Other Selves: Understanding the Difference between Privacy and Secrecy

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Privacy is the endangered species in between two extremes of secrecy and transparency.

I stumbled across an article about the nature of affairs – how happily married people often “cheat”. It was an interesting article in general, but what struck me fundamentally were the ideas that underpin so many other aspects of life – not just romantic relationships. I debate quite frequently, as I have written about before, about the difference between privacy and secrecy and where that boundary is. What kind of information – how much information – do I owe someone just because they have asked, just because of the nature of our interaction (i.e., do I tell a potential employer X, do I keep Y private, do I reveal those same Xs and Ys to my husband or wife or potential husband or wife?)? Is total openness and transparency required – and what are the rules governing this? Are there any? In my case, there are a lot of things that are deeply private for me, but keeping them private is not always all about me if I have invited someone else into my life.

“Transparency is the whole culture. The way a regular person tells everything about themselves on television. The way technology allows us to find out anything—99 percent of the people I see, their affairs are discovered through email or phones. But transparency is also our organizing principle of closeness these days. I will tell you everything, and if I don’t tell you it means I don’t trust you or I have a secret. It doesn’t mean I choose to keep certain things to myself because they are private. Privacy is the endangered species in between two extremes of secrecy and transparency.”

Of course some private things are personal and don’t involve anyone else. But then other people and their expectations and feelings are a part – is there not some responsibility there? As this article on affairs – and the reasons underlying affairs – argues, there is “…a distinction between cheating and non-monogamy. Cheating is about a violation of a contract. People misunderstand me because they think I’m saying affairs are OK. No! But I do think examining monogamy is our next frontier.”

Is examining monogamy really the next frontier? The article explains the researcher’s point of view – that at one time, premarital sex was also considered to be wrong and not a topic for consideration or debate. Is this the next logical step? Maybe not just monogamy but in a broader scope, marriage. What is marriage, how is it defined – not just by society but by negotiation between an individual couple?

Today, as the article discusses, “We have this idea that our partner is our best friend, that there is one person who will fulfill all our needs, which is really an extraordinary idea! So by definition, people must transgress because something is missing at home. We think, if you had what you needed at home, you wouldn’t want to go anywhere else, instead of thinking that marriage is at best an imperfect arrangement.”

Maybe nothing is missing from a relationship or marriage at all that leads a party to the relationship to cheat. The most important takeaway from the article, actually, is a point that is applicable across life’s activities: Affairs are often not about wanting someone else but wanting to be someone else ourselves:

“Very often we don’t go elsewhere because we are looking for another person. We go elsewhere because we are looking for another self. It isn’t so much that we want to leave the person we are with as we want to leave the person we have become.”

This being me, I immediately think of a poem.

I Can Not
-Anna Swir (Poland)

I envy you.
Every moment.

You can leave me.
I can not leave myself.

Is that the feeling behind these urges to have affairs? Not to leave one’s partner but to leave oneself? Or the oneself one is or has become within that particular relationship?

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