Privacy and Boundaries in Intimate Relationships

Dear Liz,

A couple of middle aged, two-time divorcees meet and start dating. First two months are great, third is trying, fourth and fifth nonexistent. He has a privacy issue, in that he doesn’t want people knowing our problems, so he has pulled away, but still continues to maintain daily contact—just no dates until he works his way through getting over my mistakes of confiding in other people. The last event that I spoke about us was two weeks ago, and he’s still mad because it came up at a family dinner. Tried breaking up and he keeps holding on. Is there any way to get him to move forward with me or move on without me? I’m not sure I can handle a breakup myself, but I am feeling resentful and angry.

 Dear Friend,

This privacy issue you speak of is tricky. On the one hand, the intimacies of a relationship are private—there are unspoken boundaries regarding what we should/should not share with others.  By honoring those boundaries, you maintain the trust and intimacy so essential to sustaining a long term relationship.  On the other hand, relationships, especially new ones, often bring up some issues for us, maybe some red flags, or maybe we’ve been called out on some of our own behaviors, a “call out” we’ve never had to consider before—so in these instances, it feels natural to reach out to a trusted friend or family member to seek some advice/gain some perspective.  There is a delicate line here, and so it seems, at least according to your partner, you’ve crossed it.

It’s really important when we are confiding in friends/family about our relationship, that the ones we are confiding in truly have our best interest at hand, and want to support our happiness, even if our version of happiness isn’t necessarily their version. You want to turn to folks who support commitment, your commitment, and can help you figure out how to navigate the challenges confronting your relationship.  A good test:  If they love you, if they like your partner, and if they’re savvy about the common bumps in the road and challenges all relationships face, then they’re a good choice in terms of confiding.

On the other hand, avoid sharing negativities about your partner that you are intimately struggling with together—his fears, your insecurities, a history you are still struggling with…and if you must speak with someone, seek support/advice from more neutral individuals, like a therapist or maybe even pick up a book that addresses the issue you are both working through. If you do decide to turn to a trusted friend, then make sure your sharing is respectful of your partner’s desire for privacy, share what you must, and be certain the person you share with can keep a confidence—avoid turning to any number of folks—instead, turn to your bestie, your sibling, not the whole gang.  Your sharing will feel like gossip/betrayal if you flaunt it with no limits.

Let me be clear, though. I cannot ignore the epidemic rates of intimacy abuse, and in those situations, men seeking to control a woman and/or the relationship will often react very strongly when their partner shares their poor behavior with others.  The other side of this fine line is isolation—is he dropping the gauntlet on talking to anyone about anything to do with him/the two of you?  If so, the red flag has been raised and I’d definitely discuss that with someone who is caring of you and wise.

Which brings me to this question: With four marriages between you, have you each individually come to terms with what was constructive /destructive in your previous relationships?  Even if both of you landed up with lemons two times in a row, a fair question to ask is, why do I keep choosing lemons? A “failed” relationship can be a gift (once the pain has lifted) because it can be an opportunity for getting real and getting honest about who we are, what we need, how we love, how we harm, etc.  How wonderful to show up more whole, more able to love, after we have lost a relationship.  But if one or both are unwilling to do that work, then more likely than not, the problems you had with whomever back then, will be the same ones you are having now—wherever you go, there you will be…

You are both adults, and hopefully you have come to value how essential brave communication is.  It sounds like he’s been clear about behavior he cannot accept, so it seems you must make a decision:  Is the sort of privacy he is asking for fair/healthy and if so, do you wish to honor his need for privacy in your relationship?  If so, then you need to express to him that you have come to genuinely understand his hurt, that you know it will take some time to re-establish trust, but that you would like the opportunity to do so, while dating.  The while dating part is essential, because the ongoing intimacy is not only healing, but I can’t imagine a trust that can be nurtured while apart.  If he will not continue seeing you on a regular basis, then it seems to me you’ve hit a wall, and as you’ve suggested, this “stuck” space will bring about resentment in you.  I’m not sure how to push through resentment, unless there is, at a minimum, your partner’s acknowledgment of your pain, and that acknowledgement might take some time.

Every relationship has challenges and we all make mistakes—it’s in the handling of those challenges, with our partner, that determine the longevity of the relationship.  Let me leave you with this: love looks for reasons to stay, not to jump to ship.  If either one is willing to jump, then the other should walk.

Love, Liz

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