“Everyone has the right to privacy” is a statement that I often hear in relationship counselling. These types of defensive statements often arise in situations where one partner is trying to justify keeping things from another. And, of course; this statement isn’t false – every individual does have the right to privacy…but is there a difference between privacy and secrecy?

When it comes to keeping relationships safe, trust probably plays one of the most significant roles. Trust is something that we so often take for granted in relationships…that is; until it is lost. And once a break in trust has occurred, it is really difficult to regain. Therefore; it’s really imperative that we as a couple do everything in our power to keep our relationships safe. With this in mind, it would be helpful to look at two very similar, but yet extraordinarily different concepts; privacy and secrecy.

Tammy Nelson (author) sees privacy as an agreement between partners on some specific things that will not be discussed. The important part here for me is – it’s specifics or topics that have been agreed upon, by both parties, to be kept separate from the relationship. This implies that a conversation took place between the two individuals involved; identifying, discussing and deciding on things, actions or topics that need not be shared with one another.

Secrecy, on the other hand, as explained by James Grubman, contains information that is relevant to the relationship itself between you and the other person, but that is actively kept hidden. Secrecy implies a deliberate withholding of information that a person feels, thinks or knows would harm either him/herself, the other partner or the relationship itself if this information were to come to light.

Let’s look at a few practical examples; highlighting the difference between privacy and secrecy.


A couple may decide to keep the exact value of the money in their bank account private, providing that they are financially healthy, responsible and in control of their finances. Note that it is absolutely crucial that both of the individuals involved are in agreement about what the terms “financially healthy, responsible and in control” mean.
If, however, they have agreed upon these terms regarding private finances but one partner then takes out a loan that really puts him/her under financial strain and decides not to share this information with the other partner – that is keeping it a secret.


A couple may agree that conversations between individual partners and their personal friends could be kept private, if so wished, and that meetings and visits need not necessarily be disclosed all the time. If; however, a partner has a friend of the opposite sex, with whom he/she is meeting often and there is a “knowing” or a fear that the other partner would not approve of these visits; not disclosing this – or actively keeping this information hidden – is keeping a secret.

Keeping something a secret, has an element of fear attached to it. A person decides to withhold the information, because he/she is afraid or concerned that it coming to light would influence things negatively. The information being kept secret, could either hurt the partner that it is being kept from, put the offending partner in a negative light, or cause the relationship to take strain.
The offending partner knows that the other partner would not approve of the actions or behaviour that are being kept secret, but does not want to give up the specific behaviour or actions; thus actively hides it from the other partner.

Previously in this article, we briefly touched on the idea of creating safe relationships and on what an important role trust plays in all of this. Therefore, I do believe that it makes absolute sense to say the following:
If information comes to light that has actively been hidden or kept secret; such as behaviour that a partner does not plan or wish to end, but in continuing to do so, this partner is well aware that he/she is busy with stuff that hurts either the relationship or his/her partner…it goes without saying that trust is being violated.
The feeling of being emotionally safe with my partner is being destroyed.

In my opinion therefore; there is a huge difference between privacy and secrecy. Yes, we all have the right to privacy. I have the right to get dressed in private, to keep personal conversations between myself and my best friend private, even the right to keep my bank balance to myself – if so wished and discussed and agreed upon by us as a couple. But as soon as I am actively hiding something that I know would cause trouble, upset, unease, hurt…I am keeping it a secret.

Secrets hurt. Secrets between a couple, have the potential to destroy relationships.