In the digital age, there are so many opportunities to snoop that it can make your head spin. Some are clear invasions of privacy (for example, reading your partner’s text history with an ex), while others are a little more blurry: Does checking someone’s Amazon purchase history, for example, count as overstepping?
While we all may have different ideas about what constitutes crossing the line, one thing is clear: Snooping is causing issues in relationships everywhere. A new study among people who either experienced or perpetrated unauthorized smartphone access found that 20% of participants had relationships (including intimate relationships) end as a result of it. Yikes.
In an effort to un-blur these privacy lines, I reached out to experts to find out what constitutes an invasion of privacy and what can be considered harmless curiosity. Here’s what I learned.
The urge to snoop is normal.
While constantly feeling suspicious of your partner’s every move probably indicates a larger problem, relationship expert Jillian Turecki says that simply being curious about what your partner is doing is pretty natural.
“We’re presented with so many opportunities to find out what our partner is up to these days, and the urge to look is normal and deeply human,” says Turecki. “Even before we consider what’s an invasion of privacy and what isn’t, know that it’s important to resist [snooping] in most cases because it isn’t good for you.”
She adds that no matter what we uncover during a snooping session, it will likely lead us to make up stories in our heads about what’s going on in the relationship. “Our minds are often fueled by insecurity and past drama, and they can run the show. This is very dangerous in a relationship.”
And while the urge to snoop may be human, it’s important to dig in to where this curiosity really comes from, as that can tell you a lot about yourself and your relationship. “There’s snooping with the intent to learn more about someone and then there’s snooping because of mistrust or insecurity,” explains relationship expert Lisa Concepcion of LoveQuest Coaching. “If you’re a secure person and want to know more about your partner, you’ll simply ask. An insecure person in a relationship that lacks communication, mutual respect, or transparency will snoop. Take the high road.”
About those Amazon purchases…
I’ll never forget the day I was logged on to my partner’s Facebook account, went to search for someone, and his recent searches came up. I’d be lying if I said there weren’t a few exes in there, but rather than digging further, I clicked out of it. Afterward, I wondered if finding out the details of when and how often he’d searched for them would have been an invasion of privacy — after all, it wasn’t like I’d been reading his text messages.
Digging through a search queue is similar to perusing your partner’s Amazon purchase history and looking at their recent Netflix watches in that all these actions could be perceived as harmless. But according to Jane*, a 25-year-old woman living in Brooklyn, when her partner caught her looking through what he’d purchased recently, it caused quite the argument. “He got over it pretty quickly, but I think he was weirded out,” she says. “And then when he got defensive, I wondered what he had to hide. It wasn’t fun, but we worked it out.”
According to both Turecki and Concepcion, doing anything of this nature probably isn’t a good idea.
“If you want to see what their Amazon order history looks like or what they watched on Netflix, make it a game and be prepared to show them yours, too,” says Concepcion. “If they ask why you want to see it, be honest and tell them you want to know them better, if that’s where your motivation is. Flat-out ask them what the last five things they ordered on Amazon were. It could actually be a fun conversation, and it could help you learn more about each other.”
And as for that text history you can’t stop looking through…
If you’re going through your partner’s texts, call history, Gchats, or emails, you’re invading their privacy, plain and simple. The fact that these conversations happen in an isolated setting like a text thread or phone call makes them private by nature — they were intended to stay between the people involved.
Jason, a 33-year-old man living in New York, almost broke up with his girlfriend when he caught her reading his texts. “It wasn’t that I had anything to hide, it was that those conversations were never meant for her to see,” he says. “They were private, and the fact that she couldn’t respect that was a huge red flag for me.”
There’s always a chance that you could come across a message by mistake — say it appears when you’re checking Waze to help your partner navigate somewhere — but if the relationship is important to you, it’s also important to recognize what you’re doing and not give in to the temptation to find out more.
And if you can’t resist the temptation, Concepcion suggests you ask yourself why that is. “If a notification pops up on your partner’s phone and it triggers you, explore what that’s about. Trust issues? When did it start? Childhood? Snooping is an action inspired by a past wound. If you work on healing the wound, the need to snoop will disappear.”
If you feel like you’re invading your partner’s privacy, you probably are.
Although I could have talked myself into thinking that going through my partner’s Facebook search history was harmless, deep down I knew it was taking things too far — and because I trusted him, I knew that his recent searches were probably more indicative of a natural curiosity about what people in his past were up to than anything else. Here’s the bottom line when things get blurry: When it comes to boundaries around what should remain private, your instincts are usually correct.