Although Tracy, 35, has lived with her boyfriend for three years, she only shits when he’s out of the house. On weekdays, that’s no problem: He goes to work in an office, and she works from home as a podcast host. But on weekends? Well, then it’s a source of tension. He’s relaxing on his day off and doesn’t want to leave, and she doesn’t want him to know she’s taking a dump. It’s an uncomfortable impasse for her, but for her boyfriend, who learned about her timid bowels before they dated when they were just friends, catching her has become a game. When she rushes him out the door, he’ll linger and laugh, or after she takes a long shower, he’ll light a candle and ask if her stomach feels better.
“It’s good he’s gone most of the day,” Tracy tells me. “If he got laid off or worked from home, I’d break up with him. I’d have no choice.”
Tracy has always scheduled her shits around her boyfriends. She didn’t live with her ex, but would plan ahead for sleepovers at his place on weekends. Every Friday, she wouldn’t eat, save for a single slice of pizza on their dinner dates, and she could usually get through Saturday without pooping. Finally, on Sunday morning, when her ex left for training as a volunteer firefighter, she could poo. One time he asked if she ever went number two, and she joked that she pooped like an owl — in neat, tidy pellets from her mouth.
Clinicians often refer to Tracy’s problem as parcopresis, a term used to describe people who are unable to defecate without complete privacy. She’s never been formally diagnosed, but to be fair, parcopresis isn’t an officially recognized medical condition. The name comes from a similar anxiety about peeing known as paruresis, which is classified as a disorder in the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic guide, the DSM-V.
It isn’t entirely clear why pee-shyness is clinically recognized and poo-shyness is not. Experts like Steve Soifer, CEO of the International Paruresis Association, suspect that pee-shyness is more debilitating and consequential because it’s harder to avoid urinating, whereas most people can adapt to poop-shyness without it affecting their day-to-day to the same extent. Yet a growing amount of research suggests that the two afflictions are closely related, so most of what scientists deduce about poop anxiety comes from what they already know about the pee variety.
The prevalence of poop shyness is unknown, but pee shyness affects approximately 20 million Americans. Anxiety about urinating is more common among men, which is partially a product of how public urinals expose men more. Poop anxiety is likely gendered in reverse and can be exacerbated by romantic relationships. More than half of heterosexual women in a 2005 study said they were uncomfortable pooping and farting around others because they believed it made them less attractive to the opposite sex, whereas only about a quarter of heterosexual men felt the same.
There has, however, been a pro-poop movement over the past few years — ranging from the popularity of Squatty Potties and Poo-Pourri sprays to Drew Magary’s poop stories on Deadspin (RIP) to countless fecal-friendly podcasts. All of which has been bolstered by a broader focus on vulnerability in the health, wellness and self-help spaces. Brené Brown’s 2012 TED Talk and subsequent book and Netflix special successfully set an imperfection-embracing trend that’s been digested many times over by beauty brands, clothing companies and produce-delivery services. Social scientists have even started to study the unique appeal of people’s flaws, a phenomenon they refer to as “the beautiful mess effect.”
A similar shift toward vulgarity in the self-help industry has put plenty of books with shit in the title on people’s shelves, as well as brought some of this vulnerability into the bathroom. And so, today, the couple that’s so comfortable together that they shit with the other one is in the bathroom has become a prime example of intimacy, comfort and commitment.
Understandably, though, it still isn’t for everybody and has been seen as a bit of an overcorrection to people like Kevin. “It’s crazy that we’ve gotten to the point where I have to hedge saying that you shouldn’t shit in front of your spouse,” the 33-year-old recruiter says. “Everyone is like, ‘Well, excuse me Miss Manners.’ It’s a confusing time.”
Kevin, who has lived with his girlfriend for six years and dated her for eight, makes a sweet case for secret shitting. He’s gotten to the point where he can poop when his girlfriend is home, but he tries to avoid it. When he has to, it’s a strict closed-door policy, and he tries to do it when she’s otherwise occupied. In fact, he’s so discreet, his girlfriend complains that he’s not grosser and more obvious. But he remains steadfast for the sake of their romantic relationship. “Being the most exposed version of yourself isn’t necessarily being the best version of yourself,” Kevin explains. “If I can keep the door closed when I shit, I’m probably going to put my clothes in the hamper, make sure the dishes are done and develop a routine to show actions of love.”
Tracy agrees: “It’s about him not seeing me in a sexual way anymore. I don’t need any other reason for my boyfriend to not want to fuck me.”
Still, their aversion to pooping around their lovers may not be solely about maintaining romance and mystery. Much like pee anxiety, clinicians believe that poop shyness is rooted in early childhood experiences. “When parents change your diapers and react to the poop odor by squealing, babies absorb and integrate a message that pooping is shameful,” child psychologist and psychotherapist Fran Walfish tells me. “They toddle behind a couch or chair and learn to squat, drop a load in their diapers or pull-ups and poop in private. These are the early stages of toilet training.”
Along those lines, Tracy and Kevin both did have traumatic childhood poop memories. When Tracy would go to the bathroom, her mom would scold her over the smell, or after fighting with her brother, he’d threaten to tell everyone at school that she pooped. For Kevin’s part, when he was four, his grandma took what continues to be a widely circulated family photo of him pooping on the toilet, covering his face in embarrassment. Not long after, when he was pooping in a public bathroom stall without any doors, a group of kids came in, pointed at him and laughed. “That’s probably where my thing with poop comes from,” he concedes.
“These learned messages stay internally embedded inside of us for life and are the reason why many people won’t poop when their significant other is around, even for the duration of a long marriage,” Walfish continues.
As uncomfortable as Tracy and Kevin are with the idea of pooping around their partners, holding it in isn’t going to make them any more comfortable. Because doing so causes stool to reabsorb into the colon and become harder, causing constipation and potentially hemorrhoids. In extreme instances, the bowel can become impacted, resulting in pain, vomiting, and occasionally, a trip to the ER, per gastroenterologist Sarina Pasricha. “Holding in poop can cause significant pelvic floor dysfunction and result in constipation issues in the future that may even require physical therapy to correct,” she warns.
Kevin has never personally experienced any health problems related to his modesty, and he insists that he’s not judgmental about gross things. Over the years, he and his girlfriend have gotten sick in front of each other and faced plenty of unfortunate poop scenarios in which they couldn’t control their shits. That’s basically where his line is: If he’s given the choice of not pooping around his girlfriend, he’ll always pick that option, even if he has to occasionally remind her to close the door.
Tracy, however, does struggle with irritable bowel syndrome and admits her inability to poop when her boyfriend is around makes it worse. She is, though, making progress. After three years of cohabitation, they’ve reached an unspoken compromise where she will poop when he’s home, but only if it’s an emergency. That said, she still attempts to create elaborate lies and schemes to cover it up. Best-case scenario, she can shit before she showers, which conceals the sound and smell. When that doesn’t work, she blames the landlord and vague plumbing issues for why she has to run water with the door locked for extended periods of time.
As much of a production as this may seem, it’s what she’s currently comfortable with and better than not pooping at all. And it’s a huge improvement from where she started — i.e., when they first started living together, Tracy couldn’t imagine shitting with her boyfriend, or even peeing when he was in the shower, which she’ll now (reluctantly) do. “What if I pee and fart? I don’t want to deal with that,” she says. “In a perfect world I’d have my own bathroom in a secret part of the house he didn’t know about.”
Through it all — and despite her boyfriend teasing her about hiding her poop — Tracy knows that he loves her, and mostly just wants her to feel the relief of taking a good dump. If that means never acknowledging that it happened, there are worse lies to take to the grave. Not to mention, it’s way better than taking those shits with you.