Confessions of a former snoop: How I beat the urge to dig and learned to trust in my relationships

Reading a partner's private text messages or journal can be shameful, lonely behavior. For many, it's also something they can't quit. (Photo: Getty Images)
Reading a partner's private text messages or journal can be shameful, lonely behavior. For many, it's also something they can't quit. (Photo: Getty Images)

On the ride home from a work trip six years ago, I waged an internal war on whether or not to look for answers as to why my relationship was tanking. We were deep in a rut and had barely spoken while I was away. I had no clue why he'd completely checked out over the last several months. Our couples' therapy sessions were maddening and I felt desperate for intel. Was it someone else, did he just lose interest, should I get out of here? I needed answers.

I convinced myself that his journal would give me the information that he refused to talk about, but I also knew from experience that his private thoughts would hurt me. For the entire 45-minute cab ride, I felt my breathing become rapid and labored as I worked myself into a quiet panic attack, I knew that I had lost control over this compulsion. I also knew that I'd have to live with whatever I found in silence, far too ashamed to admit the violation to anyone.

Returning to our empty home, instead of putting away my luggage or grabbing a glass of water, I bolted up two flights of stairs and grabbed his composition book. Within minutes, I had confirmed my fears. He was deeply unhappy with me. I sat on the floor and took it all in, a tear smudging his scrawlings.

From my father's liquor cabinet as a small child to a college boyfriend's Motorola Razr phone, I have been a snoop my entire life. I'm certainly not proud of this, but I know that I'm far from alone. A February 2020 study found that 50 percent of Americans admitted to searching through a partner's cell phones. It can be shameful, lonely behavior. For many, it's also something they can't quit.

Video: Respecting boundaries on social media deepens partner’s trust

"In the beginning of my relationship, it was really bad. When my now-husband would leave for work, I'd go through his boxes of old photos and look through his drawers," shares Monica*. "I was curious about him and his past relationships. I wanted to discover something, but it left me feeling so guilty."

Prying can be used as an antidote to boredom or curiosity, but often leaves residual feelings of insecurity. From poring over someone's perfect Instagram pictures to Googling a girlfriend's new work colleague, it is human nature to crave information. Sometimes, the results sting.

"When my relationship feels off, I can go down a rabbit hole on Instagram, piecing together a story of what [my girlfriend's] life was like with her ex-boyfriend," says Paul*. "He's obviously rich and works out all of the time. It snowballs… then I start to wonder if she's in touch with him, so I've looked in her messages a few times."

Regina* says that her inability to trust led her to look through her current partner's phone. "I began assuming things and would play out entire scenarios in my head," she says. "I was preparing myself for the hurt, but there was never an actual incident where he was lying to me."

She adds, "My parents divorced when I was 10 because of infidelity. I saw my mom and sister get hurt, so I felt like I always had to protect myself. Deep down, I held the belief that I didn't deserve someone that would be faithful to me."

If the act of betraying someone's trust feels icky and the thought of discovering hurtful information is terrifying, why keep digging?

"The impulse to snoop is an invitation to take a step back, look at yourself and consider the reasons. Is this really about this person, or is it attached to experiences from my past?" Heather Hagen, Newport Academy director of clinical program development, tells Yahoo Life. "Did we have healthy connections as children? Were our fundamental relationships safe for us?"

"When someone believes that they have to snoop, they may feel that they are a part of something that is unsafe and unstable — which is definitely damaging to self-esteem, trust and their relationships," Laurel Steinberg, psychotherapist and relationship expert, tells Yahoo Life. "It can definitely become a compulsive, even addictive, behavior."

If a lack of control and safety led many of us to become sleuths, what happens when a pandemic enters the emotional landscape? COVID has negatively impacted many romantic relationships, even leading to increased divorce rates. Many of us have dealt with hardships ranging from job loss, remote learning, grief, illness, quarantine and myriad COVID stressors.

After sharing everything from a workspace to existential fears, we may have a more difficult time realizing where our partner ends and where we begin. Has the pandemic caused people to snoop more on their partners? Experts agree that it's likely.

"We're all living with so much uncertainty during this pandemic. That really drives people, especially those prone to more anxious behaviors, to seek out more certainty wherever they can," says Hagen. "If couples have been in isolation together, they may have only seen one another for many months and this can erode boundaries, potentially increase possessiveness and lead to suspicion. And this lays the groundwork for snooping."

"The pandemic has put a strain on a lot of the couples that I see," adds Laura Louis, a psychologist and couple therapist. "As people go back to their pre-pandemic lives, it could be triggering for many ... especially those who have been betrayed in the past. They won't have as much access to their partner and those familiar anxieties may come up."

If you're tempted to snoop, experts recommend getting curious about what is going on within yourself and considering opening up a vulnerable conversation with your partner before transforming into a private investigator.

"The impulse to snoop is an invitation to take a step back, look at yourself and consider the reasons. Is this really about this person or is it attached to experiences from my past?" says Hagen. "Maybe there have been previous breaches of trust that have nothing to do with your current partner. Or maybe there are warning signs with your current partner. It's important to first understand your motivation for wanting to snoop.

"I also recommend turning towards your partner and actually sharing what's going on, in an open and honest way. It can be a bonding experience to say something like, 'I'm feeling insecure and here is why' or 'I'm feeling driven to check your phone and I don't want to, so I want to be honest with you so that we can work through this together.' Just saying that out loud can be so cathartic and helpful," she explains. "Then, give your partner an opportunity to speak and listen to where they're at."

Snooping gave me an initial rush and then quickly left me feeling ashamed and depressed. Ultimately, I learned that digging was damaging to my self-esteem, my relationships and my mental health. While I'm still tempted at times, I have given it up for good.

*Name changed for privacy purposes.

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