Veronica is an online writer from New York who enjoys sharing relationship advice.
Living Together and 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. In this article, we'll go over:
- how to differentiate between looking and snooping
- how to communicate your boundaries and respect your partner's
- why a desire for privacy does not necessarily mean someone has something to hide
- how to talk to your partner about something suspicious or questionable
- why boundaries tend to relax over time
- how to spot red flags and what to do about them
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.
Snooping Goes Hand-in-Hand With Mistrust, Betrayal, and Accusations
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.
"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. Nobody ever touched any of my stuff.
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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.
"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."
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 first 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.
Talk to Your Partner About What You've Found
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 10 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.)
A Matter of Time and Comfort
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 blueprints 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.
"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."
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 eight 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.
More Information About Personal Boundaries
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.