In my work with individuals and couples,  In my work with individuals and couples, 

Couples, Trust, and Cyberspace

Hand using cell phoneIn my work with individuals and couples, trust is a key concern as more and more people invade their partner’s privacy.

Couples are coming to see me for therapy because of the fallout when one partner has been secretly checking the other’s emails, phone history, or some electronic information device. While the snooping partner feels hurt and angry by what he or she has read, the other partner is usually equally outraged because their private communications were intercepted. In both cases, issues of trust become paramount.

What I would like to illustrate here is not about who did what to whom. It is very easy to get caught up in each person’s behavior and place blame on someone. It would be easy to digress to a discussion of what constitutes cheating or if snooping is justified. But, I would like to focus on the issue of why it is hard for some people to trust a partner in relationships and what might be done about it.

When these breaches of trust occur, the “found out” parties usually try to defend themselves: “It isn’t what you think; it’s not what it seems to be.” At the same time, the snoopers may find it impossible to consider an alternate interpretation of what they found. 

In both individual and couples therapy, it is easy for the therapy to become about whether or not someone cheated—physically or emotionally—or behaved inappropriately with someone other than the partner. The focus can also become about what the “found out” partner did that led to suspicions on the part of the snooper or how the snooper’s behavior damaged the relationship. What can easily be neglected is the question of why the snooper may be a person prone to not trust his or her partner.

A Parent’s Impact on Future Trust Ability

In my experience, people who have a hard time trusting frequently have family and/or relationship histories with a great deal of dishonesty, secrecy, or confusion. I have found that many people with trust issues have grown up in homes where one or both parents were unpredictable in a wide variety of behaviors. Some parents could be loving one day and harsh or emotionally cold the next. When parents are inconsistent with their emotional and physical presence, learning to trust your own perceptions and judgments becomes problematic.

For example, Carol’s mother was addicted to alcohol. Carol described what it was like to grow up with inconsistency:

“When my mother was sober, she was the best. I remember how during the day she would play Barbies with me. We would dress them up and pretend to go shopping. My father would work late and my mom would start drinking at night. She would get really irritable and sometimes nasty. As I got older, I would come home from school wondering what kind of mother I would find. I really couldn’t trust that the good and loving feelings were real. They never lasted. I guess I never learned to trust that the good stuff in a relationship was real. I had lots of boyfriends, but nothing lasted that long. Then I met Jake. I thought it would work. But I saw him looking at pretty women and I thought, ‘Who am I kidding? He doesn’t really love me.’ That’s when I started snooping in his email.” —Carol

Mike grew up in a family of very demanding parents. He and his sister were given chores starting at age 3, and if they didn’t get things right, they would be punished. Mike recalled being criticized routinely by both his parents:

“There was nothing I could ever do that was good enough in my family. I felt like I had to be perfect. My grades were criticized even though I got mostly A’s. My father would say my girlfriends were stupid or came from the wrong family. I think I just didn’t know what was real because my parents were cold even while saying that they loved me. They would tell me they had high standards for my own good. I mean, mostly A’s were good, right?” —Mike

Growing up, Carol and Mike didn’t experience reliable love. They did not live in homes where they were able to develop into confident adults. Under these circumstances, it is likely they felt confused. One day they would feel loved, another rejected, and another met with indifference.

For Carol and Mike, the lack of reliable attachment and love jeopardized the development of self-esteem and self-confidence. When you don’t get what you need in this way, you usually don’t develop a firm sense of self. Sometimes you long so much for a loving attachment that you may become whatever you think your parent wants you to be; but in these situations, it is hard to know what the parent wants because it is so unpredictable. You also never get clear on what you need.

As adults, Carol and Mike sought attachments they thought would make them feel valued and desirable, but without self-confidence and a strong sense of  self, it was difficult to trust that these attachments would provide the predictable intimacy and love they wanted.

Mike found himself in a relationship with Nancy, a woman who he constantly looked to for approval. After a fight about her working late, Mike began to wonder if she was interested in someone at work. That was when he started checking her phone and emails. When we talked about it in therapy, he told me, “I can’t really believe she wants to be with me. I know the guys at work are smarter and more interesting. I had to look at those emails. I wanted to prove I knew what was going on.”

What Causes Someone to Spy on a Partner?

For people with trust issues, it can be difficult to believe that a partner could love them and stay faithful. The underlying doubts that develop are “Why would someone want me and stay with me if I’m not really worth very much?” When we don’t value ourselves, it is hard to trust that others will value us and want to be in intimate relationships with us.

Under these circumstances, it is difficult to believe that the person you are in a relationship with has the loving feelings they profess. It feels like they can’t be counted on to be who and what they say they are. It isn’t unusual to have trouble staying in relationships because there is anxiety about things not working out. To protect yourself, sometimes there can be an obsessive need to check out your perceptions: “Does this person really love me? I heard them talking to a work colleague. Was that only about work? What is he doing on those business trips? Why did she contact that old boyfriend? What was that email about—sounds like he was talking to his old girlfriend about me. He spent too much time at the party talking to that attractive woman. Is he going to leave me?” These questions come from someone who has not had a chance to develop into a confident, self-appreciating, self-loving person. These conditions lead to cyberspace snooping.

Rather Than Snooping, Talk About Trust

My recommendation when you have the urge to spy on your partner by invading his or her privacy in the world or in cyberspace is: don’t do it! If the relationship matters to you, be clear that spying is destructive. If there is some reason that you suspect your partner of behaving in an inappropriate or untrustworthy way, the constructive response is to talk about it.

I know this is not easy, especially when you are filled with intolerable feelings. Nonetheless, if you consider that your suspicions may be exacerbated by your own difficulties with trust, then you need to express and discuss your worries and suspicions. It would be best to be open to hearing your partner’s views.

There are no guarantees. Certainly some partners behave and communicate with others in ways that merit a lack of trust. However, there is often a misunderstanding about the meaning of what your snooping has unearthed. If you resist jumping to conclusions about your findings, you have a good chance of strengthening the relationship and your sense of trust. If it is difficult for you to consider that you could be wrong about your partner, or if you believe it is necessary to protect yourself by not trusting, then I recommend you seek some help from a counselor or therapist for your trust issues.

Editor’s note: Names have been changed to protect confidentiality.

Related articles:
Relationship Problems and Partners’ Individuation Experiences
One Important Question That Can Get You and Your Partner Talking
How Do I Know I Can Count on my Partner?

© Copyright 2012 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Beverly Amsel, PhD, Individuation Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Norm J

    July 13th, 2012 at 11:07 AM

    I am that guy who checks up on everything that my wife does. She has never given me a reason not to trust her, but there is always something there nagging at me that I don’t know the whole truth or that she is always holding something back from me. I really don’t know why that distrust is there and I don’t think that she even sense that I feel that way. But I know her passwords to facebook and voicemail and I check those, even her personal email. She would be furious with me if she knew but it is like a compulsion, I can’t help myself. I feel like it is spinning out of control and I know that one day I will be careless and then she will know, but I can’t stop it. I don’t know what I would actually do if I ever did find out anything incriminating, I am not sure that I would survive that. So I keep tell myself to stop it, but I can’t let it go.

  • Julie

    July 13th, 2012 at 3:14 PM

    Norm J, you have issues!
    If I was your wife and found out that you were checking up behind me like that, then I would be furious!
    I don’t know if that kind of breach of trust would be something that could be repaired. If you feel that distrustful of your wife, don’t you think that it wuld be better to talk to her about your concerns instead of sneaking around like some low class private investigator?
    And honestly if this is the kind of stuff that you have pulle all the time simce the two of you have been together, it would not be surprising at all if she was seeking a little solace elsewhere.
    You would completely creep me out!

  • stressmom

    July 14th, 2012 at 4:12 AM

    There is never a time when spying on your wife or husband is okay. But you do have to admit that there are so many more temptations today than there once were, so it is normal to sometimes wonder if your spouse could be straying without you ever knowing.
    There is phone sex, email, cyber porn, all of these things that could hurt a marriage and I guess if you are inclined to cheat than the world we live in today makes that a pretty easy thing to do.

    I would hope, however, to have a relationship that did not force me to snoop around in this way, because that would just feel so seedy and low. I want tobe with someone who, if I had suspicions about, I could go to him and just ask. As long as you are prepared for what the reaction you would get, then I think that that is a far more adult and responsible way to behave than continuously having to go behind someone and check the web browser.

  • ALEX

    July 14th, 2012 at 1:07 PM

    I have trust issues.I cannot trust my partner easily.And it has lead too the ending of a few relationships in the past.

    But the reason for me to have this issue if I think about is not my parents or issues in childhood but a former girlfriend.We were in college and things were smooth.We were serious about each other but then she ended up cheating in me and I guess I never let that get out of my mind, always kept it in there.As a result now I have troubling trusting anybody I am seeing and it leads to a lot of trouble.I do not know what to do.

    Not snooping is not easy to do I just stop myself from doing it?

  • Hope

    July 14th, 2012 at 1:52 PM

    My sister in law caught her now ex husband cheating on her because she became suspicious and began scrolling through his cell phone. She came across multiple received and dialed calls that was actually the number of that of a good friend of hers, and guesss what? They were having an affair! So say what you will, but in this case she caught that cheater red handed!

  • jane

    July 14th, 2012 at 3:44 PM

    completely agree with your suggestion of talking about it.having been through 14 years of marriage,i can say with certainty that talking about things is the best way to resolve an issue and it is often the only way to discuss things without starting off an argument.

    i do understand that there could be people out there who have trouble talking about things that may be a little controversial but trust me-it is the safest and best way to go about things and there’s nothing to lose if you maintain respect for each other and be civil during the discussion.

  • Greg

    July 15th, 2012 at 7:57 AM

    It is not entirely the fault of the snooping partner. That cannot be generalized. If I see my partner’s phone unlocked in the bed when she’s busy bathing, I would not look into it if we share a healthy relationship with openness between us and no trust issues in the relationship. But if I felt like she was lying to me or hiding things and was trying to manipulate about her whereabouts then I would be tempted to look into the phone. the problem may lie in the relationship and not in an individual only.

  • Meredith

    July 15th, 2012 at 4:09 PM

    The bad thing about snooping though is that you could come across something that is totally innocent, and you could take it totally out of context!

    So maybe your husband and friend are planning a surprise party for you? Or maybe your husband just sneaks a little look at online porn every now and then?

    What’s going to happen when you confront him with all of this and you end up feeling ashamed because most of what you were assuming to be true isn’t at all?

  • easton

    July 16th, 2012 at 4:31 AM

    when this is what you resort to, sneaking around or sneaking, there are issues in your life that go much deeper than the apparent sneaking around. You must have been hurt before, otherwise this would not be something that you would necessarily feel the need to do. These kinds of acts are the actions of someone who is insecure about something in their lives.

  • Geroge M

    July 16th, 2012 at 8:24 AM

    technology can aid a cheating partner no doubt. But it can also help the other partner catch the cheating. Think about it. technology can work for both good and bad. What we choose to do with it is depends on us.

  • Vickie

    July 16th, 2012 at 11:02 AM

    If I have been driven to this level of snooping on my husband then obviously there are some issues there that he and I need to address together. That bond of trust has been broken from the minute that I suspect that there is something amiss and rather than ask him about it I decide to tap into his private calls and such and try to figure it out on my own. Maybe if we spent more time using the things that we know for good instead of something like snooping around then maybe more marriages would hold together for a lot longer than what they do now! If I need to know something I am going to ask and I would hope that he would do the same for me instead of trying to see if something is going on behind his back.

  • joshy

    July 17th, 2012 at 12:28 PM

    Man I would be so peeved if I knew I was being spied on like this!
    If there is something that I think you need to know then I’ll tell you.
    And if you don’t trust me enough to believe that, then it’s gonna be your loss cause I would be out the door.

  • Karen

    June 17th, 2014 at 4:35 PM

    First of all, I think if neither person has a thing to hide, then they should be open with all of their social media stuff. If you want to keep or build trust – talk about being able to just pick up your mate’s phone or go on the computer and see what they are doing on there. That’s not snooping, it’s being open and up front and not having anything to HIDE!

  • Lisa

    July 12th, 2014 at 5:11 PM

    My husband and I have a transparent relationship. We know each others email, face-book and passwords. I was married to a man that was very secretive and I found out that he was having multiple affairs. I never had a chance to check his emails, etc. Now,as a precaution since we have both been in previous marriages were our partners cheated on us. We have an open policy! We usually tell the other if we get the urge! We have each other on google+ so we know where we are! No secrets No Problem! That’s how I see it!!

  • Lisa

    September 7th, 2015 at 5:25 PM

    Im going through this right now, due to past relationships I am having a really hard time trusting my boyfriend whom I adore. I really dont know how to process those feels of sheer dread when my mind starts to wander, I’m on automatic pilot and end up accusing which is the worst thing I can possibly do. Its harming our relationship more and more which will soon end up making my worst fear come true. Worst thing is I feel completely pathetic and worthless for feeling this way,and that doesnt help either.

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