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Yours & Mine: Respecting Personal Privacy in Your Relationship


Living Together & Personal Privacy

Some things are clear. Opening his mail is a felony. Going through his dirty laundry if you’re the one doing the laundry, well then that has to be acceptable. But what about everything that falls in between?

If her cell phone rings while she’s in the shower, should you answer it? Can you go through his desk or his briefcase? How about her car?

Cohabitation can be tricky. Here are some guidelines to help frame out what’s right for you and your partner.

Learn the Difference Between Looking and Snooping

Are you honestly looking for the phone bill because you need to get a phone number off of it, or make sure it was paid? Are you looking for a piece of gum? Your spare car key? The dog’s rabies certificate? Matches? A screwdriver?

There are many valid reasons why you might want to go through your partner’s purse, briefcase, pockets, glove compartment, desk or closet. And there are just as many reasons that really aren’t valid. Do you really not know where there are any matches, or are you just looking for an excuse to snoop?

In general, many people comfortable enough to live with you are comfortable enough to let you touch their stuff. In general, it isn’t a problem that you were looking for the dog’s paperwork and went through things that weren’t exactly yours.

But nobody, no matter how comfortable they are with you, likes the feeling that they’ve been snooped. Don’t confuse their negative reaction to your snooping, with the idea that they may have something to hide.

Your partner has every right to feel violated if you’ve snooped. And so do you. There’s a feeling of mistrust, betrayal, and accusation that goes with it.

If you feel the need to snoop, there’s a problem. And if you’re with someone that feels the need to snoop through your stuff, there’s a problem. It’s a problem of trust. Maybe it’s deserved, and maybe it’s projected. In any case, it’s an issue that will not resolve on it’s own. The only way to get through it is to talk. Sit down with your partner and seriously discuss fears, trust, and reservations.

It's Not Snooping, So What's the Problem?

So you’ve got no trust issues with each other. That’s great. Then this is all about privacy.

Keep in mind that someone who’s exceptionally private does not necessarily have anything to hide. For some people that is a hard concept to grasp.

My husband grew up in a family with a lot of kids. Nothing was private. Someone was always going through his stuff, to borrow a shirt or look for theirs, or to move a pile from here to there. I grew up an only child. No body ever touched any of my stuff.

You would think that would mean he’s used to his stuff being looked through, and I am not. And that could be the case. But the opposite is what happened. He finally felt like he could enjoy some privacy when we moved in together. He valued it, as it was something he’d never had before in his life. I, on the other hand, have never lived anywhere where a drawer or a closet or a desk was not mine. I’m used to being able to go through everything in my home. Additionally, I am an organization freak, and LOVE to go through his papers and put little files together and clean it all up for him.

Our pasts to our present is reflective of how you can’t always guess who will feel exceptionally private, and who won’t. Privacy is an important aspect of our selves. If you can’t trust your life partner to respect you, who can you trust?

Communicate Your Boundaries

There is nothing wrong with your wanting your desk to be private, or your mail to be unopened when you get home. There is nothing wrong with your partner wanting their space untouched.

Sounds easy enough, but it isn’t. It’s a little harder than you think.

It’s never too late to set your personal boundaries. Set yours, and ask your partner to do the same. Keep in mind that this is now both of your homes. Everything can’t be off limits. But it is perfectly reasonable for your desks to be private. As long as you communicate that boundary to each other, and as long as you both respect each other’s requests, there should be no problem.

But Why Does He Need His Own Desk?

Maybe it’s a place where he can safely stash your Birthday gifts. Maybe it’s a place where he can keep his journal or other things that he just doesn’t like to share. Maybe there is absolutely nothing in that desk that is private or different at all. Maybe he just likes the idea that it’s his.

This is a hard concept for some people to grasp. There is nothing at all wrong with a person wanting to have a place that just belongs to them. Just like there is nothing wrong with wanting to spend an evening home alone in your sweats watching the Twilight Zone marathon by yourself. Alone time, and privacy, are natural human needs.

It doesn’t mean he doesn’t trust you, it doesn’t mean he’s anti-social. It just means he’s normal.

This is just one of many things that couples need to communicate about and respect each other on.

You've Accidentally Found Something. Now What?

You aren’t snooping, but you’ve stumbled across something. Something in the laundry or the garbage. A phone number. A receipt to a bank account you know nothing about. Matches from a motel.

Here are two totally different scenarios:

I remember meeting a very happily married couple who told the most heart warming story of their first year together. She played piano, and he wanted to get her one, but money was tight. For an entire year, he had a secret part time job trying to save money for the extravagant gift. He was successful, and surprised her with a beautiful slightly used piano on their 1st wedding anniversary.

The phone number could have been his secret part time job’s boss, or the person from whom he purchased the piano. The bank account could have been his piano account. The matches, he could have borrowed from a friend or found someplace.

In stark contrast, I can list a dozen couples I’ve known who ended over infidelity. The phone number could be his mistress. The bank account could be her secret stash. The matches could be the motel where they meet.

Someone who really has something to hide is usually pretty aware of those kinds of mistakes, unless they want to get caught.

My advice is to talk to your partner about your find. Whatever you’ve accidentally uncovered could be nothing or could be something. Don’t jump to any conclusions. Just bring it to your partner and talk. You should be able to get the truth that way, whether it’s freely admitted, or drawn from defensive reactions. Unless of course your partner is a devious manipulating cheating liar. If that’s the case, you have much bigger worries than respecting privacy. (If that’s the case, do what you need to do, all bets are off.)

Boundaries Tend to Relax Over Time

Is it really that hard for you to stay out of his desk? Well here’s some incentive. Privacy boundaries tend to relax over time.

When my husband and I moved in, we agreed the office was “mine” and the garage was “his”. We respected this boundary most of the time. And then life happens. Here we are ten years later. There is more of his stuff in the office than there is my stuff. I was just in the garage this morning organizing a wall of storage bins where I keep off-season decorations. I open his mail. His sunglasses are in my glove compartment. I will go right in his wallet to swap the credit cards when we get the new ones in the mail. He will go right into my purse if he’s looking for gum. (He never has gum. I always have gum.)

Even though people have a natural need for privacy, once that need is acknowledged and respected, it tends to relax. Gradually life gets comfortable and cohabitation becomes second nature instead of something you have to work at. Again, it’s actually not a matter of trust. It’s a matter of time and comfort. Life happens.

He needed room to spread out blue prints and wound up infiltrating my office. He needed to know when certain documents arrived in the mail, so he asked me to open all mail immediately and call him, instead of waiting for him to get home from work. My collection of vintage Christmas ornaments grew and I needed storage room… Life happened.

Is There Ever a Red Flag?

Yes. A dramatic change in rules or behavior is a flag. When it’s accompanied with out of the ordinary aggression, it’s a big fat red flag. Anytime a boundary is conveyed with a threat, it's a huge flag as well.

Locks are also red flags.

If you share a desk in the house, and all of a sudden after 8 years together, there’s a lock on it and he tells you NEVER to go through his desk, that’s a flag.

It’s also a major flag if your partner thinks privacy is a one way street. If she tells you that you are NEVER to go through her purse, but she goes through your wallet or briefcase all the time, that’s a red flag.

Any one of these flags is a serious problem that should push you to reconsider your living arrangement immediately.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


cxyne on October 29, 2011:

I cant say that i'm also snooping,,i don't know sometimes it accidentally happened that i discover something wrong but when i ask him about it he always lie at first but tell the truth in the end,,,,its hard for me because it happened again and again,,,my bf wants a privacy with his phone and when he knows that i saw the password,,he changed it,,although we are sweet to each other,,,lately he wants a space,,,i dont know why he's been a little bit cold to me,,, i allow him to break up our relationship but he wanted it for 2 days only,,, at first he is very scared to lost me but now he can live even without me,,, when i'm asking him what is happening to him he just reply "i don't know", and when im asking him how much he loves me..he just said "equally" exact nothing more... but i love him so much...that why he is telling me that i love him more than he gives..give some advise please... i scared to lost him but i cant take this anymore... should i break it up to him..to forget him and to lost all this bad feelings?

Veronica (author) from NY on April 29, 2011:

Thank you janellelk. This is one of those important topics. Boundaries need to be clear but with communication not demands. Boundaries will change. And they could also reveal a problem. So paying attention to your partnerbis key. Thanks for your comment.

janellelk on April 29, 2011:

Very well thought out. I like how you didn't just cover boundaries, rules etc. but delved into the emotional aspects of relationships. :) Thanks!

Dawn Beaumont on March 08, 2011:

My husband and I hve been together for17 yrs split for 2 and he ment someone else. We have two children at home. We got back together and moved close to were he was living and bought a house. I found he has been talking to her the whole time and fixing her care I found e-mails and he won't let me on his lap top or on the phone account or on any cc account. He doesn't want me on any of it so I can see what he is doeing he calles that his space..... HELP

Blue777 on October 14, 2010:

My live-in companion and I enjoyed a trip to Venice recently, it was wonderful! We took loads of photographs on our cameras and a camcorder. After we returned home, I was excited to view the photographs we had taken on our cameras, and we were to later upload them to my laptop that evening. However, I was excited and viewed the photos we had taken during our trip to Venice. While viewing photographs on my companions camera, there were additional photographs that he had left on his camera, I viewed them. When my companion arrived home from work, we began gathering the cameras and the sd cards to upload them into my laptop, and my companion became upset because I viewed the photos on his camera, including the previous ones he had left on there before our trip to Venice, he accused me of disrespecting him and investigating him. I explained that was not the case, totally respect him and love him, but did view the additional photos. He is totally upset at me, and said his camera is his personal diary, that I invaded his space and privacy. Feel really sad and down today about this,, any advice??

crystal b on September 30, 2009:

Iam the partner of DOn P and he isn't exactly forthcomig on the topic. I just found out 3 weeks ago that he had mulitpule affairs and Iam devestaed. He doesn't not understand that I want to work through the passive aggressive behaviour. He thiks I am the problem but he is sooooooo obessesive over fanicied and real ideas its haunting. I lock my phone BECAUSE I have no privacy....... he reads my journals. He has read my step 4 (for those who know) he keeps my friends at bay just waiting for them to dump me because they care. He punched me in the mouth and broke by two front teeth causing 5000 damage that was not fun to go through to replace. So for him to blog about my privacy is really the last kick in the face. On my comupter yet. Nice. He will look for sympathy anywhere he can get it. He will find web sites just to prove his own sick thoughts and feelings. But I must say I was intrigued and happy that he was seeking sort of releif.


Veronica (author) from NY on September 29, 2009:


There's definitely a difference between her wanting some normal privacy and in being secretive. The fact that she locks her cell & websites visits is disturbing. But the real problem is that she flips if you ask about them. You can't have "a lifetime" with someone who doesn't address your concerns and communicate with you when you express them. Whether she's got something to hide or not is pretty much besides the point.

Tell her you feel uncomfortable and you want her to help you as a partner get through it. Tell her you aren't accusing her of anything. But be clear - You want her to communicate about why she would lock website history and her phone as both seem uncommonly extreme. If she can't communicate enough to put your mind to ease, then she isn't a partner.

don p on September 29, 2009:

interesting topic!! what should i think about my partner locking her cell and all comp sites shes on. the facebook has alot of old boyfreinds and men ive never heard of before. her cell texts and mins. are out of this world, although she claims shes totally devoted she flips when i ask anything about the cell or comp. any info or help out there, i love this woman very much, 6yrs is a long time and would like a lifetime. im starting to become way to snoopy and suspicious feeling terrible about it but cant help thinking the worst.

ModerateInAllThings on October 01, 2008:

I think it's all up for negotiation, but should be equal. For example, my Dad works very hard, and my Mum doesn't work outside the home. So she opens all the post, and they are both happy with that (otherwise they would have the baliffs banging on the front door every day!)

For me, email and my desk drawers are private. And I wouldn't go through my boyfriend's email or desk drawers either.

In an emergency, all bets are off, and we'd both be fine with that.

Veronica (author) from NY on December 29, 2007:

Ah! Well, having just told him your feelings, and seeing his efforts already, I'd say you're right and you're on your way to happiness.

You could try this to speed things along with the ultimatum: Give him a deadline. Like, June 1st. Whatever isn't done by June 1st, you're going to handle. That's it. I find that a respectable drop-dead date shows him you're serious, while also showing him you respect that he wants to do it himself.

You might sweeten the deal by adding incentives. For example - all you want for Valentine's Day is a closet. Or, when he gets the bedroom done, you'll treat him to a night of reward by cooking his favorite dinner, renting his favorite movie and giving him a full bodied massage while he watches. (I got my husband to build new shelves with that one.)

helenathegreat from Manhattan on December 29, 2007:

Thanks for your response, Veronica! While I don't think we're quite at the point where we need to move (impossible financially) or I need to move out, I think I do need to give him an ultimatum.

To his credit, I only started complaining that I didn't have enough clothing space about a month and a half ago, and since then he's cleared two whole drawers for me (HUGE progress, haha)! After we've spent time with our families for the holidays, I'll tell him that we need to ensure that our bedroom is OUR bedroom, with equally shared space, or else!! :)

Again, thanks so much for responding! I'm pretty sure that the space thing is the whole problem (he's lived there for six years by himself and has accumulated a LOT of junk), as the rest of our lives are ptty well balanced, but I'll be sure to keep an eye out. Regards!

Veronica (author) from NY on December 29, 2007:


While I'm all for respecting a person's privacy, I think you're bf is being unreasonable. It's one thing to say your desk is private, it's entirely another to say knick knacks and old clothes and half the apartment is privately his to the point that you have no room.

What's a girl to do? Oooh, I'm sorry, I know you're not going to like this, but you asked me, so I'm answering.

In my opinion, one of two things.

1 - Part of the problem is that it was his space first, and he is having issues surrendering that and seeing it as both your place. Suggest that you move. Get a new place together. If his problem is just with his space & stuff possessiveness and sloppiness, this will work. Maybe it's expensive or inconvenient, but he's left you no choices. You don't have room enough for your clothes, and you're even willing to be the one doing the organzing and cleaning, and he calls that "violating his privacy?" Serious problem. Try starting again in neutral turf where he can't let his stuff invade. Plus this will force him to go through his stuff when he packs it to move. Plus, this will show him how much he has denied you, but keeping the luxury of spreading his stuff out all for himself and denying you that ability. Equal partners? Equal space.

Or, #2, move out. Tell him it's pretty obvious he's not ready to be a partner, so you're leaving until he is ready. I'd especially look at this option if his unwillingness to share spills into other aspects of his life, like finances and friends. If he's as possessive with his money, social life, calendar, free time, etc, as he is with his space, you need to do some serious re-evaluating of just how not ready he is. Ask yourself, was this the whole problem, or just a symptom of a bigger one?

Good luck, I hope you'll keep me posted!

helenathegreat from Manhattan on December 29, 2007:

Excellent hub, Veronica. I have a relevant question for you, though.

I moved in with my boyfriend about six months ago, and we both agree that "half" of the apartment is not quite mine. My boyfriend is pretty much a slob (fine with me, for the most part), and I am an organization freak. The underlying problem is that he just has too much STUFF but doesn't have the impetus to go through it and get rid of it so that I have the space for all of my belongings. And I would love to go through his old clothes and knick-knacks (sp?) to organize our living space, but he feels like that's violating his privacy.

I don't want to snoop; I just want a place to put my clothes! So if he won't do it himself, won't do it with me supervising, and won't let me do it, what's a girl to do?

Isabella Snow on December 26, 2007:

Very good hub Veronica! I'm an expert snooper, I admit.. shame on me... !!! Course, my significant others always know this and take great pleasure in setting me up.. so.. alls well that ends well, I guess, LOL. ;)

Kate Swanson from Sydney on December 22, 2007:

I always enjoy reading your Hubs, V. My New Year's resolution is to try to remember to hit the Thumbs Up button more often!

Veronica (author) from NY on December 22, 2007:

Wow, thanks! I appreciate that very much!

Kate Swanson from Sydney on December 22, 2007:

Ever read an article and felt that yes, I know all that - but I could never have put it into words anywhere near as well? This Hub should be issued to all couples when they move in together!!

Athlyn Green on December 22, 2007:

A very well thought out Hub. You raised many good points. Well done.

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