The Key to Stronger Friendships: Respecting Privacy

When you have different notions about how much private detail to reveal, friends can clash -- or drift apart. Here are some rules for creating a comfort zone that will keep you close.
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What Should Be Kept Private?

I was having lunch with a friend some years back when she began to tell me about the new man she was dating.

"I like him," she said after enumerating his many fine qualities.

"He sounds wonderful," I agreed.

A worry line suddenly creased her forehead. "There's just this one thing." She dropped her voice. "It's his -- um."

"His...?" I waited, not getting it.

Then she lowered her eyes. "It's really, really small."

Oh. Now I got it. His um. I didn't quite know what to do with the expression on my face.

My friend looked up and sighed unhappily. "It's, like, miniature."

I took an extravagant interest in buttering a dinner roll, at which point the waiter came over to take our orders and the conversation moved on to other topics.

Time passed. Readers, my friend married him. We still see each other from time to time, and once in a while my husband and I enjoy their company as a couple over dinner.

There's just one little thing: I can't see this woman without wondering whether she feels mortified to have confided that intimate piece of information to me in the early days of her courtship. I know that I feel mortified to own it, particularly when chatting with her spouse. But there it is, destined always and forever to be the, um, elephant in the room.

It's tricky, figuring out what is appropriate to reveal about ourselves and our relationships (and when), and what we would be wiser to keep private and why. Where do we draw the line? How do we draw it? Since the same rules don't fit every situation and relationship, how do we determine where the privacy line should be drawn?

Exercising good judgment about privacy is really a matter of being willing to draw and redraw the privacy line to suit different relationships and specific moments, according to Seattle social psychologist Jane Adams, PhD, author of Boundary Issues: Using Boundary Intelligence to Get the Intimacy You Want and the Independence You Need in Life, Love, and Work. "Women tend to err on the side of sharing too much," Dr. Adams says. "They do it because they believe that self-disclosure is the road to intimacy."

Friendship and self-disclosure aren't necessarily linked concepts to Mischelle Blinsmon, 53, a retired contract administrator in Siler City, North Carolina. "If you're a real friend, you respect another person's right not to disclose her deepest secrets or most private thoughts and feelings," she says.

Since the spark that draws people to one another is often more emotional than verbal, how friendships develop after that first round of heart-to-hearts is as much about emotional health as it is about mutual self-disclosure. "If you're secure within yourself," Blinsmon believes, "you don't have to tell everything, or tell it all at once."

Just as some experts believe each of us has a "happiness set point," a basic mood that rises or falls depending on circumstances but always returns to its baseline, perhaps the same is true of personal boundaries. We all act according to a carefully tuned privacy metabolism, revealing intimate things about ourselves at different speeds. "Everyone has her own style," Dr. Adams says. "Often we have to adjust our expectations to take that into account."

Continued on page 2:  Men, Women, and How Much They Share


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