Help! My Partner Insists on Checking My Phone Messages

Dear GoodTherapy.org,

I have been with my boyfriend for going on three years. A couple of months ago, he said he thought it would be “healthy” for us to be able to have access to each other’s phones. He wants to be able to read my text messages whenever he wants and says he’s okay with me reading his too.

I thought this request was odd, to say the least. I told a couple of friends about it and they also said it was weird. Neither one has an “open phone” policy with their partners. They think it speaks to trust issues on his part.

We don’t have a history of infidelity, so that can’t be it. I’ve never betrayed him in any real sense. The only thing I can even think of that created any sort of weirdness in our relationship was when I got hit on at a friend’s wedding. That was about six months ago, and while I did accept a friend request from the guy on Facebook, we have only exchanged a couple of comments on public posts. Friendly, but nothing racy. My boyfriend mentioned our interactions once but not in a way that would suggest he felt threatened or insecure. Anyway, I asked him if that had anything to do with his request and he said no.

So I’m not sure what’s going on, but I don’t like knowing my boyfriend insists on seeing my messages. To avoid giving him cause for alarm, I told him I’m fine sharing. We keep our phones unlocked now and he is free to look at mine whenever he wants. Though I’ve never witnessed him doing it, I know he does. I have never looked at his. I just don’t feel a need.

What do you think is happening here? Am I going about this the right way? Should I insist on a boundary? —Open-Ended

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Dear Open-Ended,

Thanks for writing in. I, too, have some concerns about this “open phone” policy and understand your reluctance, which I encourage you to pay more attention to. Before expounding, however, I’m going to briefly discuss what, exactly, a “boundary” is, in my clinical experience, since the term gets thrown around a lot while meanings differ.

Since I like to work from a point of view I call “emotional mindfulness”—and what are love and intimacy if not emotion-based experiences?—I think of a boundary as an inflection point beyond which one will suffer in an unacceptable way. This point of departure most often concerns a specific behavior which causes a person a level of distress or suffering they are not able or willing to tolerate.

It is, in other words, a way of warding off a negative emotional experience, which is why it’s so important such things be discussed in a relationship with as open a mind and heart as possible—even or especially when they don’t “make sense” or conflict with our own way of viewing things. Concrete statements can be debated, while feelings remain indisputably personal: “here is how someone ought to behave in a situation” versus “this is what upsets or hurts or feels positive about this.”

My sense is you and your boyfriend are somehow missing each other in this regard. On the one hand, you say, “To avoid giving him cause for alarm, I told him I’m fine sharing [phones].” Thus, after some internal deliberation and perhaps anxiety, you agreed with his request—except you are writing to me about it, indicating there remains some anxiety or reservation.

The concern I have here is that the focus has become centered on the mechanics rather than the emotional meaning of this sharing. By “meaning,” I refer to how you both think and feel about what’s happening and how it impacts the relationship. In a way, the background dilemma has been tabled, not solved.

The fact a guy hit on you at a wedding became understandably concerning for your boyfriend; this guy then “friended” you on Facebook, which you accepted. While your trusting of others isn’t a bad thing unto itself, I would hope you can see how that might have been anxious-making for your partner, perhaps due to some of his own history (just as some of yours may have impacted your decision to friend the guy and/or agree to share phones).

In all fairness, your boyfriend did not come out and discuss his concerns explicitly, which is part of the “missing each other” I mention above. He took a literal or physical approach rather than risking vulnerability in discussing it. You may have taken a similar route in agreeing to share your phone when you were hesitant, both of you bypassing the emotional risk or vulnerability so crucial to building closeness or intimacy.

I find generally that all behavior, especially when it concerns a close relationship, is a kind of communication, sometimes revealing intention that may or may not be conscious. On some level, your boyfriend’s impulse to check your phone—which will require checking and rechecking because it doesn’t address the underlying emotional problem, another reason it’s only a Band-Aid solution—is a way of saying, “I don’t trust you.”

Your decision to friend this fellow—and here I’m reaching a bit—could mean you do not like to feel constrained, for example in who you do or don’t befriend or interact with. You might believe, “I told him I’m taken, he gets it, and I’m fine with it.” Of course, your boyfriend could harbor similar sentiment about checking your phone: “I’m not suspicious of anything in particular, it’s just a way of shoring up trust and makes me feel better.” It sounds like both of you are facing common human anxieties that might, if mutually shared and understood, lead to deeper understanding and a strengthened emotional bond.

The “I’m” and “me” parts are key. It’s hard to put the “we” above “me” in any relationship, especially when we don’t get the other person’s point of view (more on that in a second), or if that POV conflicts with or appears to get in the way of our autonomy, freedom, and so forth.

I find generally that all behavior, especially when it concerns a close relationship, is a kind of communication, sometimes revealing intention that may or may not be conscious. On some level, your boyfriend’s impulse to check your phone—which will require checking and rechecking because it doesn’t address the underlying emotional problem, another reason it’s only a Band-Aid solution—is a way of saying, “I don’t trust you.”

It could also be saying, “I do trust you, but I get so anxious about this that I must have validation or confirmation. It’s hard to say no to this need to know.”

Your deciding to friend the guy at the wedding is a way of saying, “Hey, you can trust me, I’m loyal to you.” It could also be a matter of “I have a hard time saying ‘no’ as it might hurt the other person’s feelings, so it’s safer to just agree.”

Both of you overlap in saying, “Please understand this, don’t be hurt”—agreeing with the other’s behavior in a way that misses the underlying, more vulnerable anxieties or hopes for understanding. Thus, the relationship remains anxiety-laden, which is probably why you decided to write in.

In either case, you and your boyfriend have real (and understandably human) vulnerabilities around trust and betrayal. It’s worth sitting down with each other for an open conversation in which you try to hear the other person out in terms of their hopes and fears. If this feels uncomfortable, reach out to a therapist who can help facilitate things in an impartial way.

Perhaps your boyfriend was once betrayed by a partner, leading to anxiety around a repetition of this; perhaps you once said no to someone and it backfired or hurt you. In either event, I would think the solution has to come from within each of you in a shared way, rather than a physical or concrete way of controlling anxiety and postponing some stepping-outside-the-comfort-zone. We cannot avoid the need to emotionally stretch—sometimes awkwardly, uncomfortably—in the growth required for long-term intimacy.

I see this in couples counseling all the time, where one person needs to turn up the volume on their wants or needs (yourself, in this case), while the other needs to dial it down a bit in terms of intrusiveness or demand (your boyfriend)—while both partners attempt to center on the emotional vulnerabilities driving the conflict, rather than resting in an external solution. Putting the cart before the horse is something we all do, though the “horse” (i.e., the relationship) only ends up feeling blocked, restless, or cagey.

I hope this helps. Thanks again for writing!

Darren Haber, MFT, PsyD

Darren Haber
Darren Haber, PsyD, MFT is a psychotherapist specializing in treating alcoholism and drug addiction as well as co-occurring issues such as anxiety, depression, relationship concerns, secondary addictions (especially sex addiction), and trauma (both single-incident and repetitive). He works in a variety of modalities, primarily cognitive behavioral, spiritual/recovery-based, and psychodynamic. He is certified in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, and continues to receive psychodynamic training in treating relational trauma, including emotional abuse/neglect and physical and sexual abuse.
  • 5 comments
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  • Danna O

    Danna O

    August 6th, 2017 at 2:51 PM

    No way! Why the trust issues of you have never given him a reason to not trust you? This would be total red flag for control freak for me.

  • Jody

    Jody

    August 8th, 2017 at 10:36 AM

    I think this behavior is a red flag to potentially escalating controlling and abusive behaviors. I can’t believe the author didn’t at least mention this as a potential concern.

  • Starla

    Starla

    August 8th, 2017 at 1:52 PM

    I am going to look at this from the other side mainly because I have been the jealous one before. I eventually had to get some help for it because he was consuming my life but not in a good way at all. As a matter of fact I think that I actually scared him a little because I followed him, always insisted on knowing who he was with and where he was. I think that you can go over that line really easily when you find yourself so infatuated with this other person. You feel compelled to know every little thing about them, even to the point that you know that it’s wrong but you can’t help yourself. I would be looking for a way to extricate yourself from that because even I when I was acting this way knew that it wasn’t healthy for either of us.

  • max

    max

    August 10th, 2017 at 11:53 AM

    If you don’t have anything to hide then what difference should it make?

  • Chris

    Chris

    September 11th, 2017 at 1:02 PM

    I have been cheated on too many times. Now I tell men I won’t get in a relationship with them unless I can look at their phone at my leisure. If they aren’t doing wrong I don’t see what the problem is. Most guys think that’s too intrusive but then I don’t think they are for me. After getting cheated on you realize blind trust is stupid and I’m going to take as many precautions as possible, even though yes they could still potentially cheat.

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