When Does Sharing Too Much With Your Partner Start Hurting Your Sense Of Self?
Common wisdom around relationships holds that we should always be totally transparent with our partners. A good relationship is based on microscopic honesty, they say.
But that's not always true. In fact, sometimes we can mix up the idea of "being authentic" with oversharing. For example, when I did an initial intake with a couple recently, I asked them to tell me how they'd met. One of the partners, a man, jumped in quickly saying, "It wasn't love at first sight. I didn't find Amy attractive in the beginning; in fact, my roommate didn't believe I was dating someone as, you know, ordinary-looking."
As Amy squirmed in embarrassment and hurt, he dug himself a deeper hole as he went on: "I mean, she was funny and smart and had inner beauty, which made up for it."
The "it" hung in the room, like silent thunder. He finished off with "Just being honest."
Or for another example, take a couple I know who has only one email address between the two of them; if I write one person, I write both. I once addressed one person, making it clear that the message was just for her, and her partner responded as though they are the same person.
Clearly, there are times when sharing too much could actually be hurting your independence and sense of self—or worse, hurting your partner.
Healthy boundaries are an essential part of any good relationship. While it's important to accept our differences as individuals and as couples, we need to ask ourselves: When does privacy become secret-keeping, and when does telling too much harm a relationship? Where is the line between honesty and TMI?
Our personal barometers of individual privacy are, of course, unique. Two people in one relationship may have very different views about what's OK to tell. Some individuals are very uncomfortable with self-disclosure and hold seemingly unimportant information close to their chest, as they would with a major secret. They see almost any question as invasive, even, "What did you eat for lunch?" Others tend to share anything and everything about themselves, even the most personal details, in casual conversation.
Sometimes I spend entire sessions with couples helping them see that differences are not wrong, that being in a relationship means learning to tolerate (and even accept) that we are not with our clone, even though our partner's view seems impossible to understand.
Here are some general suggestions to help you sort out this complicated issue:
1. It is essential to understand the difference between secrets and privacy.
Think of it this way: Privacy is a boundary around one's own thoughts, ideas, and past experiences that don't directly involve one's partner. A secret is something that is misleading in some way and intentionally kept hidden from them for fear of judgment or reprisal. It's something that would affect their well-being emotionally, spiritually, physically, or financially.
2. There is a very long continuum regarding what is considered "normal" within each relationship and for each individual.
Some partners readily agree on the line between secret and private. With other couples, it is an ongoing source of tension and distress. For them, it may continuously spawn conflict and trouble, and the two involved must find a way to accept their differences.
3. Private goes from harmless to harmful when your partner will be affected by what they don't know.
Some examples of this:
- Not paying bills, harboring financial debt they don't know about, or borrowing money without their knowledge.
- Work issues, such as knowing you might be losing your job or are considering a job change that will affect your shared lifestyle.
- Health issues that will affect them.
- Having a secret relationship or an affair.
Private issues that can probably be kept to yourself, unless you and your partner agree to share them, include:
- Past lovers, especially the great ones, and the magical times with someone else. Many relationship experts feel that the only topic to discuss in regard to past relationships are those related to health, although some people find stories about old lovers a turn-on. So unless you have a specific agreement to talk about this, you can feel free to stay away from it.
- Things that someone has confided only in you about. If your best friend tells you something in confidence and you tell your partner, it becomes gossip. "Honesty" to your partner doesn't necessarily give you the right to break confidentiality.
- Thinking their best friend or a business colleague is especially hot.
- Your secret complaint about something they cannot change about themselves: body hair, timid tendencies, or you wishing they had gotten their teeth straightened when they were a kid.
For most of us, there is a clear difference between privacy and secrets. But it is the gray area, that in-between line, that's complicated. How do you decide what to tell and what not to tell in that gray area?
Here are three questions you can ask when trying to decide whether you need to disclose information to your partner:
- How would you feel if your partner had a similar secret and didn't tell you?
- What would your motive be for sharing, and what would your reason be for not sharing? Are those reasons in line with your own set of values?
- Have you talked about how you each feel and think about privacy and secrecy? Can you talk about the information in mind without going into specifics so that you reach mutual agreement for where the lines should be drawn?
Privacy is essential for individuals who value knowing they have a right to their own thoughts and feelings. At the same time, trust is essential for a relationship to thrive, and secrets harm and sometimes destroy trust and even entire relationships. Make a point to discuss with your partner the difference between what you want to keep private and what you want to share with each other; this is a conversation that could save your relationship.
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Linda Carroll, M.S., LMFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist and board-certified life coach currently living in Oregon. She received her master's degree in counseling from Oregon State University and has practiced psychotherapy since 1981, specializing in couples and communication. She is the author of the highly acclaimed book Love Cycles: The Five Essential Stages of Lasting Love, which has been translated into four languages, and she regularly teaches relationship courses based on the Love Cycles method at wellness spa Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, Mexico. Her next book, Love Skills, will be available in February 2020.