “will probably make me feel more secure.” I get it; information is power. But . . . too much information will make your brain weasels go bonkers! Also: you’d be pissed if the shoe was on the other foot, you know you would, so don’t even. The meta you’ve never met having access to your sexting chats? COME ON!

But hey, most relationships do not thrive on a sparse diet of “need-to-know” information; the closer you are to someone, the more you’re naturally inclined to reveal about yourself and your life, including the roles others play. If you find yourself intentionally withholding information from someone when it’s not a privacy concern, it may be a good idea to ask yourself why. Information *is* power, but it doesn’t need to be wielded. 

What information should be off limits?

Well, basically anything that someone doesn’t enthusiastically consent to you knowing. And by enthusiastically, I mean nothing you had to talk them into sharing. It’s entirely possible to have a partner you don’t know every little thing about. Yes, even if you live with them. Yes, even if you’re been together for decades. Yes . . . you are, in fact, separate people with lives that don’t always overlap, nor should they, especially if you’re cultivating healthy relationships with other adults.

So, what information should be shared?

This is really an individual decision. Some people are naturally more private about their lives than others. I don’t keep any of the relationships in my life a secret from anyone else, but I also don’t feel a need to report on them. I have a strong preference for conversational sharing that feels natural. It would be very out of character for me to not mention a first date, or that I saw a movie with someone, or that I had dinner at a new place with so-and-so. 

But some folks have lots of reasons for wanting to know details about relationships they’re not in just because they’re in a relationship with one of those people. I mean, think about what you might expect to be made aware of in a close friend’s life . . . is it more or less than you expect to know about your partner’s? For example: sex stuff. 

How do I manage my sexual health risk profile if I don’t know if my partners are having sex with others and when, where, how? Well, what if you just assume your partners have sex with folks they spend time with and that they’ll use the same framework for sexual health decisions with those folks that they used with you? If you have no clue what that matrix looks like for your partner, now might be a good time to find out. (For tips on how to have that convo, check out Great Sexpectations.)

How do I mentally prepare myself for my partner to start a new relationship if they don’t keep me updated on their interest level in others? Is it possible to do this mental preparation across the board so you’re just ready to rumble when it comes down to it? I generally ask my partners how they’re feeling about new connections, but it’s conversational as I don’t have much investment in where they go. If you have negative experiences when your partner pursues others, that’s probably not going to be solved with a heads up.

I was misled by my partner in the past so having them update me on each new development in their other relationships helps me feel more secure. Well, sure. And: this is still none of your business. Reparative trust cannot be built on a foundation of privacy breaches against another party. Please allow that to sink in. You don’t get to sanction injury to another party simply because you yourself have been injured. We move forward by not wishing this experience on anyone else, not by violating others.

Everyone consents to these conditions of “transparency” (privacy violation) as a condition of their relationship with me/my partner, so that makes it ethical. No, that makes it coercive. If someone has to accept trespasses against their privacy in order to be connected to someone, they’re forced to agree or walk away and that’s not a fair choice. Not when it’s so easy to not put people in that position. This is merely shifting the burden of your own issues onto others and that’s a thing you have the power to work on. 

So what if I’m the one having my privacy violated or being coerced into violating the privacy of others to preserve another relationship?

Well, then it’s time to ask yourself if you’re worth more than that. Spoiler alert: you are. Advocate for yourself with direct language. State your boundaries and your right to privacy. Advocate for your other partners’ right to privacy, and refuse to violate it. 

It is amazing what happens in all of your relationships when you refuse to accept the unacceptable.   


Photo by Franck on Unsplash

3 thoughts on “Privacy is a Fundamental Right in Relationships

    1. Perhaps! I likely have posts that expand on some of these concepts but it’s felt useful to write one I can refer to when this issue pops up – and it does, often!

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