Plus: What steps to take if someone’s snooping through your phone. Pop quiz: You’re hanging out on a lazy Saturday and your boyfriend leaves the room. While he’s gone, his phone lights up with a notification. You notice it’s from his hot coworker. Do you A) Decide it’s none of your business and look away, B) Make a mental note to ask him about it, C) Pick it up, swipe in his passcode and read it, or D) Use it as permission to go full Mr. Robot and go through his phone top to bottom?
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Choosing the first option requires the self-control of a saint-the temptation to snoop in someone else’s phone is so real. But if you choose anything but option A, you might be on shaky legal ground. It turns out that going through your partner’s digital information could get you in hot water with the law if he or she got mad enough about it to go to the police not to mention what it says about having trust in your SO.
It may sound scary, but understanding these ins and outs is more important now than ever, considering just how many people are engaging in some form of tech snooping. “Depending on which survey results you read, anywhere from 25 to 40 percent of people in relationships admit that they have secretly checked their significant other’s e-mail, browser history, text messages, or social media accounts,” according to Judges Dana and Keith Cutler, real-life attorneys (and married couple) practicing in Missouri and presiding judges of the just-premiered show, Couples Court with the Cutlers. “The technology to follow up on that ‘gut feeling’ of suspicious activity is available, and people are using it.”
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Before you spy (even just for a second!), here’s what you need to know:
It all comes down to three issues: ownership, permission, and expectation of privacy. The first rule is pretty simple: If you don’t own the phone, you’re not allowed to do anything without the other person’s permission. But “permission” is where things get murky. Ideally, your boyfriend would give you his passcode and say you’re allowed to look at anything you want anytime you feel like it, and you would do the same, because you trust each other completely and are obviously too pure for this world. But that’s not usually real life (and if it were the case you probably wouldn’t need to snoop in the first place). So if he doesn’t give you his passcode, then you need to get permission on an ongoing basis.
“Permission is a tricky concept because it can be limited or revoked,” Judge Dana Cutler says. “Just because a particular emergency once required him to tell you his password does not give you a perpetual license to go snooping through his phone looking for pictures and texts anytime you feel like it.” Not to mention this isn’t super-healthy behavior in the first place. If you feel like your only resort is to sneak into your partner’s phone, then you might need to rethink your relationship-or at least look into couples’ counseling.
Under U.S. law, people have a right to an expectation of privacy, even with close loved ones, Judge Keith Cutler explains. This means that if he hands you his phone and shows you something or leaves his screen unlocked and open where you can obviously see it, he is not expecting it to stay private. Other than that, you have to ask first. It can be frustrating to be with someone who will share a toothbrush with you but not their phone, but ultimately that’s their call to make. (And it’s your call to decide if this is something you can live with in a relationship.)
Things go from murky to straight-up illegal if you guess his passcode, figure it out from watching him, or “hack” it a different way. “If he’s not aware that you know his password, and you have to unlock and open a series of apps on his phone while he’s asleep to find what you’re looking for, you’ve probably crossed the line at that point and have wrongfully invaded his privacy,” Judge Dana Cutler says.
Thankfully for curious (or suspicious) partners, there are other forms of snooping that are kosher. Social media, for instance, is fine. If he posts something publicly, you’re well within your rights to go through it with a fine-tooth comb. It’s also legal to “backdoor” information, meaning that you go through public postings of mutual friends to see things your partner might be commenting on or liking. You can’t, however, read his private messages, Judge Keith Cutler adds.
But what if you’re the one who is in the position of having your lover snooping through your phone? If you didn’t give him your passcode or otherwise grant permission and you didn’t leave it lying around unlocked and the screen on, then it’s a legit issue. Reduce anyone’s temptation to take a casual glance by making sure you’re already taking basic privacy measures, Judge Keith Cutler says. Change your passcode and passwords and remove notifications from your lock screen.
If it goes further than inappropriate curiosity, it may cross the line into digital stalking. Protect yourself immediately by setting your social media settings to private and unfriending mutual friends. Make sure you close out of apps and lock your phone screen every time, and contact your phone company about setting up additional security on your line. Your last resort, in extreme cases, is to call the police and file a criminal complaint. While it’s unlikely that law enforcement will get involved in a simple “he read my texts!” case, if there is a threat of violence or bodily harm, if it’s part of a pattern of stalking, or if your info has been used for fraud (identity theft) then they’ll take it very seriously, Judge Dana Cutler says.
Bottom line: Don’t snoop into other people’s phones, no matter how tempting it is. If it’s happening in your relationship, then it’s time to have serious thoughts about if you really want to be with someone you don’t trust. At best, this type of behavior (by you or your partner) is not healthy. And at worst, “digital abuse” can be part of a larger pattern of, or precursor to, domestic violence.
Is it Ever OK To Check Your Partner’s Phone? Marriage Therapists Weigh In.
These days, snooping on your partner is easier than ever.
With your S.O.’s smartphone in hand and a few finger taps, you can access their texts, emails, Instagram DMs, search history and a whole lot more. But just because you can quickly and easily obtain this information ― and as tempting as that might be ― you shouldn’t necessarily do it.
A lot of people seem to be snooping anyway, though: According to a 2020 survey by Avast, an antivirus software company, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 5 men copped to secretly checking their partner’s phone.
We asked marriage therapists to tell us what this kind of snooping means for a relationship and how to deal if you or your partner is guilty of it.
There are trust issues.
As you might expect, this kind of behavior often points to a lack of trust in the relationship.
“It says that you don’t trust that what your partner tells and shows you is who they really are,” psychologist Ryan Howes told HuffPost. “And that their true self is reflected in their communication and searches on their phone.”
People often go through their partner’s phone because they’re worried about what secrets or illicit activity he or she might be hiding. But snooping on the sly is only perpetuating more secretive behavior in the relationship.
“When people sneak a peek at their partner’s phone, it feeds secrecy and distrust into the relationship, both of which are likely to be the primary reasons the person is checking in the first place,” said Kurt Smith, a therapist who specializes in counseling men. “So while this may seem in the moment as a good idea and justified, it only creates more of the problems that need to be resolved.”
There is a lack of communication or problems with intimacy.
Psychologist and sex therapist Shannon Chavez told HuffPost that checking a partner’s phone may also be tied to issues around intimacy and communication. If the couple isn’t open with one another, problems are left unaddressed and suspicions begin to fester. Rather than confronting the issues head-on, the spying partner might feel the need to do some digging because it seems easier than having a potentially tense conversation.
“The problem is that checking a partner’s phone has become easier than being vulnerable and sharing how you are feeling and why you feel compelled to check the phone,” Chavez said.
And if your partner hasn’t been particularly forthcoming with you lately ― maybe he or she seems off but you can’t figure out why ― you might look through their phone for answers as to what they’re thinking or feeling.
“There might be a curiosity of what is going on in their life if they are not communicating as much with you,” Chavez added.
Partners are insecure or suspect there may be infidelity.
Really think about why you’re feeling suspicious of your partner or insecure about the relationship overall. Does your partner have a history of lying and cheating? Has he or she given you a reason to think they might be hiding something?
“It could mean that you have tangible evidence that your partner is being deceptive,” Howes said. “Maybe there have been concrete examples of this from the past, or maybe you know they have a history of infidelity or porn addiction. You’re searching because you want confirmation that they are being deceitful or that they aren’t.”
But it’s also possible that your partner hasn’t given you any reason to doubt them and you find yourself feeling paranoid anyway. If you’ve dated a liar or a cheater in the past, you could be carrying the pain of that betrayal into the new relationship, perhaps unfairly.
“You bring an irrational fear into the relationship that they aren’t really honest and/or committed to you,” Howes said. ”If you don’t have any evidence to suggest otherwise, and you search anyway, you’re probably the one intruding on their privacy and doing damage to the relationship. Your fears may be more based in your self-esteem, your capacity for intimacy, or your history of being deceived in past relationships.”
So, Is It Ever OK?
The long and short of it: No, it’s generally not OK. It’s a violation of your partner’s privacy and a breach of trust ― not to mention, it’s often unproductive: You might find nothing and then feel like a jerk for snooping. You might find something small and innocent and blow it out of proportion. Or you might actually find something incriminating, but then you have to ask yourself: Was this really the most honorable way of getting the information?
“It is an invasion of privacy and property,” Chavez said. “To check a phone without consent shows that there is a communication breakdown. Looking for something on your partner’s phone without permission immediately breaks trust to fulfill your own needs. It leads to suspicions and assumptions that trigger insecurities and upset.”
In some relationships, both partners may mutually decide to give each other free rein to go through each other’s phones. If the parameters are set together and agreed upon, then this arrangement might work well for some couples. That said, wanting to maintain some privacy, even while in a relationship, is perfectly reasonable and even healthy.
“This [arrangement] certainly can help with trust and reliability, but the fact remains that many people in relationships desire a bit of their own benign independence,” Howes said. “This isn’t to say they want to separate. They often love their relationships and want them to endure, but they also want a little bit of their lives to themselves ― and this isn’t necessarily a problem.”
A relationship built on trust allows for both partners to have connections to people outside the relationship ― friends, coworkers, family members.
“These are the healthiest couples, because they don’t feel threatened by their partner’s independence,” Howes added.
Some Advice For Couples:
If you’re still feeling compelled to look through your partner’s phone, Smith recommends taking a hard look at what’s driving you to snoop.
“Ask yourself: What am I trying to accomplish? Does this approach really improve things? How can I do this in a way that would build trust rather than create distrust?” Smith said.
And if you believe your partner has been snooping on your phone, try to bring up your concerns in a mature, non-accusatory way.
“Addressing secrecy and dishonesty head-on is necessary to support a healthy relationship,” Smith said. “Tell them how you feel about such an indirect approach. Ask how they’d feel about if it were done to them. Then discuss a different, better approach for having more disclosure about each one’s phone use.”