Relationship experts always want to tell you that snooping is one hundred percent without fail invariably wrong. It’s a violation of your partner’s privacy, it breaks trust and if you want a healthy relationship you should never do it. And they’re always so self-righteous about it. Like, if you were really in a good relationship, you wouldn’t even want to snoop.
But that’s just not true. Every woman I know has done it. At some point during your dating career, you will either glance at his texts, read his emails, look in his sock drawer, check his browser history or read his Facebook messages. The proliferation of snooping in relationships doesn’t make it okay, but it doesn’t make you a terrible person, either. And the reason you want to snoop isn’t always because your relationship is unhealthy. We’ve become an informal society where we don’t keep that much private anymore, especially with our partners. This isn’t the “Mad Men” era where men keep their social lives separate from women and women never asked men to share their feelings. We get used to telling our boyfriend everything and we’re proud of them when they finally open up to us and let us see them cry. We exchange keys and passwords and salary information. When he’s driving, he asks you to send a text from his phone and read him his email, and you easily get in the habit of assuming that there is nothing private between the two of you. So when he’s in the shower and you glance at his vibrating phone and can’t help but read a text message—or ten—it doesn’t feel like an invasion of privacy because he was practically asking you to do the same thing yesterday. Couple that with the fact that you assume there is nothing you don’t know anyway, snooping suddenly doesn’t feel like a moral crime, but more like a common relationship side effect of sharing your life with someone. So how bad is it really?
According to a study published in the summer of 2011, forty-one percent of women of all ages admit to having snooped in the past. The number increases drastically as the age drops, making it more and more prevalent in the below forty age group. And the number has jumped almost ten percent since just one year ago. Women snoop much more often than men and men feel much more violated than women when their partner admits snooping. So if you’re a woman under forty years old, some estimates say that sixty to eighty percent of your friends are snoopers at least once in their dating careers and this prevalence is gradually leading to a normalizing of the behavior. If all of your friends do it, is it still wrong?
One of the myths regarding snooping is that most people assume snooping is intricately linked with cheating. While some women do snoop because they have a reasonable belief of infidelity and are looking for evidence, many women are merely guilty of benign curiosity. We want to know if he remembered our anniversary or if he’s really thinking of buying a ring or if he described us as a girlfriend to his mother yet. But whatever the motivation, the biggest problem with snooping isn’t that women are finding smoking gun evidence of bad behavior, the problem is they’re finding small half-truths, white lies, or omissions. Information that’s not inappropriate enough to admit snooping over, but that they can’t stop obsessing over and which can make them resentful in their relationships.
In the last few years, I’ve had one girlfriend find out her boyfriend was telling an ex her breasts looked great on Facebook. Another friend found out from his email that her boyfriend had hooked up with a mutual friend years earlier. Another friend read her boyfriend’s texts from a guy friend who was complaining about never getting to hang out with him alone. In none of these cases did my friends find evidence of cheating. But in all of these cases, my friends found out information that upset them a little and which became an issue in the relationship. Most of the girls eventually confessed and most of the guys felt completely betrayed because their girlfriends snooped.
How much of this information is really worth snooping for? One of the reasons snooping is problematic in relationships is men feel much more violated by it than women. It’s so prevalent among women that women forget how invasive it can actually be. One man told me he felt like he was dating “Big Brother” after his girlfriend confessed to snooping. She found some flirty texts from another girl and although she easily forgave him for the texts, he couldn’t forgive her for the invasion of privacy.
I, of course, am guilty of snooping myself in the past, but in my current relationship I haven’t done it all. Not because I have the perfect relationship and don’t have the desire to, but because I expect I would only find a few minor infractions which aren’t worth the trouble they could cause. Men don’t just need their privacy because women should trust them. Men need their privacy so that they can screw up a little. It’s been said that if we continue to hold up every politician’s life to a microscope, no one is going to want to run anymore. Similarly, if every move our boyfriend needs to pass our scrutiny, no boyfriend will pass our test. We shouldn’t snoop so that we don’t make a big deal when he sends an email to an old girlfriend congratulating her on her new baby or when he watches porn that he’s too embarrassed to tell you about. Because women aren’t perfect, either. When a bartender gives you a free drink, do you give it back and say sorry I’m in a relationship so I can’t accept this? Because although I smile and thank him, I know that it’s also meaningless. But how comfortable would I feel if I knew my boyfriend was watching me do this?
Obviously, there is a limit to what should be tolerated and if the guy is arranging dates with women from Craigslist, there’s bigger issues than snooping. Some statistics say that eighty percent of all women who have a hunch that their husbands are cheating are right. The government uses a simple test to invade people’s privacy: They can only get a warrant to search your house if they have probable cause for believing that there’s evidence of a crime. So if you have probable cause to believe he’s cheating (i.e.—long blonde hairs on the bed when you’re a brunette, you find out he didn’t have a “business dinner” on Saturday night), then snoop to your heart’s content. But if you’re just curious or you just think he has nothing to hide, ask yourself if you would pass a snooping test with a hundred percent score. And if you wouldn’t pass perfectly, why would you expect him to? When did we start expecting men to be perfect? Because that’s what most of us find out after snooping: a slight that was only sort of wrong. So instead of trying to sneakily find information that we can confront them with, shouldn’t we just make peace with the fact that they aren’t perfect and stop trying to prove it?
In a society where we are constantly emphasizing communication and sharing and openness, we never pause to say, maybe some secrets are ok. We like to believe that in a good relationship, we have no secrets. After all, you’re his emergency contact, you know his social security number by heart, you renew his car registration for him and you organize holidays with his mother. You even know whom he lost his virginity to, where he stole liquor from in high school and what his deepest fear is. What could he possibly have to hide? And that’s the thing—probably nothing that matters. So let him hide a few infractions.
I have been completely faithful in my relationship and yet, I don’t know that I have acted with perfection as a girlfriend at all times. Especially in the beginning, maybe I was a little too flirty with the guy at the cafe who gives me free muffins—not because I don’t have a healthy relationship, but because I wanted the free muffins. But the thing is, we all fall short of being the perfect girlfriend or boyfriend or husband or wife. Even when we love our partners and respect our relationship we all do things that are a bit disrespectful. So while I’m tempted to read through my boyfriend’s texts when he leaves it on the table next to the bed, I firmly believe that if I found anything, it would be a tiny little infraction. And I’ve finally decided that knowing about something so slight isn’t worth the invasion of privacy he might feel. I’ve accepted that my boyfriend might not always act perfectly all the time but, I’m completely happy accepting that he might score an A and not an A+.
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