It’s as tale as old as (smartphone-era) time: Someone leaves their phone or tablet on the table and their partner walks by and thinks, “Hey, what would it hurt if I look to see who they’re texting or emailing?’”
The scenario plays out fairly frequently. According to a 2014 survey from anti-virus software company Avast, nearly one in five men and one in four women admitted to secretly checking their partner’s phone.
But is it ever a good idea to snoop ― or are you opening up a proverbial can of worms with your S.O.?
“It’s a very delicate situation,” said Stephanie Macadaan, a therapist in Los Angeles, California. “Typically, checking someone’s email indicates a lack of trust. If you’re trying to get comfort or reassurance about something that’s bothering you, it’s probably better to reach out to your partner and talk.”
It’s a good rule of thumb, but are there ever instances where a little poking around is called for? Below, marriage therapists unpack what it means when someone snoops on email and better routes to take if you’re suspicious.
Why do people do it?
Unless a person is exceedingly nosy, more often than not, snooping happens because there’s cause for suspicion, said Elisabeth LaMotte, therapist and founder of the DC Counseling & Psychotherapy Center.
“If there’s an urge to snoop to surface something, it often means that someone is picking up on their partner’s evasiveness or has an awareness that something in the relationship has changed,” she said.
LaMotte said she often deals with the emotional fallout of snooping when a partner uncovers signs of an affair.
“Most people who spy experience tremendous shame about this breach, but they typically go through the emails or texts in a state of desperation,” she said. “Often, the email is scanned or the phone is scoured after direct questions have been asked and the answers do not feel satisfying or believable.”
While LaMotte recognizes that the person who was snooped on may be angry over the breach of privacy, she thinks it’s important to acknowledge each person’s pain.
“I think unfortunate when the subsequent narrative becomes focused on the privacy invasion rather than on the betrayal,” she said. “If the betrayer is extremely focused on the privacy invasion rather than on healing and rebuilding trust, this tells you something difficult but important about the relationship. That’s not healthy.”
What does it say about your relationship if you snoop to begin with?
Regardless of whether you find something, checking your partner’s email suggests very real problems in a relationship, said Ryan Howes, a clinical psychologist in Pasadena, California.
“Either you have reason to feel suspicious of your partner’s actions or you bring a level of insecurity into the relationship that is worth addressing,” he said. “It’s a red flag either way.”
In his practice, Howes encourages an open dialogue instead of nosing around.
“The scrutiny of email is always second-best to direct communication,” he said. “I find that asking, ‘Are we a team?’ and assessing that response is much better than combing through the emails of your partner. If they balk at the answer, or give a questionable qualification, you know you’re in dangerous territory.”
And when couples learn to have open, ongoing conversations about what unnerves them, they don’t feel the need to check each other’s emails, said Kurt Smith, a therapist who specializes in counseling men.
“If your relationship is open, honest and has regular routines that build trust, then this won’t be necessary,” he said. “While there can be certain times when it can feel justified, like cheating, practicing deceptive behavior in response to possible deceptive behavior is a mistake. It only makes things worse, not better.”
If you still feel compelled to snoop out of suspicion, talk to your partner about it.
If you truly feel that it’s necessary to look through partner’s emails to quell your concerns ― even after talking ― tell them. Having your partner participate in the search also allows them to explain anything that looks suspicious, said Laurel Steinberg, psychotherapist in New York City.
“While broaching this, you should tell your partner that you insist on doing this and explain why,” she said. “Hopefully they’ll be sensitive to your concerns and you’ll find nothing. This will build your faith in your partner’s trustworthiness, strengthened by their showing you loving kindness in tolerating this kind of ‘investigation.’”
What if you do find something?
If you turn up incriminating evidence, the rules of engagement may need to change, said Alicia H. Clark, a psychologist and author of Hack Your Anxiety: How to Make Anxiety Work for You in Life, Love, and All That You Do.
In some relationships, both partners might mutually decide to give each other permission to go through each other’s phones moving forward.
“In rebuilding trust in a relationship after an affair, I have had betraying partners share email passwords and phone codes for a time so their betrayed partner can check on them anytime they feel the need,” she said. “Betrayed people understandably want to take back control, and determine for themselves what they can trust and what they can’t.”
In post-infidelity situations, Clarke said that the “‘trust but verify’ strategy can be useful in helping clients rebuild the trust.”