I’m working. Let me alone:
Privacy during the quarantine

The lock-down is difficult for all of us, but it is exceptionally difficult for the couples with background problems. Consider the following true story in Texas Monthly website. It happened during the quarantine in March 2020 after the coronavirus outbreak.

Two days into quarantine, I was on my way to the kitchen when I heard my wife talking to a coworker during a video conference. At first, I couldn’t believe it was her. Giggling and playful and clearly familiar with the man on the other end, her voice sounded happier than I’d heard it sound in months.

When the conversation ended, I casually asked: “Who was that?”

“I’m working!” she angrily snapped back at me without turning her head. Though she didn’t utter it out loud, she might have well said, “How dare you talk to me!”

I’d been fighting to close the gap between us for years, holding out hope that, with enough consistency and effort, she’d start to see and appreciate me. But during that moment in the kitchen, I realized I didn’t exist in her real life. It was as if I was a ghost, hovering on the fringes of someone else’s existence, unseen and unheard. At that moment, I also realized something I’d been avoiding for months: my marriage couldn’t be saved. (Texas Monthly)

It is not surprising that the lawyers expect a surge in the rate of divorce after the outbreak (ABC News). The quarantine period might have proven to some couples that their relationship does not work and that they have good reasons for ending it. For instance, people may have a good reason to dump their partners who demonstrated violence during the quarantine.

By contrast, some other couples may not have a substantial reason for breaking up. However, the disrespectful behaviors of the partners during the quarantine might have led to their break-ups. As a philosopher, I would like to draw attention to a form of disrespect that might be one of the most important sources of trouble for couples in the current situation: violating each other’s privacy. In the above story, for example, I think the violation of the woman’s private boundaries made the situation worse for the couple.

We have to start our analysis with some general points about privacy. Everybody needs some personal space. The physical distance of one’s workplace from their house typically provides the sense of living in two different spheres that complement each other. While the house is the personal space to get rid of the managers, clients, coworkers, etc., the work environment is one’s shelter to stay away from their family, partners, or roommates.

While people are careful not to allow anybody from work to violate their privacy in their house, they are typically much less worried about the privacy of their work environment that might become violated by the people of their house. It is not surprising, however. Many social conventions keep the people of the house away from one’s work environment. Therefore, people do not need to contemplate on or plan for it. Nevertheless, the fact that we are not usually conscious about the role of work environment in providing a personal space for us has caused some ignorance or even denial about our need to preserve the privacy of our workspace.

This denial has even caused a stigma around this need. Some people believe that the couples who do everything together and never want to stay away from each other have relations that are more intimate. Thus, they argue that the inability of couples to stay in a room during the whole quarantine should ring a bell that they probably do not love each other. Furthermore, an old misunderstanding holds that people need privacy only if they have something (nasty) to hide. Therefore, if one wants to hide something from their partner, for instance, by sheltering in the workspace, they need to be worried about their relationship.

However, as I said earlier, we all need some space. Of course, people may need different things to satisfy this need. While a person may need to stay away from his family at least 5 times a week for at least a couple of hours, another person may need to listen to music alone for 3 minutes a day to attain the inner peace. This difference per se does not say anything about the love or affection of these people to their partners. Meanwhile, the partner of the first person may have a problem with the fact that she wants to leave them 3 times a week. This can lead to a break-up: if the partner cannot accept it, it is a serious problem in their relationship. Nonetheless, even the complaining partner should admit that there is nothing wrong about the natural need of the person in seeking for some private space. The situation is like when you have problem with living with tall people, so you prefer not to be in relationship with a tall person. However, you probably concede that there is nothing wrong with being tall — this is just the way some people are — It just does not work for you. I think the same goes for the privacy needs of your partner. If one accepts this argument, the “Nothing to hide” argument loses its grip. People usually do not hide things because they have done something wrong. They usually do it because of their natural need for privacy.

In addition, it has been argued that privacy is the necessary element for respect, love, trust, and friendship. Privacy is the context in which these social values thrive. If the lack of personal space leads to the violation of people’s privacy, it would harm their intimate relationships. This process happens in two stages. First, one loses their chance to protect themselves from undesirable collisions and hostile reactions of others. Second, the one whose privacy is violated is pressed to discuss the things that they did not want to discuss. This process, in turn, can invoke hostile reactions of the victim. I argue that both these stages are identifiable in the story in the beginning of this article. I hope that this article brings in some awareness about the similar situations that threaten intimate relationships during the quarantine.

It seems that the woman of the story worked outside of the house before quarantine. There, she had the chance to talk to her coworkers, clients, managers, etc., without being surveilled and judged. However, coronavirus outbreak put her in a situation where she could not defend the privacy of her workspace. Now her talks to the people at work echo in the house and she cannot do much about it. The husband is not also at fault for hearing the woman while she was talking to her coworker. However, he makes a mistake when he continues to listen and interprets the conversation:

Giggling and playful and clearly familiar with the man on the other end, her voice sounded happier than I’d heard it sound in months.

Now, the man has fulfilled the first stage of violating the woman’s privacy. The tension and stress is the outcome of the man’s (hasty) interpretation — The process of violating the woman’s privacy may continue due to the tension and the stress that the man experiences. However, the man still has the opportunity to save their relationship. He could ignore what he heard and he could avoid acknowledging the fact that he has entered (or has been hovering in) the personal workspace of the woman. Note that the woman might have noticed that the husband could hear what she said; however, merely knowing some information about her work probably would not be a problem. The woman, nonetheless, feels disrespected when the man brings the private issues of the woman into the discussion.

When the man of the story goes ahead and asks, “Who was that?” he implies that the issue should be addressed collectively. In other words, the man implies that what the woman says in her workspace concerns him. Therefore, I think the man could have expected that the woman respond, “I’m working,” which means, “Considering the fact that I am in my personal workspace, what I do and I say do not concern you.” The woman of this story could probably manage the situation better (for instance, by putting the words differently) and could stop the tension from escalation. Nevertheless, we have to concede that she has not been treated with respect and her anger is understandable.

I think the man is right in interpreting the woman’s inner voice, “how dare you talk to me!” There is a dehumanizing element in violating one’s privacy, which inevitably invoked the hostile reactions of the woman. However, the man probably made a mistake in interpreting the implications of woman’s reaction. The reaction does not necessarily imply that their marriage has ended; rather, it indicates that the woman is offended. It is like saying ouch when someone steps on your toe. To know the real implications of the situation, the couple could talk and discuss the matter. Nevertheless, the story does not show any attempt for doing that. This inability to communicate, in turn, pushes the relationship to a breaking point.

Note that the story does not exhibit all the relevant details about the couple’s lives. Much might have happened between the partners of our story that could justify the actions and interpretations. The man might ultimately have a good reason (apart from what he expressed) to think that their marriage was on its way out. It is a possibility. However, there is another possibility: that the relationship could be saved, if it could have survived the quarantine. A disrespect or carelessness during the quarantine — like what happened in the story — can even destroy good relationships that do not have any alarming background. People are probably experiencing quarantine for the first time, they feel insecure about their jobs and their future and they do not know how to adapt to the new circumstances. In this situation, a small mistake out of ignorance can lead to a domino of disrespectful behaviors that could destroy any relationship. I argued that one of these mistakes is to violate one’s privacy and I hope that this article motivated some to be more careful about this aspect of their behaviors during the quarantine.

References:

- ‘He Hoped Sheltering in Place Would Save His Marriage. Instead It Led to Divorce’. Texas Monthly, URL: https://www.texasmonthly.com/being-texan/coronavirus-divorce/, (First Written: 7 April 2020; Last visited: 22 April 2020).

- ‘Surge in divorces anticipated in wake of COVID-19 quarantine’. ABC News, URL: https://abcnews.go.com/US/surge-divorces-anticipated-wake-covid-19-quarantine/story?id=70170902 (First Written: 31 March 2020; Last visited: 22 April 2020)

Biblography:

- Nagel, Thomas. (1998) ‘Concealment and Exposure’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 27 (1), 3–30.

- Fried, Charles. (1968) ‘Privacy’, Yale L.J., 77, 475–493.

MA of Philosophy, Simon Fraser University

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