The Debate: Is checking up on a partner ever morally acceptable?
We are now more privy than ever to revelations about the rich and famous cheating on their partners. Whether it is indeed the business of the public is up for speculation – super injunctions are a separate matter of debate – but such stories have a tendency to come out, as Ryan Giggs discovered last year.
Some couples in the spotlight are believed to stay together purely so that the joint sponsorship campaigns their family-friendly image relies on won’t be compromised.
Both our exposure to kiss-and-tell stories and the seemingly infinite options of modern communication within social media, have made the prospect of infidelity seem all the more real. It’s no wonder there’s a tendency to paranoia about out our other halves.
This week Jools Oliver told a national newspaper that she regularly checks her famous husband Jamie Oliver’s phone and email accounts to make sure he is not being unfaithful. This was greeted with a storm of disapproval, but Jools acquired a surprising champion in the form of the Daily Mail’s chief feminist antagoniser Samantha Brick.
In yesterday’s Mail she expressed support for Jools in checking her husband’s messages, saying she did the same thing herself. Unsurprisingly, causing an eruption of opinion on the topic.
But is checking your partner’s correspondence healthy behaviour within a relationship? Does it diminish any sense of trust? Or should all be shared once you’ve made a commitment, with message-checking just a simple way to elude infidelity?
Tracey Cox argues that while in some circumstances it might be acceptable for a spouse to do so, it’s problematic in that it won’t necessarily solve anything even if something incriminating is discovered. Paula Hall holds that it might be acceptable if both partners agree – but if not, the invasion of privacy erodes the trust within a relationship.
Which do you agree with?
Does trust exist if one of you are secretly checking up on the other via their phone, email, social networking sites or by doing a good old-fashioned rummage through the pockets?
The answer is: it depends on what’s happened to trigger it.
If you’re snooping (let’s not dress it up people, that’s exactly what spying on your partner’s personal life is) on a consistent and regular basis, your relationship is going well, your partner seems happy and their behavior hasn’t changed to alert suspicion, you have trust issues or don’t trust the person you’re with.
If you sense something has changed – they are acting out of character, ‘working late’ a little too often, taking more care with their appearance, suddenly taking their phone to the loo and guarding it fiercely, putting passwords on their laptop when previously they had none or any of the other telltale trouble signs of an affair AND you’ve confronted them about your suspicions and not got a direct answer – then I find some discreet sleuthing understandable.
In that scenario, you are checking up on a partner due to a real fear that something is happening to threaten your relationship. I think most of us will hold our hands up to admit to doing it under those circumstances at some point in our lives, even if we do trust our partners the other 95% of the time.
The problem is, even innocent things take on ominous overtones when you can’t ask for an explanation. What seems like outrageously flirty texts from a workmate, might just be ‘Jane’s’ way: she sends texts like that to everyone in the office, dramatically diluting the danger factor. But you don’t know that because you can’t ask.
Emails from an ex pouring their heart out also mean nothing. That’s their perspective on the relationship, not your partner’s. Most of us have exes we have soft spots for. Your partner’s kind reply that says ‘I admit I do think of you often’, could be nothing but them trying to let down someone who was once dear to them, gently. But unless you admit you snooped, you end up plagued with fears that could be groundless.
The only way to truly curb suspicion is to sit your partner down and be honest about how you’re feeling. Tell them specifically why you are unsure of their feelings for you. If you can’t pin down the feeling, tell them it’s just a gut instinct. If they’re innocent and love you, they will leap to reassure you everything is fine. (If they sigh or roll their eyes, it could be they’ve done it once too often and it’s time to take yourself off to see a therapist to work through the root of your insecurity.) If, instead, they look uncomfortable, get defensive and don’t instantly envelope you in a huge hug, watch their face and body language carefully. Do their eyes slide away from yours? Do they move their hands out of the way or take a step backward? Very few people are able to lie to a loved one while touching them. Are they touching their face a lot or leaking anxiety by jiggling a foot or a leg? All these things are far better indicators of their feelings for you and more accurate relationship alarm bells.
Tracey Cox is an international sex, body language and relationships expert as well as a TV presenter. She is well-known for her TV shows on sex and relationships as well as her range of best-selling books and products, available from www.traceycox.com.
It is not healthy to check your partner’s correspondence – unless, the two of you have agreed that it is ok and the same rule applies to you both.
All couples have different boundaries around privacy and hence if a couple agrees that open sharing of correspondence is what they want to do then clearly that’s fine. But for those who do not have that agreement in place, being checked up on could at best feel like an irritating invasion of personal space, and at worst, be perceived as controlling, disrespectful and abusive.
It’s important to recognise that there’s a difference between privacy and secrecy. There are many reasons why we may prefer to keep some aspects of our lives private from our partner, for example for reasons of modesty, independence or respecting the confidentiality of others. But if we insist on some things being kept secret, then the motivation is more often about protecting oneself from guilt. Guilt that is most often caused by knowing that a partner would be hurt if the secret were found out.
Trust is the bedrock of any couple relationship and trust is built on transparency, honesty and open communication. This means that couples should talk about their needs for privacy and also agree what kinds of communications with others are ok, and not ok, within their relationship. When boundaries are negotiated and agreed, there should no reason to ‘check up’ on each other. One exception to this might be when there has already been a significant breach of trust such as an infidelity, but even in these cases, spot checks should be done within an open and mutual spirit of accountability and reassurance, rather than suspicion and control.
Paula Hall is a Relationship Psychotherapist with Relate, which offers advice, relationship counselling and sex therapy www.relate.org.uk
Leave your comments below.Tagged in: Cheating, debate, infidelity, jamie oliver, jools, partner, relationship, samantha brick, sex, trust, vernon kay
Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter