Sharing vs. Privacy: Showdown
October 16, 2012 8:32 AM   Subscribe

How much should you expect to share in a relationship?

Hello. First time poster here. You are all so wise I could keep quiet no longer.

I grew up in a pretty healthy environment. Had a great girlfriend for a few years as a late teenager/young adult; we probably learnt a lot from each other without really realising it. We shared a lot and I never really felt there was anything 'off limits' which she wouldn't tell or I couldn't ask.

Skip forward nine (solitary, single) years (I'm 27) and I again have a wonderful girlfriend of nine months - although this is a different kettle of fish altogether. She is huge talker, and it's all interesting and intelligent - she's not a witterer. Conversely, she's huge on privacy, something which slowly became apparent through little things like her keeping a list on her phone of songs she means to find online. This list is totally off-limits and under no circumstances can I know its contents. That seemed bizarre initially but is now fine as I know these little things can act as bellwethers for her views on sharing and privacy more generally.

Problem is, I always imagined a 'successful' relationship as one where two people completely open up to one another. We've spoken about this. She regards her personal space and privacy as sacred. She's been through some difficult things, including an extremely violent rape and resultant mental illness, which are naturally difficult for her to talk about. [As an aside, this has been tricky for me as I want to talk to somebody about it just to air the thing, but I don't want to bring it up with her and she's asked me not to tell anyone, so I pretty much carry it around in my head the whole time, which surely isn't healthy.]

I get that people have different ways and speeds of unfolding to would-be partners. I am pretty cagey - for longer than I need to be perhaps - and then I let my guard down completely. She is very open about some things (she asked how many people I'd slept with after 6 weeks or so - way too early for me, and something I'm still struggling with slightly) but at other times I get a really strong feeling that there are things going on in there which she just won't talk to me about.

I think at least to some extent my confusion is owing to a lack of experience in more mature (i.e. post-teenage) relationships, but has anyone else been in a similar situation? Is it simply that couples find what's right for them? The intimacy of sharing everything with someone means a lot to me. Should I look elsewhere for someone that can give me that? Or should I accept that (maybe in part due to her past problems) she may never fully open up? Is that need to share everything something which other people simply don't get? Is it something to do with power dynamics in the relationship? Am I being controlling?

As you can see, this breeds a lot of questions, and I'd be very interested to hear other people's takes on this and how much that sense of closeness means to others.

Thanks in advance.
posted by fishingforthewhale to Human Relations (49 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I can't imagine not being entirely open and honest with my wife. If she had boundaries like your girlfriend's while we were dating, we would not have lasted.

I would not intentionally read her email, or browse her phone's contents, but if it were to happen, I would not expect her to be upset. Vice versa, as well. We're a team, and there are no off-limits or unmentionable topics, and no secrets.
posted by ellF at 8:36 AM on October 16, 2012 [11 favorites]

Have you had a conversation about privacy vs. openness with her? That would be the first step.

I'm an extremely private person, and even if I feel completely comfortable with someone, I keep some things to myself and always will. Then again, I'll give you the keys to my house or my car without hesitation, because "things" (in my mind) aren't important at all. My boyfriend of 3 months is just about the exact opposite...he'll let me use his iPad or phone without any hesitation, but I'm not invited to be anywhere in his apartment without him, and that's fine by me.

People have different levels of comfort for different situations. If that's a dealbreaker, then that's okay, but you have to know it. If not, then find a compromise...but you have to talk about whatever that decision is first.
posted by xingcat at 8:37 AM on October 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think having areas of personal privacy is definitely appropriate, and I find it to be indispensable myself. Not because I have anything to hide, but because I need space that is mine to feel comfortable in life. It has nothing to do with how much I do or do not like other people.

You have to decide if this works for you in a relationship. I would encourage you to think, though, about whether your need to know is really about genuine intimacy with someone else, or your own insecurities about lack of information. I'm not saying that there are any insecurities, but if something like this really bothers someone, I often ask why, in light of the fact that having areas of privacy on some level is normal, and arguably even healthy. There are times, though, in which excessive privacy might be a problem. So of course that would need to factor into all of this, as well.
posted by SpacemanStix at 8:38 AM on October 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

It's not a question of a sum total amount or a percentage. Clearly, from your question, you both have different things you regard as private. Those things are either compatible or not, and the line of compatibility is going to be different for each pairing of humans. Some novelists, for example, will not let a partner read a work in progress; some have their partner as their first reader; some won't let their partner read a line until it's been through the hands of their editor. There is no one way to do it, and how you do it isn't a signal for how much you love or trust. But they way two people do it needs to be okay with each party.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:45 AM on October 16, 2012 [15 favorites]

"Always keep 10% for yourself."

There are some things that are verbotten keeping hidden from a partner. Finances, STD status and other illnesses. Opening up about anything else is someone's perogative. It might be they will tell you in time, or they may never tell you. Details of their childhood, the dynamics of past relationships, the sex with former lovers, friends that broke their heart, things that move them deeply. These are all wonderful ways to get to know a partner, but not required to get to know someone. You may find these things out in time. In fact, I'd say it's better that way.

If you push it, she'll close up more. If you respect her boundaries for privacy, chances are she will open up to you.
posted by peacrow at 8:48 AM on October 16, 2012 [19 favorites]

Why would you need to have access to a list of songs she wants to look up online? You're being controlling. Please respect her boundaries.
posted by milk white peacock at 8:50 AM on October 16, 2012 [17 favorites]

It is good that the account you used to post this has no history here; that made me feel slightly less creeped out that you were posting on the internet things your girlfriend asked you not to tell anyone.

But yes, this is something that couples work out together and every relationship works it out differently.

And one way things are worked out is by telling each other things, sharing things and seeing how the other responds.

If you laugh at or make fun of your partner's secrets, badger her for more information about everything, tell her secrets to your friends or post them on the internet... she may well not want to share more. But if you are supportive and encouraging, respectful and thoughtful she may feel comfortable sharing more, talking about more things.
posted by mountmccabe at 8:52 AM on October 16, 2012 [7 favorites]

I think having some things that remain personal is fine, with the caveat that these be things that your partner would not be shocked or upset about should s/he become aware of them. For example, I am weirdly territorial about my computer. I don't like my wife using my laptop (even though I occasionally use hers and she has no issues with this), but I don't have anything on there that I don't want her to see. I think that's fine. If I didn't like her going on my computer because I was afraid that she'd discover that I was being unfaithful or something, that would be a matter of secrecy and dishonesty, rather than a simple matter of privacy. The distinction between preferring to keep some things private vs. keeping secrets (or lies) is key, I think.

That said, if you're with someone who is so private that you are having a difficult time getting to know and/or trust them, that is problematic. Even if the person in question has perfectly good reasons for being private (and it sounds like your girlfriend has suffered some pretty serious trauma that might make it difficult for her to open up to people), a relationship can only last so long before both sides need to either be open and honest with one another or break up.

Try having a conversation with her about privacy vs. openness, as suggested above, and see where that leads you.

As a side note, you mentioned that you want to tell someone about the rape and mental illness so that you can, essentially, get it off your chest and deal with it mentally. Talking to your girlfriend or a friend is probably not appropriate. Speaking to a therapist may help.
posted by asnider at 8:52 AM on October 16, 2012 [7 favorites]

Regarding your aside, a therapist is a really good place for you to try to get a handle on your girlfriend's past experiences. It's quite reasonable for her to ask you to keep this secret and also not to talk to her about it unless she specifically wants to, as any discussion will be an emotional minefield for her and potentially very upsetting. But you need to talk to someone, so consider talking to a therapist.

Regarding the privacy things, what matters is not specific information sharing but connection between two people. If one partner is hiding behind their walls and not letting the other in, then the deep connection won't happen. I would therefore frame it not so much as sharing and privacy, but about connections. Do you feel a connection with your girlfriend, or are you two still somehow at arm's length?
posted by anybodys at 8:53 AM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: When you get older, you have a more fully-formed personality and thus a lot more boundaries and places you want to protect about yourself, rather than viewing your entire being as a "joint project" between you and some other person. Plenty of couples have joint e-mail accounts, and this would drive me crazy. An old girlfriend of mine used to ask me to listen to her voice mails and ask me to comment about their contents, and this made me extremely uncomfortable, because I was being asked to listen in on a communication that the sender thought was between her and my girlfriend.

What you need to realize is that while your SO might have certain obligations to be open with you, she also has obligations to maintain private confidences with others. And certain things about herself she doesn't necessarily want to share because she doesn't feel it's worth rehashing with you.

I know 9 months seems like a long time, but this is still relatively new in the sense that she doesn't necessarily want or need to leave her life and her past totally open if it's not immediately pertinent to the relationship.
posted by deanc at 8:54 AM on October 16, 2012 [14 favorites]

I think a lot of the comments already given are pretty good so far, so I'll just comment on one thing - if you do indeed feel the need to discuss her rape with someone because you cannot keep it in any longer, please do it with someone that is completely unassociated with your social circles in any way. A therapist, perhaps.
posted by cristinacristinacristina at 8:57 AM on October 16, 2012 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Why would you need to have access to a list of songs she wants to look up online? You're being controlling.

Controlling would be him saying "I don't understand why she got upset when I demanded to see the song list."

OP is confused about openness/privacy levels -- not demanding she share.
posted by DoubleLune at 8:58 AM on October 16, 2012 [25 favorites]

Got into a committed LTR, and for a while we shared the main home computer. Then she wasn't comfortable with that. Fine, I got a laptop. But I gave her my email password, because why not? She wanted to hear about my romantic history. I didn't want to hear (any more than I had already) about hers, so she stopped sharing. We just tried to make each other happy by doing what we could do.
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:07 AM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I thinks certain amount of absolute privacy is normal. I live with my girlfriend, and she has a box of old journals that are 100% off-limits to me.

I think that part of what's prompting your question is that a list of songs to look up online is a really weird thing to want to keep private. I think it's her right, and you should respect it, but I will also reassure you that you're not crazy or controlling here. So I guess my answer is that this isn't bad, or a problem, but it is a little odd. That's ok though, we're all a little odd.
posted by Ragged Richard at 9:14 AM on October 16, 2012 [10 favorites]

Best answer: I definitely think that there is an acceptable level of total privacy in a relationship, and it's not clear to me that what your girlfriend is asking would exceed that level (to me). However, I think it's a good idea to look at this not as a situation or series of situations wherein she is keeping things from you. IME I would categorize this as an attempt by her to control her environment as much as possible, which is a really 100% normal reaction to having been the victim of a violent crime.

Or should I accept that (maybe in part due to her past problems) she may never fully open up?

It's possible, yes. You need to decide if this is going to be a deal-breaker for you.
posted by elizardbits at 9:22 AM on October 16, 2012 [4 favorites]

I have stuff I'm super-protective of in the way you have described (in fact, at one point there was specifically a list of songs I wanted to look up). It's not exactly about privacy so much as a really low tolerance for embarrassment, which is not quite the same thing.

There are things I would far rather my husband not know or pretend not to know, not because my doofy stuff is going to hurt him in any way but because I need some dignity in the world. And I need to know that I'm with someone who believes there is value in that. He would never read any of my fiction works-in-progress without my permission - because that shit is cringey, yo, until it's ready for first eyeballs - but would stop anything he's doing to read something I asked him to and would treat it with respect.

We don't have one of those tease/poke relationships, we both hate that shit, so over time we've come to understand that our doofiness is pretty safe and have opened way up with it. Because of our ebooks and audiobooks, he uses my Amazon account, which I think might have killed me totally dead of mortification ten years ago. I might as well get a tattoo for a wedding band at this point.

But the emphasis is on time. Nine months is generally the first reassessment point in a relationship; y'all don't know each other and you have almost no history yet. She doesn't know if you're going to make fun of her for her dumb songs. Maybe she doesn't want you to acknowledge that she poops. Maybe boundaries make her world a safer healthier place. If you can't live with that, if you're a poop-talker and everything-sharer and that's what constitutes appropriate boundaries that make your world a safer healthier place...maybe this is a bad fit.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:25 AM on October 16, 2012 [48 favorites]

I'm fairly certain the OP is not the one being controlling here.

No one is being controlling. It would be nice if we didn't try to pathologize every human interaction.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 9:32 AM on October 16, 2012 [27 favorites]

Sounds like she has issues with trust, and you have issues with not being trusted. Is that the end of the world? It is not. But it sounds like she just works in a different way from you, and you need to be okay with that if you want this relationship to pan out long-term. By that, I mean it might be a good time to ask yourself if you'd be okay if this situation did not change much.

I have a really, really, really hard time trusting other people and opening up to them on an especially deep level. I basically have a system of things I will and won't trust other people to be told. To an outsider, these things might seem arbitrary or stupid, but they're mine and they're how I maintain the feeling that I'm not putting my heart in danger. Having control over what's mine, you might say.

The thing about the kind of experience that gives a person trust issues is that it can also prevent that person from explaining what happened and how deep it cut. Maybe people have treated her shitty before. Maybe, in addition to all the other stuff she's gone through, she's been made fun of for her musical tastes and just doesn't want to deal with the risk. No way of knowing.

The best you can do is not make her feel like her this is an issue. If you've been asking her about opening up to you more, then stop. I know that's not fair and probably it'll make you feel like you're being asked to put up with a lot, but if this is going to change - and I'm not guaranteeing that it will - it won't happen until she can genuinely relax around you.


Is it simply that couples find what's right for them?

Yes. If their dynamic is healthy, they'll find it together, as a team.

The intimacy of sharing everything with someone means a lot to me. Should I look elsewhere for someone that can give me that?

If that's a dealbreaker for you, then yes.

Or should I accept that (maybe in part due to her past problems) she may never fully open up?

Yes, you should, and you should then decide what that would mean for your relationship. Again, if this is something you know you need, then bounce. It'll suck but it'll be better in the long run.

Is that need to share everything something which other people simply don't get?

Everyone's different. There's really no better answer than that.

Is it something to do with power dynamics in the relationship?

It can be. I have no idea if it is in your case. I'd say that you could do worse than to analyze these feelings when they come up, and see what it is about them that's bothering you. Honestly it just sounds like you're used to a certain level of sharing and the privacy she demands is a little outside of what you're accustomed to. Only you can say whether or not that's workable for you in the long run.

Am I being controlling?

Whether you're being controlling or not is more an issue of how you're going about making your needs known, and I haven't seen anything in your post that tells me one way or the other. The best thing you can do, like I say, is just relax and help her feel relaxed.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 9:40 AM on October 16, 2012 [4 favorites]

She's been through some difficult things, including an extremely violent rape and resultant mental illness...

This is key. She's had her boundaries violently and intimately smashed, so she is understandably going to be protective of her space. You have to respect that.

That doesn't mean you have to stay in this relationship if you find that the boundaries she's set are not what you want and expect in a relationship. It's ok to move on.

But first, y'all should try to talk about this. She may not want to and that's fine, but you should at least try and bring it up.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:43 AM on October 16, 2012 [7 favorites]

You've got some really good advice upthread, so I'll just address one thing that really jumped out at me:

She's been through some difficult things, including an extremely violent rape and resultant mental illness, which are naturally difficult for her to talk about. [As an aside, this has been tricky for me as I want to talk to somebody about it just to air the thing, but I don't want to bring it up with her and she's asked me not to tell anyone, so I pretty much carry it around in my head the whole time, which surely isn't healthy.]

You do not get to complain about how not talking about her rape and mental illness with other people is unhealthy for you, sorry. She was open with you by telling you about it, and it is not unreasonable in any way for her to not want you to talk to people about it.

Despite what other things she's keeping private, this is an intimate thing she's shared with you, and you must respect that.
posted by Specklet at 9:52 AM on October 16, 2012 [9 favorites]

I seem to recall that the most important predictor of relationship happiness is that each person have similar levels of self-disclosure that they think is appropriate. So two total-sharers can be happy, or two very private people, but it's going to be harder if there's one person who really doesn't like to talk about their Feelings and one person who wants to lay it all out. If "sharing everything" is really important to you, it's important to you and that's your relationship style.

That said, it sounds to me like she actually has shared a lot of important and very personal stuff with you, so I think that it's much less that she's putting up a brick wall of privacy and more about not wanting to share certain things that she might find embarrassing at this point in your relationship. Maybe her last boyfriend made fun of her taste in music, or she doesn't want to expose that she's developed an interest in K-pop.

I've been with my husband for years, we have a very happy marriage, and I would still be utterly mortified if he saw the contents of my Amazon Cloud library, which is my repository of trash reading. On the other hand, I wouldn't really care that much if he read my email and he's welcome to use my phone/computer.

Edited to add: If you need to talk to someone to process your feelings about your girlfriend's sexual trauma, the only conceivably appropriate person to do that with would be your own therapist. I'm certainly not surprised that she would ask you not to, or that she doesn't want to be responsible for holding your hand through it herself.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 9:55 AM on October 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: You do not get to complain about how not talking about her rape and mental illness with other people is unhealthy for you, sorry.

If people are bothered by something, it's often good for them to be able to talk about it with someone. No one should be denied or looked down upon for seeking support, no matter the situation.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:57 AM on October 16, 2012 [18 favorites]

I am a very private person about some totally harmless things, especially my belongings and my ideas. I can see myself being overprotective of a list of songs, because aaagh what if someone makes fun of my fondness for Belinda Carlisle? (Or: what if that list of songs was right next to a deeply personal poem I'd written?) If someone flips through my sketchbook or rifles through the papers on my work desk without asking first, I have a minor fit. I tend to respect these boundaries in other people, even if they don't actually share them - for instance, I dislike helping people pack or clean, because that's their stuff and I don't feel right messing with their order. I don't have any weird pathology or traumatic events behind this, it's just the way some people are.

Some things shouldn't be kept secret in a relationship, namely anything that potentially has a direct effect on the other person (transmissible diseases, major spending decisions if you're in a shared-finance relationship, etc.) There are also personal things that could potentially harm the secret-keeper if kept quiet, but are still their secret to keep or tell as they wish (past abuse can fall into this category). And then there are the smaller, things that are just nobody else's beeswax.

Can you just ask her about this? Ask her what she prefers to keep to herself. It could be things like "don't read over my shoulder" or "ask me before you xyz." If she's keeping something private and you suspect it's something really minor, don't try to cajole her - it'll just put her on the defensive and make her feel awkward. And if she does share something personal, be appreciative and don't joke about it or say anything like "now why was that such a big deal?" If you can demonstrate that you respect her boundaries, she may trust you enough to start relaxing them. But her need for privacy is likely to be strong for her entire life. If that's a dealbreaker, so be it. But it's not abnormal.
posted by Metroid Baby at 10:01 AM on October 16, 2012

Also, she's asked you not to tell anyone about her rape and subsequent emotional issues. And yet here you are, discussing them with us. You say you want 100% sharing and openness in this relationship; are you going to share this question with her?
posted by elizardbits at 10:19 AM on October 16, 2012 [15 favorites]

She is huge talker, and it's all interesting and intelligent - she's not a witterer. Conversely, she's huge on privacy,

Consider that these things may in fact be directly related. Thoughts exist in your head before you tell them to anyone. Maybe you like to tell someone all of your thoughts at the very minute they occur to you half-formed, but maybe she likes to wait a while, process them, see how she really feels about them, and then tell people. Maybe that's why she seems interesting and intelligent to you, and why you enjoy talking to her. A list of songs you're intending to look up is a half-formed thought. If she's like me, she's not hiding something about those songs from you. It's just that they're still a personal, internal thought. It's very possible that in a day or two she'd say something like "Oh do you remember that song...I thought of it the other day...I love it because...And then it made me think of another song..." Etc. But if you read all her lists (or know all her thoughts) before she's had time to get there, that might feel really weird to her. Like she's not entirely her own independent person anymore.

More generally, intimacy to me does not = sharing everything. Important things, yes. But not every thought right away. If you did that you'd essentially share a brain after a while, and that sounds deadly boring and relationship-killing to me. You don't want to keep secrets (unless they're about buying presents or something) but assuming you'd ideally be together for a very very long time, you need to have some stuff that's different/separate/surprising so you don't end up boring each other to tears. IMHO.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 10:33 AM on October 16, 2012 [5 favorites]

The National Sexual Assault Hotline and Online Hotline are confidential and available to friends, family members, and significant others of those who have been sexually assaulted. If you don't already have a therapist and just want information about being a good partner to an assault survivor or a place to "get it off your chest," those might be a better place to start.

I agree with others above that teenagers usually have much lower boundaries with each other in relationships than adults do. What you experienced as a teen is fairly normal for healthy teenage relationships; what your girlfriend is requesting sounds fairly normal for a healthy adult relationship, but it does sound like it's more toward one end (lots of privacy) of the spectrum than the middle -- and your ideal sounds like it's also on the healthy-relationship spectrum but more toward the other end (lots of openness). It doesn't sound like either of you are wrong or unhealthy, just different.
posted by jaguar at 10:39 AM on October 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

she asked how many people I'd slept with after 6 weeks or so - way too early for me, and something I'm still struggling with slightly

So you were not okay discussing THAT when she passed a threshold in which she wanted to know, and you want to hear the details of her violent rape because you have passed the threshold in which you wanted to know?

Slow down, listen, let the relationship unfold. Just like rape is exponentially more of a serious issue than number of sexual partners, its going to take that much more time and trust if she wants to let you in on it, if at all. Be emphatic to how she is feeling than instead of why you need to know for YOU. She may pick up on this issue being all about you and appropriately sealing you off from what for her, is HER thing, until you can understand that.

I think at least to some extent my confusion is owing to a lack of experience in more mature (i.e. post-teenage) relationships

I had that thought about this question before I even got to the end. People are much more complex as adults than teenagers. There is so much more there to either choose to share, or to keep to themselves as a fundamental, core part of their being, that dating someone for 9 months doesn't even come close to getting near. You have more layers, it takes longer to go deeper. Just enjoy and delight in even getting to see a small part of another person's soul, its rare, it really is, and you do have to earn it.
posted by cakebatter at 10:48 AM on October 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

I think every relationship is different, everyone should share the amount that they feel comfortable with. Like, my partner have lived together for years and probably know the other better than anyone at this point. But we've always had our own computers and we don't have each other's email passwords or anything. This isn't because either of us have anything to hide, we show each other emails all the time and would tell the other anything significant, it's just more that we naturally both want this space and feel more comfortable this way. I mean, he might borrow my computer and it's not like I have my email on lockdown so he would have the chance to see it then but he probably wouldn't go through it -- and vice versa. I might talk to him about writing ideas but he would never ask/I would never want him to read my notebooks.

Like, some people in the thread are talking about how sharing everything is a sign of trust, but not sharing everything is about trust too. It can be about not needing to know absolutely everything and still feeling safe with and close to someone.

I'm not saying one is superior to the other -- there's a spectrum of boundaries, they will probably naturally shift over time, everyone is going to have their own needs, but it doesn't strike me as abnormal for your GF to not want to tell you everything about everything, especially not at 9 months.
posted by SoftRain at 10:49 AM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Personally, the expectation of total openness in a relationship sounds over the top (though to each their own!) Like Lyn Never, there are things I prefer my partner not to know because I'm easily embarrassed; my "to listen" and "to read" books aren't full of anything that would horrify my lady but I'm very sensitive about being teased and my huge love of The Wheel of Time isn't something I want to be made fun of about. Now that she knows that and I know that she doesn't tease me about certain things I share a lot more.

You need to be clear with her in your actions that you won't judge her and she'll likely trust you more with the things that seem inconsequential, and that can take longer than nine months. Do you have relationships with friends and family that include a lot of back and forth ribbing? Are you sarcastic? I'm not saying that you are or that you can't be, but those things could delay her opening up to you. Talk this out with her and be clear that you need to know what's off limits and respect what she tells you even if it seems crazy. (Sounds like you're already doing this, since you let the song list on her phone go without making it a big thing; that's great.)

In addition, I read a comment by someone on a story on The Hairpin that said that if their SO wasn't comfortable going to the bathroom with the door open (or passing gas in front of them) then that would be a dealbreaker. It totally floored me to realize that people had such different ideas about privacy in relationships; I would never do my business in front of my partner barring medical emergencies (at least at this point) but to me that has nothing to do with the trust I place in her. Bottom line, people are different and no, it's not "normal" to expect total privacy, because I don't think that "normal" really exists, you need to figure out for yourself what you want; maybe in the end you do need total openness and that's fine but your girlfriend sounds fine too.

And I think there's a total difference in not talking about her assault when it comes to privacy. My partner doesn't know the details of my past abuse and I don't talk to her about it for different reasons then why I like to keep my makeup routine private. One of them is trivial and the other one is deeply important to me. What is important to my partner is that I told her anything at all and trust her to wait until, if ever, I want to say more. If she couldn't handle not knowing it would be a dealbreaker for me, and you should be upfront with your girlfriend if not knowing isn't something you can handle—though you may come to accept it, if you can't you two are incompatible. Good luck!
posted by thesocietyfor at 10:52 AM on October 16, 2012

I am a secret keeper. My wife is not.

What's important is that the boundaries are very clear to those involved. Trust is not based on an endless list of exchanged facts.

What is on the table? What is not on the table?

As noted a lot above adult relationships have all kinds of boundaries teen-age relationships don't have: People have their own space. They see each other when they want, not whenever they can. They have their own friends, jobs, hobbies, pets etc.

I keep 'secrets' from my wife because I keep them from everyone, most of these are trivial nonsense that wouldn't matter to anyone, or important things people have told me in confidence. A few of them are the kind of tragedies that your partner struggles with that I don't want to inflict on those around me.

I do not find sharing these things cathartic or enlightening. My wife does, so she tells me these things and they go right into my vault.

I don't keep anything from my wife that would be important for her to know And I know what is important because we talk about it. If she didn't like this arrangement we would have a deal-breaker on our hands.

You really just need to decide what is acceptable to you? what do you want? why do you want it? what is it worth?

As the wide variety up-thread indicates there isn't a right answer, just your answer.
posted by French Fry at 11:00 AM on October 16, 2012

Looking for some clarification here. Is she upset about you picking up her phone and looking at the list, or about you knowing what's on the list at all?

If it's the former, I think it's reasonable and understandable. If nothing else, you could stumble on her birthday/Christmas/gift list for you. She may also have conversations with friends or family about your relationship which are categorically none of your business.

If it's the latter, where you can't know and she won't discuss this list of songs (and you're not being condescending about her music choices) then I find that very odd. Especially in light of her wanting to know how many people you've slept with, which is kind of irrelevant if it's in any normal sort of range and you've disclosed any STDs.

Those are my personal views. However, everyone's relationship, boundaries and expectations are different, and you have to figure out what works for you.
posted by cnc at 11:06 AM on October 16, 2012

Forgot to add. The songs I listen to are TRASH. TR-AAAAA-SH.

What happens between me and my car stereo is sacred.

And lots of people have strong strong feelings about music and I have no interest in defending or discussing my music choices to those people. So as a safty net against that I just keep it private.
posted by French Fry at 11:13 AM on October 16, 2012 [7 favorites]

1. It's not crazy-pants for her not to want you to talk about HER experience with rape with your friends. As another sexual assault survivor, let me break this down for you:

a. You don't know which of your friends will be sympathetic. I certainly was shocked and hurt to discover which of my friends engage in casual victim blaming.

b. You don't know how others knowing about her rape will make her feel. Whether or not y'all stay together, you will not be able to untell the story of her rape. So if you tell others, you'll make it so that this incredibly painful, traumatizing event will feel like common knowledge.

c. She might not want to talk about it with other friends who may know her rapist, who may have known her during that time in her life (and consequently want her to absolve them of not knowing/deny that it happened based on who they knew her to be at that time, etc)

I'm hoping you can see that this is really a different sort of privacy issue than her not wanting you to futz about her phone. If you really want to talk about this with someone, call one of the sexual assault helplines listed above.

Re: other stuff
Dude, I'm the more private person in our relationship. Honestly, it's not because of my trust issues. It's because sometimes I don't want to talk to you about my shit. I have a really clearly defined sense of "not your business" and that includes both really personal things (like my journals) and really boring I'm-suspicious-that-you-care-that-I'm-not-telling-you things (like whether or not I've pre-ordered the new Alanis album)*. To me, some of that stuff is so stupid that it's private not because of taboo but just because it's not part of our shared sphere. It's part of my own little world of books, weird cooking obsessions, and habitus. I find constant inquiry into that sphere disruptive to my creativity, because I gotta rewind and explain shit and also because it's not something I'm not necessarily forming concrete thoughts about beyond "MINE" and "I LIKE THIS" and "OOOOH SHINY." It's frankly annoying.

*Not that Alanis is stupid. She is in fact amazeballs.
posted by spunweb at 11:53 AM on October 16, 2012 [6 favorites]

Yeah you just gotta find someone who you jive with. My last girlfriend sounds similar to your current one, with the abusive history and extreme secrecy over sometimes trivial things.... I thought it wasn't a big deal at first, but after dating for a year or so I'd realized that part of keeping secrets is also telling lies to cover those secrets, and spinning webs of lies to keep all the stories straight... eventually I wisened up to so many inconsistencies / obviously false facts that I felt disrespected in the relationship, and also I felt I couldn't trust anything she said. Thats the end of the slippery slope I rode down, your experience may vary.

Being in a new relationship in which we can be totally honest with each other (the only boundary was me telling her I didn't want to know how many dudes she had slept with) is so refreshing. I realized you can't always tell people what they want to hear, and our relationship is stronger because we tell the other person things even if it won't make them happy. We're happy and safe in knowing that no matter what the other is saying, at least its honest (even if its bad).
posted by el_yucateco at 11:55 AM on October 16, 2012 [4 favorites]

Generally speaking, husband and I are open with each other.

That being said, I still feel very anxious when he's on my phone or computer. It's not that I have anything to hide, but it just makes me feel vulnerable (in a bad way), like he can see what I'm thinking. I'm also hyper private about my notes to self, even if it's a list of, say, songs I'd like to look up. I usually write notes to free brain space, so someone looking at my notes sometimes feels like someone looking into my brain. Icky. Don't press the issue.
posted by murfed13 at 11:56 AM on October 16, 2012 [7 favorites]

Part of my comment got cut off. Basically:

My husband knows now not to interrupt me when I'm nerding about something when I am by myself, and I work on not prickling if he asks, because it's from a good place. However, we've been together about 5 years, and have had time to learn that trusting someone isn't the same as being open with them. Look at Kelso and Jackie from That 70's Show; he's very open about being a dick, but there's no trust between them because he's a dick.

I think the big thing that got us to this point, where my husband is not feeling some kind of way about me not being "open" was him realizing that I'm an honest person, though a private one; there's nothing salacious about my secrets, just things that are goofy and MINE.
posted by spunweb at 12:02 PM on October 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Relationships are dynamic processes and what is revealed/concealed depends a lot on where you are in the process.

You are different people after 10 years that after 10 months, though you are also different people after 10 months than 10 minutes.

Initially, there's not even a way to know what's being concealed, since it takes a long time to expose yourselves to each other. It can't be rushed.

You can set the rules for your relationship, just like the rest of us do. There is no norm. What comforts you and are you getting it? If not, can you adjust? Is it a show stopper? If it is, stop the show or change the rules.
posted by FauxScot at 12:18 PM on October 16, 2012

as a sexual abuse/assault survivor - it's hard to be a partner to someone who has gone through that sort of trauma. there are these landmines everywhere and since it's not your brain, it can make you afraid to step anywhere. there's also probably a mountain of coping mechanisms, nothing harmful or bad, but still strange to outsiders. "you can't talk to anyone ever, including me" seems like a harsh line to draw, and maybe not something she's really considered from the other side. if this is going to be a long term relationship, you might need someone to process with. a therapist or one of the support hotlines are awesome for that. friends, family, the internet - those are far less awesome places to go for support. regardless, if openness is what you're looking for, you should discuss it with her - not in a "lets talk about your abuse" sort of way but more of a "i have some things i need to process and i realize that isn't your burden so i think i'm going to go for a session or 5 with a therapist."

also - her privacy concerns might be related to her rape, but heed the lesson people are teaching in here - all people are different. for my survival i need more openness, more sharing, no digital areas that are off limits. i've heard some people talk about how they wouldn't date survivors because they're always __________. what ever they put in the blank is probably based on a few people they know but certainly doesn't encompass everyone.
posted by nadawi at 12:32 PM on October 16, 2012

If people are bothered by something, it's often good for them to be able to talk about it with someone. No one should be denied or looked down upon for seeking support, no matter the situation.

OP, I'm sorry: I didn't mean to insinuate that you should feel badly for seeking support. I refer you to jaguar's response, with links to the National Sexual Assault Hotline.
posted by Specklet at 1:00 PM on October 16, 2012

We tend to discuss everything pretty openly. But that fact makes the occasional "I don't want to talk about that" carry some weight. And we definitely have friends, activities, correspondences and documents we keep to ourselves, even after a decade. Everyone has an inner life.
posted by ead at 1:16 PM on October 16, 2012

I think to some extent you are confusing privacy and secrecy.

It's fine for anyone to keep anything private that does not affect anyone other than themselves. This would include things like the list of songs she wants to download, old journals, the number of people you've slept with, the experience of a violent crime against your person. It's not okay for anyone to keep something secret that affects the person they are hiding the information from. This would include things like STDs, debt that affects both people, children from a previous marriage, secret online girlfriends and that sort of thing. I have a policy of zero secrets in my significant relationship, but plenty of privacy.

I think you are being a little strangely controlling regarding what she keeps private - you want access to her song list, you feel that her rape is something you need to discuss with other people. I also think that she may be a little overprotective of her privacy, but it's possible (maybe even likely) that she has had her privacy violated too much in the past. Give her time to trust you more and back off in the meantime.

(FWIW, I had a terrible time trusting my exes around my stuff, like my phone, even when I didn't have anything to hide - because the few times they were given the chance, they snooped. My husband has never displayed any interest in anything I haven't offered to show him, and so I am totally fine giving him my email password, leaving my journal out, sharing my phone with him. Sometimes when people are cagey around you, you might be giving off a snoopy vibe. Be honest - are you doing that?)
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 3:06 PM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: i really think people are off base with the controlling stuff. he didn't demand to see the songs, he said it was confusing at first but now realizes it's part of her overall need for privacy. being confused about feelings related to an intimate partner's history of rape is also not controlling. her trauma is obviously top priority in the topic, but it can be really difficult to deal with feelings of helplessness as the partner, especially if the partner is on their second serious relationship with a decade of space in between.
posted by nadawi at 3:26 PM on October 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Here's my take: I too haaaaaaaaaaaate my partner being on my computer, reading my notes, that sort of thing. It's just too raw. I'm also a survivor of rape and it took a long time to talk to him about it and there are things that I have not discussed with him (but have with others) because it isn't something I want to share with the person I have sex with. Each telling is a reopening of the wound and each time I become excruciatingly aware of all the things I've said and replay them until I can make myself forget the exact words and phrases. This happens every time I talk about it (details or not) and I would be devastated if my partner not only told someone else (that I hadn't disclosed to) and then I had to have the conversation again, without preparation, because they were a decent person and wanted to tell me that they're sorry, or whatever.

And that is a HUGE assumption, given the reactions of various people to stories like mine that are about other women. That said, I have given my partner leave to talk to his brother because I have disclosed to him - not by choice, by one of the aforementioned friends being a fucking insensitive dick and disclosing without permission or warning. I know my partner needs to process parts of my story and his place in it. I don't want that coming at the expense of my healing and our relationship. A therapist/hotline is a much better idea than random people because they are probably going to have helpful ideas for you to help her, and yourself, rather than the emotional fallout of disclosure.

It took me probably 8 years to talk to some people (close friends) about it because their reaction can affect me. When I disclose I do NOT want to spend a night calming someone's violent tendencies (which is why it's ultimately easier that my brother-in-law found out through a friend - he did all that processing away from me), or suicidal thoughts, or anything. But I have to be prepared for that, have to be in a place where that is not going to provoke a death spiral. I'm in a place where I can talk about it without always wanting to die, but it's been nearly 11 years since it happened. Eleven years of therapy and meds to get to here.

PTSD (which is what I'm assuming the mental illness was) can manifest in odd ways and you can't always predict or understand the triggers. I hate summer, the smell of certain flowers, exposed brick walls, feeling like I can't breathe and a whole bunch of things. It isn't that they trigger me (usually) but that with those things around I am on edge and if I'm also getting my boundaries pushed it can end badly. Being ambushed with the boundary pushing can end badly too - part of that is from the initial trauma, but part of it is how it feels to live as a survivor. Because people tell your story (even if it happened to someone else, it can feel like your story) and judge and blame and it feels like the whole world is pushing at you.

I don't want my partner (married 6 years, together 9, living together 10) to read my notes to myself, or my therapy things, or even my blog. Hell, I don't really want him reading my comments on here (I don't 'hide' but I don't run in the same online circles either). It isn't about secrecy, just that it's a level of exposure I don't want with anyone who knows me IRL.
posted by geek anachronism at 4:01 PM on October 16, 2012 [8 favorites]

No whale here, just more fish.

The bottom line is, given the statistical odds, one of you is more private and one of you is less private. It would have been hard for you to be exactly equal. This means that you get to be the leader in opening up! (Which it sounds like maybe your last girlfriend was for you).

Keeping things under wraps may be a habit for your partner. She may have grown up with intrusive siblings who read her diary or something. Or the trust issues (her trust being egregiously violated in the past, by her assault) may have something to do with her desire share a little bit at a time. Too much sharing sometimes carries the risk of being misunderstood.

But I would not say there is an implicit conflict here or a clash large enough to wreck the relationship. Those who said this is not a "sign" of unhealthiness or something pathological in the relationship were on to something. Maybe this iphone has a password on it. Maybe the next one she gets won't. But clearly she trusted you enough to share a lot about herself and her past with you. Maybe other will have some advice about how to manage the emotion around that. (Maybe you could make this another question)?

My sense would be don't worry too much about being "shut out," even if it seems so. All people learn. One person modeling trust and openness can make the other person more likely to give it a shot. If you can resist trying to open "pandora's box," maybe in time this will start to happen.
posted by kettleoffish at 4:53 PM on October 16, 2012

The thing about the kind of experience that gives a person trust issues is that it can also prevent that person from explaining what happened and how deep it cut. Maybe people have treated her shitty before. Maybe, in addition to all the other stuff she's gone through, she's been made fun of for her musical tastes and just doesn't want to deal with the risk. No way of knowing.

This line struck me. I'm not a rape/physical abuse survivor but am a survivor of emotional abuse, and I am pretty private about a lot of things that probably seem trivial and stupid, and while I can totally see how someone might think it would be weird to not want her boyfriend to know a list of songs, it's also not easy to articulate why it might make her uncomfortable to share that with anyone. One of the reasons I think it is difficult to articulate is because a lot of people do not understand (and in many cases do not make an attempt to understand) why it would make someone uncomfortable to share something as seemingly benign as a list of songs. You sound like a great partner who is making an attempt to understand.

I used to volunteer for a rape crisis hotline and you might consider giving a hotline a call because they are trained to help loved ones deal with what the person is going through as well. Your feelings are totally valid and I think it's awesome that you care enough to try to process this. If it turns out that you need more openness in a relationship, that is okay too!
posted by fromageball at 5:11 PM on October 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: A blizzard of insight! Thank you all so much - some really interesting responses and questions.

Things I found valuable, in no particular order: asking myself why I have placed so much significance on sharing so much; how so few of you feel comfortable sharing everything; how widely the type of things people like to keep private seems to vary; the difference between privacy and secrecy; the resources available for relatives/partners of those who've suffered abuse; the sharing more-sharing less spectrum; the difference between teenage and adult personalities and relationships; how there are things I won't tell her (she doesn't know about this post, for instance).

Answering honestly, I think there are a number of things on my side that I need to take another look at. I have always been pretty insecure and anxious and I think wanting to know (and perhaps therefore feel a certain amount of control over) everything is a way of dealing with difficult or uncertain situations.

Secondly, I am the type mentally to go around in circles, creating all kinds of horror scenarios. In my experience, when I finally find out the truth about whatever it is I've been worrying about, it's almost invariably nowhere near so dramatic. This could probably be worked on.

Thanks once more for your wonderful insights.
posted by fishingforthewhale at 8:15 AM on October 17, 2012 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I am not a survivor and I definitely need my own space. I need the sense that I can be completely open and creative when I'm alone without thinking about who might see what. I would never give my boyfriend my computer or e-mail passwords-- what if I ordered him a surprise birthday gift and he saw the confirmation e-mail? What if I was struggling with something emotionally and wrote a letter to myself, and he opened it and saw a bunch of raw feelings that hurt him for months? What if I'm working through something for a poem or writing project and it's partially based in reality and he ends up drawing strange conclusions about what I think which are never addressed? What if there is something I'd like to share in a careful way, and he suddenly knows way more than either of us is comfortable with?

Basically none of these things are "secrets" I need to keep, no sneaking around, nothing dishonorable. But they are things that could throw off the equilibrium of a relationship for a long time, or even just spoil something pleasant, and I don't want to have a cramped, claustrophobic feeling when I'm alone that I have to consider everything through the filter of how my SO would see it. I love him dearly, but it's the distance of two private souls that makes our love seem so real to me.

Plus, I don't think it's appropriate for my SO to see all my correspondence between me and others, because it's breaking trust with those others. I certainly tell him things I talk about with other people, but it seems wrong for him to see their e-mails, which I assume they send with the idea that they're for my eyes only.

Anyway, I just thought I'd chime in. I've had no major traumas in my past; I just enjoy my privacy. (Also, I could see eventually dissolving most of these boundaries as I became deeply intimate with someone, but it would take closer to nine years than nine months to feel truly comfortable with that.)
posted by stoneandstar at 1:10 AM on October 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

Oh, and as for something like a song list, I would feel similarly. Sometimes it's just awkward to explain why something resonates with you and you want to be able to privately mull over your feelings before sharing them with someone else. I'm a slow processor of my emotions (well, wallower) and I just appreciate some private time before I expose my thoughts or vulnerabilities to others.
posted by stoneandstar at 1:12 AM on October 22, 2012

Response by poster: Thank you all again. We have actually parted company now, at least in part because of this issue. I'm a little sad I didn't address this earlier - I understand the privacy thing much better now and so perhaps dealing with it a few months back would've kept the relationship alive a little longer.

Thanks everyone.
posted by fishingforthewhale at 2:26 AM on October 23, 2012

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