Checking on Your Partner's Phone? What May This Mean?
Published on 12th January, 2020 by Muhammad Haikal Bin Jamil
You are worried if your partner is cheating on you. You noticed that he is spending less time with you and while he used to pick up their calls in front of you, he now goes to the other room to take the mysterious call. You start to wonder if he is seeing someone else and you desperately want to find out the truth. If only you could check his phone…
In this modern age, our smartphones have become somewhat like our digital diaries, where our inner thoughts and secrets are contained. A look inside someone’s phone is quite telling of who they are as a person - their likes, dislikes and the people they hang out with. Although there are currently no reported statistics for snooping behaviour in Singapore, a 2018 survey conducted in the United States revealed that almost half of the couples surveyed found information that is potentially upsetting in their partner’s phone when they snooped. A simple swipe through your partner’s phone may give you the reassurance of your partner’s faithfulness. However, snooping is indicative of bigger problems underlying your relationship.
What is your snooping behaviour telling you?
1. You may have unresolved trust issues
It is likely that someone with ex-partners who cheated on them or had a parent that cheated on the other will be more inclined to think that their current partner is cheating on them. Research has found that adults who had experienced an ex-partner cheating on them, are more likely to suspect that their current partner will cheat on them (Knopp, Scott, Ritchie, Rhoades, Markman & Stanley, 2017). If you had experienced the pain of being cheated on in the past or living in an incomplete family as a result of infidelity by an adult member, it is possible that you may have difficulty trusting your partner. The more pain you that you experienced, the more assurance you may seek from your partner’s behaviour. However, any reassurance found will only be temporary until you have processed the pain from your past.
2. Poor communication in the relationship
A healthy relationship requires both parties to be open and honest with each other. When one party feels that the partner is being secretive and not disclosing enough, they will feel hurt and uncertain about the partner’s commitment in the relationship. Thinking that your partner is hiding something from you and not able to speak about it encourages snooping (Vinkers, Finkenauer & Hawk, 2011). This highlights the importance of communication in the relationship. If you and your partner are communicating openly and honestly with each other, the level of trust in the relationship will be higher. Thus, checking on your partner’s phone is likely to be indicative of you and your partner’s poor, or even a lack of, communication.
3. A deteriorating relationship
Snooping may stem from a fear that the other partner is cheating or is no longer committed to you. The fear is typically sparked by a realization of how the relationship is no longer like before. You may not be spending as much time together or special occasions could be forgotten. The snooping behaviour may be an attempt to understand why the relationship is no longer as satisfying as before.
Why should you stop checking on your partner's phone secretly?
1. Two wrongs don’t make a right
Most people who snoop often justify their snooping behaviour by saying it is better for them to seek out the truth rather than be hoodwinked for the rest of the relationship. If their partner did not do anything wrong, there shouldn’t be anything incriminating on their phone to be afraid of right?
Still, how would you feel if your phone is being looked through? Our phones have become such an extension of our personal life that it feels feel like a violation of privacy when someone looks through your phone. Violating your partner’s privacy by snooping through their phones and justifying that they are cheating on you does not make your action any less wrong.
2. A lose-lose situation
Let’s say that you managed to find evidence on your partner’s phone that he/she had been unfaithful. What do you do next? For a significant amount of betrayed individual, nothing. A study by Olson, Russell, Higgins-Kessler & Miller (2002) found that even for couples where the offending partner disclosed being unfaithful, the readiness to confront the partner is delayed. This is because the victim may fear further harming the relationship or is not prepared for the relationship to end. Imagine finding out about the affair by checking on your partner’s phone. You may find yourself experiencing anger and disappointment by yourself without the ability to speak to your partner about it.
Research has also indicated that solicited discovery of cheating in relationships, such as snooping on your partner’s phone, harms the relationship more as compared to when the offending partner admits that he/she had been unfaithful (Afifi, Falato & Weiner, 2001). 56% of the couples where knowledge of the infidelity was disclosed unsolicited continued with the relationship while couples whose discovery occured through solicited information had a survival rate of 14%. This is even lower than couples where the offending party was caught cheating red-handed (17%). It is possible that the lower survival rate occurs because discovery of the infidelity by snooping leads to mistrust and anger between both parties.
The other outcome would be that your snooping attempt proved to be futile and you did not manage to find anything suspicious. Especially for individuals with unresolved trust issues, rather than feeling relieved, you are more likely to attribute the lack of evidence to your partner doing a good job of hiding his/her cheating. When you think that the relationship is going to end up like your previous one, you are going to see your partner in a bad light regardless of the evidence. As a result, nothing good will come out of checking your partner's phone.
3. Checking the phone does not help the relationship
More often than not, looking through your partner’s phone leads to stalking, which is a serious invasion of one’s privacy. As mentioned earlier, snooping leads to two outcomes - one, when you find something suspicious; two, when you do not find anything. In both cases, you are likely to stalk your partner in an attempt to witness them cheating in the act. Stalking is unhealthy behaviour. It is not only distressing to your partner but is equally as mentally torturous to you. Because you are preoccupied with finding out the truth, you have little energy to focus on anything else.
Most importantly, neither snooping nor stalking improves the relationship. The underlying problem of poor communication is not resolved just by following your partner around. Stalking your partner can also lead to more misunderstandings and your partner may feel violated by your behaviour, further aggravating the mistrust in the relationship. Rather than wasting your energy being suspicious and worried, why not spend the extra time to spend quality time with your partner and try to improve the relationship.
What can you do instead of secretly checking on your partner's phone?
1. Be honest with your partner
Rather than sneaking around and looking through your partner’s phone when they are in the bathroom, have an honest conversation with your partner about the relationship. Talk about your feelings of insecurity or unhappiness in the relationship and let you and your partner have a chance to work on the relationship together.
2. Be honest with yourself
If you think that your snooping behaviour is due to someone or something that happened in your past - be honest with yourself and seek help with a psychologist to resolve your personal issues. Your snooping tendencies now may reflect a defensive mechanism against a past betrayal, and not because your partner is showing signs that they are cheating on you.
However, when push comes to shove and you think you can no longer repair the broken trust in the relationship, you can consider ending it. It will be hard to mend the relationship back the way it was. Trust can take only mere seconds to break but requires ages to repair.
When can you be checking on your partner's phone?
Almost never. The only exception is following an act of mistrust (usually infidelity), where the victim then is allowed to look through the cheating partner’s phone as a form of assurance and to reduce anxiety. This is a temporary arrangement for the couple as they work on rebuilding the trust in their relationship. You may also find out more on how to cope with the anxiety and anger following discovery of your partner's infidelity here.
When trust is broken, it is difficult for the relationship to go back the way it was and would require a lot of effort from both parties. This would involve the cheating partner to be transparent with their phone messages, calls and social media. This shows their willingness to be vulnerable and to make an effort to repair the relationship. It will also provide the victim a peace of mind that the third-party relationship is not going on behind their back and they can learn to trust their partner again.
You can also read more here on why individuals may secretly check their partner's phones and its consequences.
Afifi, W. A., Falato, W. L., & Weiner, J. L. (2001). Identity concerns following a severe relational transgression: The role of discovery method for the relational outcomes of infidelity. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 18(2), 291-308.
Deitz, B. (2016, April 19). The Sign You Don't Trust Your Partner-Or Yourself. Retrieved from https://www.bustle.com/articles/154363-15-relationship-experts-explain-why-snooping-is-a-terrible-idea.
Knopp, K., Scott, S., Ritchie, L., Rhoades, G. K., Markman, H. J., & Stanley, S. M. (2017). Once a cheater, always a cheater? Serial infidelity across subsequent relationships. Archives of sexual behavior, 46(8), 2301-2311.
Olson, M. M., Russell, C. S., Higgins‐Kessler, M., & Miller, R. B. (2002). Emotional processes following disclosure of an extramarital affair. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 28(4), 423-434.
Rodman, S. (2018, February 16). Why You Shouldn't Check Your Partner's Phone. Retrieved from https://www.talkspace.com/blog/why-you-shouldnt-check-your-partners-phone/.
Shatto, R. (2019, March 27). Here's Why Experts Say It Isn't OK To Look Through Your Partner's Phone. Retrieved from https://www.elitedaily.com/p/is-it-ok-to-look-through-your-partners-phone-heres-what-the-experts-say-16986513.
Tan, T. (2013, October 20). Cheating brings pain but many don't split up. Retrieved from https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/cheating-brings-pain-but-many-dont-split-up.
Turner, A. (2019, December 12). Study: Millennial's Phone Snooping on Their Partner's Phone. Retrieved from https://www.bankmycell.com/blog/snooping-on-your-phone#info-1.
Vinkers, C. D., Finkenauer, C., & Hawk, S. T. (2011). Why do close partners snoop? Predictors of intrusive behavior in newlywed couples. Personal Relationships, 18(1), 110-124.
Article written with Jasmine Kuah. Jasmine is a psychology undergraduate from the National University of Singapore (NUS). Jasmine is an aspiring clinical psychologist who wishes to help individuals improve their quality of life with better mental health. She is currently on internship with ImPossible Psychological Services under the supervision of senior clinical psychologist, Haikal.