Does Love Trump Privacy?

When our youngest child grew up and moved some distance away, I claimed her room and fashioned a space all my own. It was quite small, on the second floor of our home with leafy tree branches almost touching the windows, a nest of sorts. There were times my husband came and stood at the threshold to ask me a question, but he didn’t walk in. He never entered uninvited. It was our unspoken understanding, as natural as breathing, that this was my space alone. Our separateness was respected. This personal background sets the stage for a description of a mediation session in which privacy was the issue.

The couple working with me made it clear they were not seeking therapy, not my skill, but to preserve their marriage by negotiating a specific well-defined concern: In the prior week, without consulting his wife, the husband had installed a lock on his home-office door. She was hurt and angry.

His story: When he was away from home, his wife opened mail addressed only to him. It was nothing of a highly personal nature, but in doing so she learned that his business debt was considerably greater than she had been led to believe. On discovering this, still in his absence, she looked through his desk and files, and eventually explored the content of his computer. When she confronted him upon his return about all that she had uncovered, he was outraged. That’s when the lock went on.

Her story: She firmly believed there should be no secrets between marriage partners, and that she was, therefore, perfectly justified in her actions. He was the one who had much to explain.

The response I addressed to her was spoken without hesitation, or sufficient forethought. With some fervor I said: But everyone is entitled to a zone of privacy.

This statement and my tone surprised them, and myself as well. With hindsight I regret the unprofessional manner in which I spoke. I should have posed some neutral questions to each of them, not been judgmental. Predictably, the issue did not get resolved in my office, and later, when the wife called to cancel their next scheduled appointment, I learned that after further discussion between them, her husband had removed the lock from his office door.

I recalled another client who discovered that her husband had read the journal in which she wrote each morning on waking. She was incensed, even though she’d kept it tucked in her nightstand drawer, readily accessible, and known to him. Her question: How could he not understand that it was for my eyes only?

Will such unwelcome intrusions as these continue to rankle over time? My guess is that insistence on full disclosure, and by some even a demand to know their partner’s innermost thoughts, is more likely to erode than to foster openness and harmony. Are these wounded loved ones likely to become more or less secretive?

Why is privacy so important? We speak of someone “invading” our privacy and the very use of that word suggests a violation of significance. It’s an assault on our autonomy, a piercing of that protective skin we seek to keep in tact (so many words of aggression!). Privacy keeps us safe, free of judgment until we are ready for exposure, and then, only to those we trust.