Dear Jeff and Lori,
I recently caught my girlfriend going through my phone. I gave her the passcode so she could look at photos from our trips together, not anticipating that she would continue using it to snoop. She says she has the right to know who I’m talking to and what’s being said. I’ve never cheated on her, but she has always been jealous of my female friends. I no longer have any contact with past casual hookups, but I’m not willing to cut off communication with other friends for my girlfriend. I believe a little privacy is healthy in relationships, but she is becoming increasingly insistent on having an all-access pass. Who’s right?
Over Her Shady Snooping
Jeff and Lori: Neither of you. What’s crucial is that you each respect each other’s experience, meaning that you’re curious and understanding about her feelings, not the validity of her actions. You don’t think you’ve done anything to provoke her behavior and that she’s the one with the problem. She feels insecure and untrusting based on her perception of your actions and possibly her own history. Both experiences are real. Understanding why each of you are having them is the key.
Lori: There’s a difference between being able to see your partner’s phone, and the compulsion to need to go through it. The seemingly subtle nuance comes down to motivation. If I need a contact that Jeff has, I can login and send it to myself. My perspective is that his phone is a tool. Your girlfriend’s “why” is to prove to herself that you’re not safe. She has adopted a narrative that you are (or will be) doing her dirty and is using your phone to find a way out of the insecurity that she feels. When she finds nothing, she can breathe for a minute, and if she finds something, she’s justified in leaving. The problem is that lack of cheating evidence isn’t going to make this go away, and in days or weeks, she’ll want to look again.
Ladies, controlling your partner’s behavior isn’t going to make you feel any more secure. Where will it end? If you don’t find him flirting in texts are you going to hire a private eye? If you’re clear with your partner about what constitutes cheating and you’re not able to feel relatively safe, then you need to do a deep dive into why. If you believe in your gut that your partner is dishonest, untrustworthy or gaslighting you, walk away. But if at the core this isn’t the sense you get, then your inability to regulate your own discomfort is the problem, not what your partner is texting. I don’t know about you, but I want to be with a partner who chooses me freely, not because I’ve created psychological barriers of fear or guilt that prevent him from connecting with someone else.
Jeff: Trust and emotional safety are the core foundation of a healthy relationship and it sounds like your girlfriend is not feeling comfortable with either. Your job in this situation is to assess whether you are adding or detracting from them. Find out more about her intentions. Does she have a history of partners not respecting the boundaries of a relationship? Have previous partners broken her trust? If so, you’ll have to choose whether you’re willing to put in the extra effort to make her feel safe in your relationship, given the challenges of what she’s bringing to the table.
You also will have to look at your own behavior. Even if you aren’t officially a “cheater,” do you come close to crossing the line with flirty behavior or by talking about other women? Do you compare her to your female friends? Does she know she’s your No. 1 priority? Often what we deem to be harmless banter or mindless imaginings can slowly erode the foundations of a relationship. Trust needs to be earned. Complete transparency about your feelings and intentions can be a good place to start.
Jeff and Lori: Complete enmeshment lies at one extreme of a relationship, killing any sense of individuality. At the other end, a dividing amount of independence does not allow for any real connection. The sweet spot is where there is enough trust and emotional safety to create a secure bond but with a little extra room for healthy curiosity, intrigue and mystery.
Lori and Jeff are married, licensed psychotherapists and couple-to-couple coaches at Aspen Relationship Institute. Submit your relationship questions to info@AspenRelationshipCoaching.com and your query may be selected for a future column.