One of the most common tropes in the poly community is, “The three rules of polyamory are communicate, communicate, communicate.” Communication is the lifeblood of any healthy relationship, which is why we have not one but two chapters on communication in the book More Than Two.
There’s a place where this emphasis on communication can lead us down a dark path, though, and that’s when we mistake basic privacy for poor communication.
One of the questions I hear often in conversations about polyamory is, “How much am I allowed to keep private about one relationship in another relationship?” Answers vary all over the map, but there are usually two main camps: the “we share absolutely everything with each other” (where “each other” usually means one couple within a poly network, though the same sharing rarely extends to everyone in the relationship) and the “what happens in one relationship is private unless a need to know exists in another relationship” approaches. Within each camp you’ll find some pretty extreme views, from “I share every single text and email with my partner” (an approach most commonly found in hierarchical, primary/secondary polyamory) to “I never tell one partner anything at all about my other partners.”
Finding a path through this maze means understanding what privacy is, and how maintaining privacy differs from hiding the truth.
If you read books or websites on abuse and domestic violence, one message comes through loud and clear: failure to respect a person’s privacy is one of the first and most common signs of abuse. Demanding to know everything about what a person is doing shows a lack of trust. Feeling entitled to access all of another person’s space is the foundation for almost all other forms of abuse.
Privacy is a basic human right. People involved in polyamory often talk about consent, but sometimes forget that there’s more to consent than choosing when and with whom to have sex. Consent is about access to any part of you: your body, your mind, your emotions, your space. Fundamental to the right to privacy is the right to control who you allow to have access to your most vulnerable places.
This can create some knotty problems in polyamory, because when we feel insecure or threatened, it can be easy to want to know everything about what a partner is doing, saying, thinking, and feeling. Insecurity breeds suspicion, after all.
Unfortunately, when we demand access to details about a partner’s other relationships, we are demanding access not only to our partner’s mind and emotions, but also to his other partner’s mind and emotions, too. People reveal things to their lovers–vulnerabilities, feelings, past traumas or embarrassments–they may not choose to reveal to everyone. We all have the right to expect that some things we share with a lover won’t be passed around.
I have often heard people who feel frightened, insecure, or threatened play the “What are you hiding?” card when it comes to privacy. “We should share everything!” I’ve heard. “Why would you hide things about your other relationship? That just means I can’t trust you!”
In More Than Two, we argue that all healthy relationships have a reasonable expectation of privacy. There can be no intimacy without sharing, and there are limits to what you can share if you are afraid the things you share will be given to others without your consent.
This may include sexual acts; not everyone is an exhibitionist, and many people do not appreciate having their sexual tastes put on display or described to third parties. It may include private details about past experiences. It may include our fears and doubts.
One of the hardest things for us as human beings to learn is that other people are real. Part of understanding that other people are real means understanding that other people may choose to share things with a partner that they might not choose to share with us, and that’s okay. It doesn’t mean anyone is being deceitful, underhanded, or sneaky. It simply means we all have the right to maintain boundaries about who has access to our deepest selves.
I have spoken to people who say there is absolutely nothing that happens in another relationship they do not share with their partner–every email is passed along, every conversation is repeated, every sex act is shared. I believe that this approach presents troubling issues and discourages intimacy. It means that anything a person does not want to share with a metamour cannot be shared with his lover.
On the flip side, the right to privacy is not a right to secrecy. There are things that can and should be shared with all the people involved in a relationship network. Those things include any facts that might materially affect a third person, or that might prevent a third person from giving informed consent to the relationship. What kinds of things might those be? One example is anything that significantly affects a person’s STI risk profile.
It’s tricky to set down a list of things that can and can’t be treated as matters of privacy, because life is complicated. But I have noticed a pattern in people who, in my opinion, abuse the right to privacy under the guise of wanting transparency. Some questions that can help sort out whether or not the right to privacy is being infringed include:
Am I asking for my partner, or my partner’s partner, to divulge information that I would be reluctant to share myself under the same circumstance?
How does the information I’m asking for actually affect me? Does it materially affect my life in a quantifiable way, or does it simply make me uncomfortable if I don’t know?
Am I making it safe for my partner’s other partner to be open and vulnerable with my partner?
Does the flow of information go only one way?
Do I trust my partners? Do I have a clear and compelling reason to believe something shady is happening, or am I substituting a need for absolute disclosure for working on my own insecurities?
When you find yourself mired in a trackless wilderness and you’re not sure which direction to move, you can usually find your way by orienting yourself to the ethical compass we talk about in the book. What choices move in the direction of greatest courage? What is the most compassionate thing to do? What shows greatest respect for the agency of all the people around you?
In my own experiences, I have found that if you say everything is open and you will pass around whatever your partners say, write, text, or do, you can’t really expect people to open up to you. They will be aware that sharing with you comes with a price attached: sharing with people they may not choose to share with, in ways they may not be able to control. If you want the kind of relationship in which people are willing to share their greatest vulnerabilities and deepest selves, it’s on you to respect their privacy.
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Hi Franklin….I agree with everything that you’ve said here, but feel you could have addresses how insidious secrecy can be…especially when it’s cloaked in the guise of privacy.
Do do feel that sexual acts are need to know, for the purpose of sexual health choices. I’m not talking about how someone responded to a sexual action, or what kind of noises they made or **if* they made noises. I’m talking about whether PIV, anal or oral sex was engaged in….and…what kind of barrier methods were or were not used. Without this kind of information, I do not feel I am able to make an informed choice.
Lets take a look at privacy vs secrecy. In the book Partners In Passion: A Guide to Great Sex, Emotional Intimacy and Long-term Love, by Mark A. Michaels and Patricia Johnson,they offer some great examples.
Privacy is not having someone look over your shoulder while you watch porn, secrecy is when you click the screen when your partner walks into the room, to hide that you’re watching porn.
Privacy is when you don’t share the content of your email exchanges with a lover or potential lover with others. Secrecy is when you don’t tell your significant partners that it’s happening. (Knowing what is evolving in a partner’s other relationships is part of offering the transparency they need to check in with themselves, to see if that added dimension in their relationship world is something they can stay with…or not.)
Privacy is not sharing the intimate **details** about ones sexual encounter with another. Secrecy is not sharing that it happened, or not sharing what sort of acts were engaged in, if barrier methods were used or not, and any STI information that was shared.
For me, my partners can do what they want, but I rely on full disclosure of such things in order to continue to make my own informed choices about that relationship. I am rabid about not having my informed choice taken from me.
This is a topic that I am glad to see addressed because it can be mishandled so easily in either direction. Although there is much room for personal variation in how much or little privacy/transparency a given person needs or wants, I think your statement of “Am I asking for my partner, or my partner’s partner, to divulge information that I would be reluctant to share myself under the same circumstance?” is an excellent guide when asking someone to share information with you.
In my case, I want/need to know those things that will affect me, I am willing to listen to anything that a partner wants to share. So, for example, I want/need to have my partner tell me things like “I am really worried about my other partner because they are having some health issues.” I want/need to know this because if my partner is worried about my metamour it will affect how he interacts and copes with other things in their life, including me. If I do not know what sorts of things are weighing on my partners mind, it could easily affect my relationship and thus my life because I am unable to be empathetic, understanding or supportive to my partner. I do not need to know the details however (unless the health issue is potentially contagious, in which case our shared partners exposure could subsequently expose me). If my partner wants/needs to talk about details, and their metamour is OK with my knowing the them, then I will be there to listen. Expecting a partner to share details that they may not be ready to share is a violation of their privacy. Expecting them to share details about a metamours life without that metamour being OK with is is definitely a violation of the metamours privacy.
To me, this is transparency without violating another’s privacy.
“Am I asking for my partner, or my partner’s partner, to divulge information that I would be reluctant to share myself under the same circumstance?”
While I think that can be a great place to start, I think it’s important to remember that people do have different levels of privacy. I’m a fairly open person, so I feel pretty comfortable talking about the down and dirty details of my sex life (or other intimate things) with many of my friends. I’ve learned that other people don’t feel so good about sharing that much. When asking for information about a metamour, I really try to focus on if the information is truly germane to me and my needs.
What is important to my needs? It really depends on the partner. I expect even casual partners that I have barrier sex with to be honest if they have a situation (like a protection fail) with another partner that may negatively affect my sexual health. With my main partner, I would want to know if he met someone that he felt he wanted to share a substantial part of his time with, including potentially moving in with us. And I would like to know about his romantic partners in general (and hope to at least casually know them and be on good terms with them). I do know that neither of us would decide to have non-barrier sex with someone else without discussing it first (Meaning an actual discussion, not a unilateral faux-discussion that involves one of us forbidding the other from doing something). But something like…if I knew my partner was having protected sex with another partner, I wouldn’t need to know if it was PIV sex vs oral sex vs anal sex.
For the emotional aspects of relationships, it really has a lot to do with time for me. As in, there’s only so many hours in the day, and if there’s going to be a change in the time we spend together, that would be important to me and I would want to talk about it. Emotional nuance beyond that…I need to trust my partner to do the things that makes him happiest and to be open and transparent about any changes in his feelings towards me, and I will do likewise with him.
It can be scary and hard, but it’s really important to me to live in a way that feels the most authentic to myself and allows my partners to also be authentic to themselves.
Eugenia, I really resonate with what you have to say here. All of those things matter to me. And…..I’m a case in point on the varying need for privacy thing. I have no qualms about my sexual health status being shared with anyone. I’m such a passionate advocate for full and complete disclosure on this that I have said to people – and actually have done so – shared that status on the radio…as a means of modelling how sharing such information does not need to be a big issue. Yet, I encounter people who are sexual with my partner who think their sexual health status in not my business. (What?) I’m also very forthcoming about my feelings for each of my lovers/partners and in general am a very open book. If I tried to gauge what someone else’s comfort level would be by using my own as a guide, I would no doubt be seriously crossing a boundary.
Really insightful, thank you so much.
Thank you for this article. I am in a polyamory us relationship for the first time and have strong feelings about my privacy and exposure in the relationship my lover has with his primary partner. We have had some good discussions about it. I am happy to have better vocabulary now to talk about transparency versus secrecy versus privacy.
Can I ask for opinions about sharing information about sexual acts when a long term relationship has developed from one partners alternative needs? After a lot of persuading and many hiccups over a number of years my partner persuaded me to fulfil his fantasy about me being a ‘hot wife’. I enjoyed the sex etc but often would feel uncomfortable with it afterwards etc. I’ve never fantasised about other men or been randomly attracted to them, I’ve always very much been of the mind that sex is part of a loving relationship but I love my partner deeply and did the ‘hot wife’ thing to share with him to make him happy. I had an immediate connection with one of the guys that I met, I told my partner who suggested this might be a poly thing on my part and encouraged it (things were still functioning on a ‘hot wife’ level initially and he was getting his kicks) My boyfriend and I are coming up to almost 3 years together and in that time the dynamic has changed for me. I very much see our intimacy as something between us but my partner still thinks I should be sharing every detail with him and having sex with him as soon as I return home from seeing my boyfriend etc in other words still being a ‘hot wife’. I’m struggling to know I am entitled to that privacy. He chooses not to be involved with someone else, we explored it, I didn’t handle it well straight away so he decided to withdraw from that because he says he doesn’t want sex or a relationship with anyone else he just wants to know about me having sex with another man but I feel that devalues my relationship with my boyfriend. Your thoughts are very welcome. Thank you
I think the right to privacy is a basic part of any healthy relationship. While people do have the right to know things that impact their sexual health, STI risk profile, or ability to provide informed consent, that does not extend to fetishizing another person’s sexual activities without the consent of all the people involved.
In fact, I’ve seen that exact dynamic become abusive.
Thank you for your response. I think I find it difficult to pitch what I should do when coming home after spending some time with my boyfriend. I’ve read a lot about the person who is not involved with someone else having trouble receiving any kind of touch etc from their poly partner but it’s the complete opposite in my case. For example, when going to bed with my husband, having spent a ‘normal’ evening watching TV and there being no mention of me having met my boyfriend that day, I cuddle into him and without any communication at all I have my hand pushed down by him towards pleasuring him and it just makes me feel like a ‘tool’, when I’ve refused and removed my hand because I feel like an ‘accessory’ I get rejected completely. I’m finding it hard to work out the balance of making him feel wanted but there’s no connection for me in the way that it’s done though he would claim he feels unloved and rejected because I won’t do this for him. I suppose my point is that if there were some dialogue, communication, then things would be different as I was cuddling him to be loving but I don’t find what he requires of me to be very sexy. He would argue that he doesn’t do that as I would just reject him. I’m so confused.. Thank you for listening