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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