Honesty is the Best Policy… But Balancing it with Privacy is a Challenge (for Me)

This is a topic I’ve wanted to write about for a while. I consider myself an honest person, and value it pretty highly in myself as well as in other people. However, much of my relationship experience has involved more private men. They certainly didn’t fit the stereotype of the man who brags about their conquests, which is a good thing, for sure. But for me, it sort of dug into my internal wounds and triggered feelings of shame. Like, “I’m not good enough to be shown off as someone you chose to be with.” (This could explain why I actually liked it when, in the early days of my relationship with my ex-husband, he introduced me to all his friends and family ASAP, and I thought it was sweet that he didn’t tell them I’d broken up with him briefly and asked me to pretend we were still together when I went to watch him in his play for the second time, rather than realising it was a red flag that he didn’t respect my boundaries. In fact, perhaps due to my love of romantic comedy plots, it even played a part in him winning me over again. I was 21 and naive, okay). Plus, for me, as an autistic person, I don’t understand what it’s like to not want to talk incessantly about the things that really excite you. When I’m in a relationship with someone I’m really excited about, I just want to talk about how awesome they are all the time. That wasn’t something I understood the foundation of until learning I’m autistic in 2017.

When I first thought about writing this piece, my intention had been a desire to focus more on my longest and most recent private relationship. But then New Year’s Eve happened, and while I was scrolling my Twitter feed, I came across a tweet from another private ex-partner. I know what you’re probably thinking; why am I still following him? I am not very good at unfollowing people (although I have rectified that now). He rarely showed up in my feed anyway, and I don’t think about him very often these days. But something compelled me to click on the video he linked, and suddenly thoughts and feelings washed over me again as I watched it.

Lee hasn’t spoken to me since July 2014, but for some reason, over all this time, I still felt this loyalty toward him, to try and keep the connection we had private. Not tell more people we had been together, even when I thought for sure the truth must’ve come out about us by now, back where he lives. I think perhaps that stemmed from a place of hope, that he would one day forgive me for betraying his trust over this exact issue, when he stopped talking to me because he found out I’d told a specific person about us behind his back (remember when I said I can’t help wanting to talk about things that excite me? Yeah, that’s what happened from my perspective). Well, no more. I’m still not going to use his real name here, but I am going to write about him in a way that if you’re someone who knows him, you might be able to figure out who I’m referring to. I figure I’m safe—it’s been six and a half years since I left Malaysia, and most of the friends who still interact with me from that time in my life either know I was involved with him, or don’t know who he is. I have no strong desire to ever return to Malaysia because I’m so scared of the possibility of running into him in person and him continuing to pretend I don’t exist (so if I do have any Malaysian friends reading this—that’s the major reason I have distanced myself and haven’t made any effort to return to visit those I do still like). I also figure I’m not risking much putting this out there, because I have no reason to believe he’s paying any attention to what I’m up to, and it’s not like he’s ever going to forgive me, whether or not I choose to continue to keep our past private. I’ve spent a lot of time working on myself and my boundaries, and I’ve realised I don’t owe him that level of respect, when he’s the one who chose to discard and ghost me. I don’t know if his intention was to protect himself, hurt me, something else or a combination of things, but regardless, he didn’t treat me with respect in the end. At the time, and for so long afterwards, I felt so guilty and like I deserved the way he treated me. But now I’ve forgiven myself for the embarrassing way I behaved when I didn’t recognise how co-dependent (and, in some ways, manipulative) I was. And I have the self-worth now to prevent myself from following the same path in the future, chasing after someone who could easily discard me the way he did.

You did in your twenties what you knew how to do, and when you knew better you did better.

— Maya Angelou to Oprah Winfrey

(I wasn’t in my twenties; I was thirty when this happened, but the point still stands).

So why did watching this video trigger me? Well, first I should perhaps mention he was a solo performer, so it was a video of clips of some of his performances. He’d always had this sort of self-deprecating style, but generally kept his real personal life out of it. He’d been private about how little experience he’d actually had with women. But here he was in this video, on stage in front of an audience, talking about how old he was when he lost his virginity. An experience I’d been a part of, and careful to protect. I wondered, why did he no longer care about keeping that private? Though he was talking about an event I’d been involved in, there was no truth in the punchline. It was all a set up to tear himself down for the sake of a laugh. What had—I thought—been a really sensitive, special moment was reduced to a joke. And even though a friend had told me he’d been talking about the subject on stage, seeing it for myself was another level. It was a sad reminder of how I’d hurt him. It brought back this unsettling feeling that my betrayal had not only ruined our connection, but changed him into a person I didn’t even recognise any more. He was just somebody that I used to know.

In the ~2.5 months we’d actually been sexually involved with each other, I’d seen his confidence rise so much. I valued the trust he placed in me, the things he shared with me that he didn’t talk about with other people. It wasn’t like he’d completely lacked interest from other women, so the fact he chose me as the first woman he wanted to get that intimate with actually meant something to me. He was a sweetheart, and a romantic in his own way. I think I fell in love with the way he made me feel special. The ways he went out of his way for me when he really didn’t have to. The insatiable feeling of making out in his car, and the adrenaline rush of wondering if we’d get caught out by our community. I felt privileged to have his attention, and felt so much responsibility on my shoulders to make him feel cared for and appreciated in return. I felt like with how long he’d waited (we were essentially the same age, but I had a good ten years of experience on him), I had the power to make or break his ability to have a good relationship with other women in the future, and I didn’t want him to regret his choice (I mean, when I first developed my crush on him, I’d been reluctant to act on it because of the responsibility I’d feel for handling his inexperience). I knew our relationship wasn’t supposed to last—after all, we were only brave enough to take our friendship to the next level after we knew I was moving to California. Once he ghosted me a month into my move, I knew I’d failed in my goal. I’d been so selfish, and I didn’t listen to what he needed when he needed space and privacy. I’d been too caught up in what I wanted, and how good he’d made me feel, that I became so scared of losing that that I ignored everything else.

But even in spite of all that, and not having any real closure with him, it’s still the positive moments I remember best, and what I prefer to focus on when I do think of him, because I don’t want to lose those memories. Or maybe it’s because we were never together long enough for me to graduate out of the lovestruck honeymoon phase of our whirlwind romance before he cut me out of his life. When I let myself reflect on that time in my life, I think about the months we spent as friends, getting to know each other. One late-night conversation where he revealed he had a crush on me the moment he first saw me on stage, years before we actually met. Learning he’d lived in my part of Australia, and actually attended the same screening of Super Size Me with director Morgan Spurlock’s Q&A, and were probably seated not too far away from each other. Discovering we both had an affinity for A Goofy Movie and its soundtrack. We had a very similar taste in films, and watched Miyazaki and Wes Anderson and Marvel superhero movies together. He even liked the romantic comedies I liked! Then there was the time he surprised me by driving 3+ hours up to where I was staying in Cherating with my kids for a week while my then-husband was… somewhere else. He barely had a couple of days to spare, but he still came to keep me company, although I’d practically begged him to—he had to pretend he wasn’t coming so he actually would surprise me. I remember it was one of the earliest moments I got to see how great he was with my kids, as he played with them on the beach, and pushed them on the swings in the playground (both of which I still have photos of that I never shared with anyone). After the kids were asleep, we’d crack jokes with each other about pokémon, and it would lead to me writing stand-up comedy about some of our more intimate moments together. I guess I can’t blame him for choosing to do the same, in a far less personal way.

I can’t remember what the jokes were any more. I haven’t performed stand-up comedy since I left Malaysia. I left that whole life behind me when I started doing improv instead. I needed to move away from everything that reminded me of him, in order to heal.

They may forget what you said—but they will never forget how you made them feel.

— Carl W. Buehner

I’m pretty sure there was a Jigglypuff joke in there somewhere, so even though I didn’t consider him at all when I bought my Jigglypuff hood, I can’t help but occasionally wonder what he might’ve thought if I’d had it while we were together. I just loved that we had so much similar frame of reference that we could crack jokes and laugh at ourselves together. It was a refreshing change from being involved with someone who took so many things so seriously, and started lacking mutual interests.

Beach in Cherating, Malaysia
Beach in Cherating, Malaysia

When you’re starved for attention like I had been, it can be easy to glom on to all the positives, and ignore the red flags, your boundaries, and limits. I had been on anti-depressants at the time, and Lee seemed to understand my experiences with depression. He got me at a time where I felt like few people truly understood me. Not long after that trip to Cherating, my then-husband moved to California ahead of me and our children, and I had six weeks with Lee without my then-husband’s jealousy interfering so much. I gave Lee a key to my apartment, and keycard access to the parking lot, so he could let himself in whenever he wanted, so we could spend more time together, and he’d have a safe place to park on the nights he slept over. He babysat for me when I wanted to go out to a show, and I joyfully watched him connect with my kids as they played video games like MarioKart64 together. He entertained my oldest kid by taking an interest in the levels of LittleBigPlanet they made. For our last meal together, as he drove us to the airport for our flights to California, I half-understood a conversation he had in Malay with our Malaysian server, who seemed to think he was the father of my children. I guess that’s how close we seemed. He’d had to point out that the colour of my children’s rambut (hair) was such that he couldn’t possibly have been their biological parent.

Before we had gotten together, I’d worried Lee would fall in love with me when I was going to have to leave him behind, but in an ironic twist, the opposite happened—I was the one who fell for him, and he couldn’t tell me the same. At the time, I thought it was just because I’d have to say goodbye to him that he couldn’t say those words. Or that his lack of prior experience meant he didn’t recognise love when it was staring him in the face. How could he have spent so much time with me and done everything he did for me if he didn’t feel something? I guess I was just so used to being with emotionally distant men that I didn’t recognise that it wasn’t healthy for him to not talk to me about his feelings much at all. I was honest with him, about my feelings, but he stayed comparably private with me. He knew how much I wanted people to know about us being together, but after a while, he grew more private. Where once we’d held hands walking through a mall, he later withdrew, fearing what people of his race would think of him being involved with a white girl, or worse, running into someone who knew us. I tried to respect it as a cultural difference. Polyamory is very far from the norm in conservative Malaysia, and even though we actually did have a couple friends who knew about us and were happy for us, it still seemed like there would be a lot of people who wouldn’t understand why he would choose to be with a married woman.

I have thought on more than one occasion that I destroyed Lee’s ability to trust women, and grow as a person. I try to remind myself that he’s his own person with the ability to decide how he deals with things, and I don’t actually have any control over that. Without closure, I have no idea if he actually feels the way I’ve made assumptions he feels. I’ve had to put my memories of him in the past, and buried them pretty deep because as far as I could tell, when I betrayed his trust, none of our history mattered to him any more. It left me reeling, wondering if I ever actually did mean anything to him, or if I just saw the fantasy I wanted to see. He had accepted when I’d told other people about our relationship, and reached a point where he didn’t want to know who knew about us, so I kept it to myself. Why was this time different? Had he instead just been looking for an out, an excuse to discard me like a sack of hot potatoes? I never wanted to go through that again. I learned from it, and became more determined to either be involved with someone who wasn’t so private, or to better respect their boundaries of privacy, even if it was to the detriment of my own mental health because it conflicted with my desire for honesty.

Which is how I eventually wound up having a relatively private relationship with someone else for approximately four years. I say relatively because there were people—like my ex-husband—who knew we were involved. And he knew how much I wanted to talk about him, too, so we struck a balance between our boundaries, for what I could and couldn’t say, and where I could and couldn’t say them. He accepted the risks, but still preferred privacy. I accepted the privacy, because I needed someone I could trust and count on to listen to me without judgement, and he was willing to be that someone for me. But it was a challenge, and unsustainable. Ultimately, I still deserved better than to be someone else’s secret.

I’ve come to accept how much I grew up in my thirties (yes, even as I still have pokémon merchandise—I’m also a mother who has kids who like pokémon), where I learned a lot about understanding and respecting other people’s needs and boundaries, and… as far as I can tell, from the minimal content I’ve seen from him halfway around the world, Lee didn’t, really. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if he remained emotionally closed off. I couldn’t go back to what we had even if he wanted to, for that reason alone. Relationships require honesty, and the ability to open up, even when things hurt and are painful. They require a level of forgiveness and understanding. So whilst ghosting can sometimes be necessary—and I’m not going to say it was necessarily a solely bad thing that Lee ended our connection by ghosting me, because I learned from it—it is still an emotionally stunted choice to make with someone you’ve had a significant connection with for months. It is reminiscent of the silent treatment and stonewalling narcissistic abusers inflict on their partners in order to coerce them to behave in a manner the narcissist approves of. I don’t think Lee is a narcissist (he just lacked valuable relationship skills, due to his lack of experience), but that doesn’t mean the behaviour can’t cause the same kind of damage and harm. Yes, I learned from it, but not before spiraling into my deepest depression first.

But you didn’t have to cut me off
Make out like it never happened
And that we were nothing
And I don’t even need your love
But you treat me like a stranger
And that feels so rough

Gotye

Telling me “I never want to hear from you again” and unfriending me on Facebook would’ve been more respectful than leaving me hanging by just ignoring my messages without unfriending or blocking me, wondering for months if there was something I could do to get his attention again, and obsessing over how I could make things right. I guess I didn’t understand that Lee didn’t function the same way my ex-husband did when I’d been rejected by him, but always found a way back into his heart, “proving” my worth, or being sufficiently apologetic for the awful thing I’d supposedly done, because of course it was always 100% my fault. What I know now is this: you should never have to prove your worth or how you feel about a person in a healthy relationship. That crap is toxic. At the first sign of rejection, it’s probably a lot healthier to thank them and run in the opposite direction so you can find someone who values you as you are instead. You shouldn’t have to change yourself to be accepted—that is, unless you’re the toxic one (and I say that as someone who recognises when I’ve been the toxic one, and learned from it).

Easier said than done, though, I know. Look at me—six and a half years later, and even though I’ve moved on with my life and I’m in a good place in it, happy with the progress I’ve made and continually improving—the fact a short video clip can trigger all this in me means I’m still not over the lack of closure. I wish I could forget him as easily as he seemed to forget me. Is it any wonder that after putting myself through all that, I figure I’m better off being single, and just having close intimate and non-sexual friendships instead? My hope in writing this all out here for anyone to read is it will finally release these emotions and give myself the closure I need from within, because I’m never going to get it from him.

Throughout my life, I’ve tried to operate under the notion of “don’t do anything you wouldn’t be okay with people finding out about you,” which may be part of why I don’t have a relationship with privacy that a significant number of other people in the world do. As an autistic person, straight-forward honesty just fosters more understanding. I can’t always read between the lines and understand subtext. So I tell it like it is as much as I can, until I learn that someone doesn’t like the way I’m describing something, and then I have to “tone down” my attitude to make it more palatable for people.

Perhaps I have issues with privacy because I don’t like secrets. Though privacy does not necessarily equal secrecy, there can be problems when people intentionally withhold information that should be shared because it impacts more than themselves (remember when they didn’t tell us the truth about COVID-19?). Or, as I mentioned in my opening paragraph, how being kept a secret amounts to feeling like the other person feels ashamed of being involved with me.

Privacy does have its place, though. Extreme honesty can be toxic too, if it stems from a place of not being able to trust people. For example, I don’t think having access to your spouse’s email and social media accounts so you can read their private conversations with other people who are unaware of your ability to access them is healthy. If that’s something you think you need in order to trust your spouse isn’t going to cheat on you, then you have bigger problems you need to deal with.

Though I don’t consider myself an especially private person, I do respect other people’s privacy as much as I can, as much as it doesn’t inflict on my own mental health (as you can see from this post, sometimes I have to talk about my experiences a lot in order to release them and let them go, so I don’t suffer a mental health breakdown for bottling up “secrets”). Their boundaries matter as much as mine do, and privacy is a boundary issue. I don’t intentionally hide things about my life unless it involves another person who’s asked me to keep things private.


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