For never was a story of more woe than Juliet and her security cleared Romeo...
February 20, 2011 5:44 AM   Subscribe

How do you best go about a relationship when you can't be honest with your partner?

I work somewhere that requires the greatest of discretion. I don't even tell my family what I do. How then do I date women? I want to get out there on the dating scene but it always falls down at "What's your name?".

So in forlorn hope I ask: how do I balance work requirements and honesty requirements?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (42 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Be honest. That means being honest about your inability to discuss your work. Many women won't handle that, but the rare ones worth your effort will.
posted by caddis at 5:47 AM on February 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Tell them something not untrue and boring. I myself am in a line of work that would sound, on the first iteration, as if I am in the business of throwing orphans on the street. I don't throw anyone on the street, orphans or otherwise. So I describe it with the longest words available, and when someone's eyes cross slightly, I say, "It sounds boring but it really isn't; I get to work with very old records," and then steer the conversation elsewhere.

However, my job never requires me to do anything cinematic, especially not in the middle of the night, so if you get caught up in a deadly game of cat and mouse where the hunter becomes the hunted, I can't tell you what to say.
posted by Countess Elena at 5:48 AM on February 20, 2011 [4 favorites]

Date someone in a similar situation?
posted by By The Grace of God at 5:50 AM on February 20, 2011 [6 favorites]

In DC it would be simple to say "my work is classified" or whatever.
posted by yarly at 5:56 AM on February 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

A friend who is an IRS auditor just says, "I work for the federal government."
posted by Carol Anne at 5:57 AM on February 20, 2011 [9 favorites]

Can you date within this pool of humans who also must maintain secrecy, and therefore get all that it entails? Otherwise, you'll probably have to narrow your dating pool down to only those who are seeking to know and be close to their partner in ways that aren't bothered with superficial details...people who understand and are also seeking those other ways of being intimate, in action, body, observation about the world and the current moment you share...those who can hear and respect "sorry, can't tell you that" without taking it as a personal rejection of them. People who are possibly too busy themselves, or extremely confident/independent/private (for whatever reasons that you would be good to respect as well, natch). Finding those people is going to be tough, but when you do, you'll meet in the places where details and meta-data about each other and your histories are irrelevant. That's going to take a lot of continued trust on both sides of course, but I bet the strength of that will be rewarding and fulfilling.

I think it's going to require being very selective from a very filtered pool of potential partners, but there's a lot of humans in the world. The good thing is, if you can't get past "what's your name" with someone new without a major hurdle, you know right away that this person probably won't be for you in the specific way your lifestyle allows. Don't lose hope.
posted by iamkimiam at 5:57 AM on February 20, 2011

I live in the DC area and my neighbor works in "counter-terrorism." I have no idea what that really means, which is exactly the point.
posted by COD at 6:03 AM on February 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

In a worst-case scenario, if I encountered a fellow who told me that he "couldn't tell me what he did", I might assume that he was actually a bit off...either lying to seem mysterious or actually mentally ill. Failing that, I'd assume that he worked for the government doing something dodgy, like funneling money to right-wing organizations in US client states. Unless there was some compelling evidence that none of those three things were true, I'd deep-six the guy pretty fast.

If I met in a situation where we talked about something else quite a lot first--volunteering, cinema club, sports---and if the guy played it off pretty well, like "It's not especially sinister, but I had to sign an agreement and I just can't talk about it", it wouldn't worry me as much. Can you say anything about what it's not, ie, "I don't work for the CIA or anything/I don't destabilize foreign governments/etc"? Complete approval would be on hold, however, until I'd seen your apartment/car/major possessions--if you seemed normal and lived in an average, clean place I'd relax a bit more.

If you actually do work for the government doing something dodgy, perhaps foreground your politics in your personals/dating initiatives? Assuming that you can convey a solid character and so on, a conservative political activist would probably be more at ease with that line of work.
posted by Frowner at 6:05 AM on February 20, 2011 [9 favorites]

(I hope that didn't sound snarky; I actually had a friend who broke up with her girlfriend over just such a situation--classified work that came to seem likely to be incompatible with her beliefs.)
posted by Frowner at 6:08 AM on February 20, 2011

To nth what's been said, when I lived in DC, saying your worked for the "federal government" was tantamount to saying, "Don't ask any more questions, because I can't answer them."

Your mileage may vary the further you are from the Beltway, though, and only if you work for the feds.
posted by SNWidget at 6:25 AM on February 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

Be honest about what you can't talk about, and don't be needlessly dramatic about it. You don't want to come off sounding like you're using it to lie about other things. It's not unheard of for people to lie about things like this in order to hide the fact that they're married, or actually work as a greeter at wal-mart, or are just wannabees who wanted to be elite special forces guys but actually didn't make it thru basic. "Boring-assed government work, but I can't really talk about the details" for instance, rather than "well, i can't talk about it, but it's really secret and critical and dangerous and i don't want to imply anything but the weather in Iran is really nice this time of year or was last week. not that I was there or anything."
posted by rmd1023 at 6:29 AM on February 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

If you really work in a place and cannot tell the truth then your employer will have given you a believable story for your use. You repeat it often enough that you believe it yourself.
posted by JayRwv at 6:29 AM on February 20, 2011 [11 favorites]

Does your workplace have resources for employees, or some sort of network you could join to discuss these issues informally or formally? Does HR have work-life balance resources? Granted, this all might be far-fetched.

Otherwise, I would talk to a career-oriented counselor who has experience in this area. Surely you're not the only person who has faced this problem.
posted by vincele at 6:29 AM on February 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

I would bring it up without any fuss in the most boring way possible, as mentioned above. Are you an international man of mystery? "Oh, I do some office work at a global relations firm. Yeah, it's kinda dull. What about you? You're in politics, right?"

If she asks any more about it: "I'd tell you more about it but I signed those NDAs which is probably for the best, it's really boring..."

Then move on! I don't think most girls will get that hung up on it. I wouldn't lie, per se, but you definitely don't need to be all "this is classified information, I can't tell you, drama drama".

OR, if you don't want to lie at all, you could do a few hours a month free volunteer work at a political setup or a museum or something and when people ask "what do you do?" you can go on and on about the documents you scan or the people you help at that job. I would just divert for a long time until your relationship gets much more serious. That's when I would have a talk. Not until then.
posted by amicamentis at 6:33 AM on February 20, 2011

You can be honest with your partner, you just can't be totally open with them. I've been in this situation before, and the solution is to compartmentalize. There are people you can talk to about your work - people at work. You can talk to the other people in your life about everything else. You can even talk to them about the non-classified aspects - funny/annoying interactions with no identifiers for the people involved, etc so they don't feel completely shut out.

Does your employer perhaps have guidelines or suggestions? When I had a job that required a clearance, they told us just what we could and couldn't say about our training and what our jobs involved. To me, the funny thing is that no one was ever that interested. I'd tell them where I worked; the building or the location, and if they pushed, I'd say, i work in computers. You can't underestimate a lot of people's curiosity about other people. you present it as too boring to really get into, and not something you want to waste non-work time talking about, and people can understand that without it raising suspicion.
posted by lemniskate at 6:33 AM on February 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

Given that a large number of extraordinarily dull, bureaucratic jobs require a security clearance, I can't imagine it raising too many eyebrows, especially in a city where there might be a lot of government employees. Is there a reason you cannot say "I'm a public servant", "I'm an accountant"? Fob off any followup questions with an "it's really boring/complicated/technical."

Once the relationship progresses to a point where someone has a right to ask where the heck it is you actually go all day, well...I suggest that if your job requires such secrecy that you cannot discuss any aspect of it with your family or partner, the person/agency/department responsible for your vetting - or your superiors, or your colleagues, all of whom are presumably in the same boat - would be able to offer advice that will be more suitable for your particular situation than what Metafilter can provide (although many of the answers here are, of course, very reasonable).

I would further suggest that if your job truly requires the "greatest of discretion" then posting about it on a public forum, even quasi-anonymously, is probably not a stellar idea.
posted by jaynewould at 6:51 AM on February 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh wow, about 5 people said "HR!" in the time I took to type that. Preview: I need to use it.
posted by jaynewould at 6:52 AM on February 20, 2011

Not sure what any of this means. Does it mean you can't say who you work for specifically or can't talk about what you do even in general terms? "I work in [xyz] consulting" is generally vague enough.

The thing is that DC has enough of an established culture of how people describe what they do while not talking about the classified portions of their work. Any job that's "serious" is able to handle this. Is it possible that the OP works for some fly-by-night operation with a control freak boss who insists that no one talk about what he's doing or some kind of "stealth" startup obsessed with its own secrecy?

"I'm in the XYZ industry. Or 'I consult for an ABC company.'"
posted by deanc at 7:10 AM on February 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

I know a bunch of federal employees. I think the most likely response to "I work for the government" would not be a suspicious one, but either "Oh, I have a friend who works for Treasury" or "HOW IS FED JOB FORMED? WANT WANT WANT".
posted by catlet at 7:14 AM on February 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

Any job that's "serious" is able to handle this. Is it possible that the OP works for some fly-by-night operation with a control freak boss who insists that no one talk about what he's doing or some kind of "stealth" startup obsessed with its own secrecy?

I hadn't thought of that. I was leaning toward "researching for a book" or "suspicious wife who wants to know if her husband is really James Bond". But yes, an actual person-with-a-really-high-clearance would know how to deal with this (and would know better than to Ask Internet Strangers, honestly).
posted by jaynewould at 7:28 AM on February 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Honestly, I can't talk about it.

Thousands of people have security clearances and have relationships.
It's not that big of a deal. My SO can't talk about his work. I somewhat know the field bc I've seen his business card (which isn't classified) and know which degrees he's got. Most of his coworkers are married, their spouses don't know what they do either. It's really not a problem.
It kinda helps if you can say whatever you got your degree in, like I'm an engineer, psychologist, researcher, or I got a boring desk/admin job at whatever company (unless you can't even mention which company). Trust me, most people really aren't going to push on the details.

Plus, what usually comes up in conversation about significant others jobs are the non-work details like this person is having a baby, that person is leaving so we took him out to lunch, it was this person's bday so we had cupcakes.
posted by Neekee at 7:48 AM on February 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

The mister and I have different clearance levels, and though we have a pretty basic knowledge of what the other does, we don't know any specifics.

Whenever the inevitable "what do you do?" question pops up during small talk, we say that we work for the federal government and leave it at that. If people insist on elaboration, we fall back on the tried-and-true Miss Manners response of "I'm sorry, that won't be possible."
posted by evoque at 8:08 AM on February 20, 2011

You really need to have other topics to talk about. I don't care if someone doesn't want to talk about something, but it's a real drag when they also WILL NOT hold up their end of the conversation.

"So what do you do?"
"I work in an office."
"Do you like it?"
"It's OK."
"Do you have any hobbies?"
"Not really."
[agonized scream]

Instead try something like:

"I work in an office, it's OK, but I like to leave my work behind me at the end of the day.. it gives me time to focus on hobby xyz! I just did/am getting ready to do [big thing involving xyz] and I'm really excited about it, I could talk about it forever! How about you, what do you do?"
posted by anaelith at 8:13 AM on February 20, 2011 [7 favorites]

No job is so hush-hush that you can't talk about it. My dad spent his entire career working for a government agency that officially didn't even exist. Everything about his work was secret but he still was able to talk with my mom & us about it -- office politics, his secretary's pregnancy/new baby, etc. -- all the stuff that happens in other workplaces happens in top-secret-clearance environments too.

I didn't like it when he coached my little-league teams though -- no matter how well we did they couldn't put our team picture in the paper because he was in it. (The local paper & tv stations honored that sort of thing back then.)
posted by headnsouth at 8:21 AM on February 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

Andectdotally, I knew of a married couple who both worked in intelligence and could not discuss their jobs with each other, until they started working at the same agency. Even then, they could only discuss it at work in secure channels, and not at home! Situations like this are really not that unusual in the government world.
posted by yarly at 8:38 AM on February 20, 2011

Let's put this in perspective...

I'm a software engineer. I build very large scale, distributed, online systems. It's not secret, but most non-engineers don't want to hear anything about my job so I don't talk about it much outside of work.

That's not much different than working on classified stuff. Maybe it's worse because I *can* talk about it, but still nobody wants to listen.

So what do you do? You talk about everything else that is you that's not your job. (hopefully you're not defined by your job) What other interests & hobbies do you have? What are your thoughts about current events? Ask her questions about herself.

Your job is only one small part of the conversation.
posted by jpeacock at 9:17 AM on February 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

He or she may not work for a fed agency. Just off the top of my head, I can think of half a dozen positions that require discretion and some are criminal enterprises...

Random list of what I thought he could have meant for secretive jobs:

Bank robber, gigolo, mortician (stigma of working with dead bodies), Oski from UC Berkeley, and exiled political activist.

That being said, if you're uncomfortable talking about your job, the only advice I can offer is to be a little more euphemistic at first. Don't lie, just focus on the more mundane aspects of the job. Then move onto another aspect of your life you can talk more about.

Slowly get more detailed as you get to know someone better and decide whether or not you'd like a long term relationship.

I guess an important question to ask yourself is if your job would change someone's idea of who you are.
posted by FJT at 9:31 AM on February 20, 2011

Well, the title of his post mentions specifically being "security cleared." Hardly anyone's work is so secret that they literally can't say anything about it-- given that almost 900,000 people have TS/SCI clearances, it stretches the imagination to think that this many people literally cant say anything about their work. Submarines have a lot of classified systems that are built into them. What do the people who work on them say they do? They say, "I'm a naval engineer" or "I work on submarines." Back before the NSA officially existed the story was that they "did work in support of Fort Meade."

The people whose work is so classified that they LITERALLY can talk to anyone about it are people who are given cover stories-- those are your people who "work for an energy consulting company."
posted by deanc at 9:44 AM on February 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

I have a few friends who are in this boat.

The only advice I can add to everyone else is that you should have a sense of humor about the classified nature of your work. I have this one friend, and the rumor is that she's in one of the spookier federal agencies (state department, NSA, maybe CIA?). But you Do Not Joke about that in front of her, or she will get super defensive and weird.

Be willing to joke about the possibility of your being a spy or government assassin or Fox Mulder or whatever. People who are wet blankets about the most basic aspects of adult professional conversation ("So, Jason, what do you do for a living?") are not very much fun to be around.

Nthing get hobbies that are interesting to talk about.
posted by Sara C. at 9:51 AM on February 20, 2011

I'm have significant health issues so I can't work, but don't necessarily like opening with that when I meet people. So I say artist or painter (I'm not a painter, but have a specific hobby that sounds good and can pass as a job). I usually supplement that with "business consultant" - I do help friends with some of their business issues from time to time.

Then I change the subject.

None of this is lying - which makes me uncomfortable. I also don't want to do a lot of backtracking if the person becomes a part of my life. Like you said, "surprise, I lied about everything" isn't a great way to start a relationship.

In a decade, no one has ever held it against me or not been able to trust me once they've found out.

If I were you, I would synthesize one element that you can talk about (freelancer/consultant/writer are vague and boring enough to not entreat more discussion), then change the subject (talk about a hobby, ask about them). Just don't make up details or blather on about your vague job.

Sooner rather than later, be honest when this person becomes more significant to you. "I am a consultant, but in a field I can't really discuss for security reasons. I really like you and want to be as honest as I can, so it doesn't become a big lie later. Are you ok with this (etc)?"

This will be your only get-out-of-jail-free card. Lie about anything else - no matter how small - and they won't trust you again.
posted by crankyrogalsky at 9:54 AM on February 20, 2011

Assuming that it's "security clearance" stuff, as implied, and not "I'm a hit man for the Triads" stuff, then I'd lead with something absurd, and then back down.

"So, Bob, what do you do?"
"I'm a spy." (N.B. this only works if you are not actually a spy)
"Wait, what?"
"OK, I'm not a spy. But my work is ridiculously classified and incredibly boring, and I couldn't talk about it any less if I actually WAS a spy, so I just tell people I'm a spy so I can feel like an international man of mystery for about two seconds. Mostly I work with boring classified documents. I could tell you more, but then I'd have to kill you. . . possibly by boring you to death. But what I do for fun is juggle chainsaws!"

Feel free to substitute any other exciting hobby for "juggling chainsaws," of course. The idea is to first make it clear that your job is the dull kind of secret, not the exciting kind of secret, and then follow it up with something both exciting and not-secret.
posted by KathrynT at 10:18 AM on February 20, 2011 [10 favorites]

I might also add that the only jobs that carry with them the stipulation that "the greatest of discretion" is required are jobs as staffers at Windsor Castle and personal assistants for self-important media executives who need to ensure that their wives don't find out about their mistresses.

I'm now thinking the OP is writing a short story and trying to figure out how to get the terminology and plotting correct. Lots of people with security clearances don't work for the federal government directly but work for a consulting company or government contractor like Lockheed or Booz-Allen Hamilton or something like that. So they'd say "I am a security specialist at RAND, which is a government contractor." it's not that you can't talk about what job you have or what your specialty is. It's that you can't talk about things like the specific project you're working on or what government site you are working at.
posted by deanc at 11:45 AM on February 20, 2011

There is a well done scene in Syriana where George Clooney's character has a similar conversation with his son.
posted by rr at 11:59 AM on February 20, 2011

The friend I mentioned above definitely has a job where she can't tell us exactly who she works for or really anything else about what she does. According to her, she works for a "government contractor", and she quickly changes the subject from there. So, yeah, it is entirely possible that OP really can't talk about what he or she does. FWIW, I also know other people who do what she supposedly does who can talk about things a little more specifically. So both options exist.
posted by Sara C. at 12:23 PM on February 20, 2011

Being able to say "My family doesn't know any specifics either, they don't have the clearance and they know I can't tell them" is important, because otherwise she will assume that you don't trust her very much or you are hiding something from her or that it's otherwise about her - and that's the end of everything right there.

Depending on the situation, a card that it might even be worth having in reserve is being able to offer her a call to your family right then on the spot and she can your mom what you do for a living. (Assuming your mom would make a good impression)
posted by -harlequin- at 12:23 PM on February 20, 2011

I had a therapist tell me once she never discussed her clients with anyone -- not with details fudged, not years after they stopped being her clients, not as an anonymous anecdote--zero zip nothing. Not even about non-private details, like 'Oh, I have a client who bought a Volkswagen. I was nothing but a headache.' 'I had a client twenty years ago who was allergic to chocolate.' Nothing. (She wasn't telling me this to reassure me or anything, I actually wouldn't have cared if she did discuss me as long as she wasn't giving my full name and street address).

She said it was interesting because it forced her to become a person who can talk about things other than her work.

In any case, your job sounds like some top secret voodoo but you're not alone in the world of top secret voodoo and like everyone else you just need to find someone who understands your particular challenge.

Talking openly about the challenges of having things to talk about that aren't related to work would probably be refreshing and useful. Maybe you will discover shared passion for opera or, I don't know, ant farms.

You're not alone in this challenge and you can find someone who can work through it with you -- ideally, it's a shared challenge, in a good relationship.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 4:10 PM on February 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

"This is going to sound a little nuts, but I'm actually not allowed to talk about my job. Like, ever. It's cool though, it's just work. You ready to order? I'll flag the waiter."
posted by functionequalsform at 8:04 PM on February 20, 2011

The friend I mentioned above definitely has a job where she can't tell us exactly who she works for or really anything else about what she does. ... FWIW, I also know other people who do what she supposedly does who can talk about things a little more specifically. So both options exist.

I think that individuals have varying personal interpretations of what they're comfortable with in terms of their clearances. I know a guy with a TS/SCI who avoids going to the Russian Orthodox Church his wife joined because he feels that being in contact with foreign citizens who attend will endanger his clearance. Others with the same clearance feel perfectly comfortable in those kinds of situations and use their best judgment with respect to what foreign contacts they feel necessary to report to their security officer. One set of your friends might not feel comfortable naming the specific contractor she's working for because she doesn't want to cross any lines inadvertently. Others may be comfortable talking about it because they trust themselves not to make any mistakes.

For example, I avoid talking about Wikileaks or the ethics of Wikileaks, because I'm just uncomfortable saying anything about it given that I work in an industry that deals with classified information. It's not that I'm not allowed to express an opinion, but I have to deal with my own personal comfort level.

My advice to the OP is to talk to his security officer. The security officer will likely provide information about what he can and get say about his job, even down to the level of specific phrases.
posted by deanc at 8:07 AM on February 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

I was always under the impression that "I work for the State Department" without further elaboration meant "I work for the CIA".
posted by electroboy at 11:54 AM on February 21, 2011

I dated a guy for several years who worked for Air Force Intelligence. He just explained, "Yeah, I can't talk about work because it's all classified information." And that was that. I was fine with it. If you do this whole song and dance about how your work is incredibly boring and technical, it either sounds like you can talk about it but think that she's too dumb to understand, or like it's a cheesy deflection technique for a James-Bond-esque lifestyle.

Just say that you have to deal with security clearance. Most people will get it and not give you a hard time.

My only other dating advice: if you end up in a situation where you are dealing with things that cause you psychological trauma, please talk to your supervisors and get some kind of in-house help, even if it's just talking to coworkers so that you can process the stuff you've seen. Seeing your partner suffer and not being able to even listen to them talk about it is heart-wrenching and can put a huge strain on a relationship.
posted by corey flood at 2:40 PM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

There are no fewer than three people in my semi-immediate family that I have known my whole life and do not know what they do. I will never know what they do or did for work. But that's OK because they're very interesting people! They have a lot going on outside of work and more than capable of carrying on a conversation. Be that person. They have vague answers ready for when a rude person they're just meeting won't let it drop. One of them says "Oh, something with computers. Very dull really. Let's talk about the game/show/dinner!" Another says, "Just office work, you know the drill."

Once it seems like a girl might be worth pursuing further than a few dates, say something very brief about it beyond that. Something like, "What I do for a living is just a job. Legally, I can't talk about it, and I don't want you to feel like I'm holding something back and not being forthcoming with you. It really is just the work portion of my life, which is by far not the most important." and be done with it.
posted by stoneweaver at 10:26 AM on February 22, 2011

A friend of mine's Dad apparently worked in a sensitive gov't position. Nobody talked about it. Fast-forward a dozen years when I was giving a presentation on some products to some people in a gov't facility. You can't imagine the 'oh shit' look on the guy's face when he came into the room for the demo. "Secret" is important, no doubt, but sometimes things seem a bit overly dramatic.

I'm with the folks that suggest discussing it with your security or HR personnel. Better to know ahead of time what is or isn't considered acceptable.
posted by wkearney99 at 5:57 AM on February 23, 2011

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