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There is a big difference between privacy and secrecy. Privacy is when someone goes into the bathroom, locks the door, and comes out 5 minutes later. Everyone knows what you’re doing, you just did it with no eyes watching, and no trust is violated by what you did. In the United States, everyone has a right to privacy. On the other hand, secrecy is when someone goes into the bathroom, locks the door, and comes out 60 minutes later. “What were they doing for so long? What are they hiding?” Privacy is having a code lock on your phone and your spouse knows the code. Secrecy is having a code lock on your phone which nobody else but you knows, keeping the phone’s screen consistently hidden from everyone, and never leaving the phone out of your reach.
I have counseled many couples who struggle with issues of secrecy, and they typically tend to fall in one of two main categories: addictions or infidelity. With addictions, for example substance use disorders, there is secrecy hiding the substance or hiding the amount of substance used. People may hide drinking in discreet hiding places throughout the house, so wherever they find themselves they can catch a swig. People may hide how much they drink, drinking secretly before going out to drink with others so no one knows how much they really consumed. And, the addiction consumes a large part of one’s discretionary time, energy, and resources, leaving very little for their spouse or marriage. It’s the same regardless of the addiction, including gambling, spending, lying, working, golfing, consuming pornography, consuming social media, gaming, streaming, etc.
With infidelity, the secret is the affair: what is said with the affair partner, what is done with the affair partner, and how much time, money, and resources are spent on the affair partner. Dr. Shirley Glass in her seminal book on infidelity Not Just Friends (2002) likens a healthy marriage to a house wherein both partners are together inside the house looking out at the world and interacting with each other about whatever and whomever is outside their relationship. With infidelity, the betrayer and their affair partner are inside the house together looking out, while the betrayed spouse is on the outside of the house with no idea that they’re outside until the affair is found out. This is true both of long-term affairs and one-night stands. Secrecy pushes one spouse out of the marriage house, and they are replaced by another.
Such a violation of trust through addiction or infidelity can be experienced as a full-blown trauma. What the betrayed spouse thought they knew about their partner, about marriage, about themselves, about their own worth and value, about relationships, all of that has turned upside down. Marriage is about honoring and cherishing one’s partner through all sorts of pleasant and unpleasant circumstances, and about choosing one’s partner over all others. Both addiction and infidelity turn the tables so that one person honors and cherishes their own momentary wants at the expense of their partner’s needs, and they choose their addiction or their affair partner over their spouse. This shatters the spouse’s trust in the betraying partner, trust that they matter more to their spouse than someone or something else.
When trust has been violated, the betrayer must rebuild their trustworthiness. This is a long process. One way to begin rebuilding trust is to put aside one’s “right” to privacy for the sake of their betrayed partner’s fears and anxieties, and to ensure there are no more secrets being held without your partner’s knowledge. To begin trusting that they are their spouse’s #1 relationship, the betrayed partner must see a long-term pattern of their spouse putting them first, including being open and honest about all their other relationships, whether to a person or a pattern of addiction. After a few years of validated honesty, the betrayed spouse can begin to soften their anxieties and allow more privacy.
However, it is common for a betrayed spouse to continue to need random objective verification of their spouse’s honesty, loyalty, and protection of their relationship in regards to their interactions with others for many years to come.
If you or your spouse are struggling with trust issues and are working on the “long process” of reconciliation, I would love to come alongside this difficult journey with you. I have counseled many couples who have worked toward rebuilding trust as one recovers from their addiction or infidelity and the other recovers from the trauma of betrayal.