When our youngest child grew up and moved away, I claimed her bedroom and fashioned a space all my own. It was quite small, on the second story of our home with leafy tree branches almost touching the windows, a nest of sorts. Sometimes my husband came and stood at the threshold to ask me a question, but he didn’t walk in. He never entered uninvited. It was our unspoken understanding, as natural as breathing, that our separateness was respected. This personal background sets the stage for my describing a mediation session in which a privacy issue arose.
The couple working with me made it clear they were not seeking therapy—which was fine because it is not my skill. Rather, they wanted to preserve their marriage by negotiating a specific concern: The week before,, without consulting his wife, the husband had installed a lock on his home-office door. She was hurt and angry.
His side of the story: Recently while he had been away from home, his wife had opened a piece of mail addressed only to him. Reading it, she learned that his business debt was considerably greater than he had let her know. On discovering this, still in his absence, she looked through his desk and files, and eventually explored the content of his computer. Upon his return, she confronted him. He was outraged. That was when the lock went on.
Her side: She firmly believed there should be no secrets between marriage partners and that she was therefore perfectly justified in her actions. He was the one who had much to explain.
The response I addressed to her was spoken without hesitation, or sufficient forethought. With some fervor I said, “But everyone is entitled to a zone of privacy.”
My statement and my tone surprised them, and myself as well. With hindsight I regret the unprofessional manner in which I spoke. I should have posed some neutral questions to each of them, not been judgmental. Predictably, the issue did not get resolved in my office. Later, when the wife called to cancel their next scheduled appointment, I learned that after further discussion between them, her husband had removed the lock from his office door.
Another client discovered that her husband had read the journal in which she wrote each morning on waking. She was incensed, even though she’d kept it tucked in her nightstand drawer, readily accessible. “How could he not understand that it was for my eyes only?” she asked.
Will such unwelcome intrusions as these continue to rankle over time? My guess is that insistence on full disclosure, even on knowing their partner’s innermost thoughts, is more likely to erode harmony than to foster it. Are these wounded loved ones likely to become more secretive or less?
Why is privacy so important? The very notion of “invading” our privacy suggests a significant violation, an assault on our autonomy, a piercing of that protective skin we seek to keep intact (so many words of aggression!). Privacy keeps us safe, free of judgment until we are ready for exposure, and then only to those we trust.