In 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.
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