Is your partner snooping? You could be to blame.

Do couples snoop on each other?

Not only do couples monitor their partner’s behaviors, they do so in a similar fashion. A recent study out of the UK found that one or both members of a couple engaged in at least one of these surveillance behaviors: read each other’s emails (30%), text messages (30%), or browser history (20%) unbeknownst to the other partner. When one member of the couple was engaging in monitoring behavior, chances were good that the other partner was as well.

People snoop for a variety of reasons. It’s possible that the mistrust is one –sided (e.g., insecurity or personality issues) or that confidence between partners has been broken in the past (e.g., past infidelity). But when there isn’t a history of betrayal, and no other evidence is available, what causes partners to spy?

Why doesn’t my partner leave my private information private?!

A new study shows that when one partner snoops, the other partner might have set the stage for it to occur. Intimacy is borne through disclosure of one’s feelings and private information: it fosters a sense of connectedness and strengthens beliefs about the foundation of the relationship. Intimacy helps signal to partners that they are telling the truth, are accessible, and are available for support when needed. When a partner withholds private information the other is often left feeling hurt, devalued, and alone. Since relationship expectations often include these intimacy-building information exchanges, those that can’t engage in this sort of “touchy feely private talk” or “are just not talkers” may be inflicting harm on the relationship. How so? When relationship norms are violated, the confidence that one partner has that the other is the real deal is undermined. If a partner isn’t confident in the other’s ability to be accessible and responsive, then trust falters. Hence, snooping.

It’s an issue of trust.

Considering that a lack of disclosure might be undermining a sense of trust between partners, researchers looked at how withholding private information affected snooping behavior in newlywed couples. When one partner was thought to have a low-level of disclosure, the other ramped up the snooping. This was not the case when a partner was good at disclosing (the other partner didn’t feel the need to snoop). Trust made a big difference for some couples: when it was low, the amount of disclosure made a difference. When one partner reported that they didn’t trust their partner (or that trust was low) the amount of disclosure they got from the other partner influenced the snooping behavior. When spouses fundamentally trusted each other, it didn’t matter how much they disclosed. These results held true for both men and women.

The researchers warned that snooping doesn’t bring a sense of relief or justice; the uncertainty may trigger a negative spiral of relationship threats. When partners found ambiguous evidence they were more likely to view it as negative. Any incriminating evidence found only fueled deeper doubts. Failing to find anything was more of a curse than a balm. Worry often begot more worry and intrusive acts.

Given the potentially detrimental consequences of snooping, it seems that one should tread carefully when considering it. But there are two sides to every story, and intimacy runs both ways. If one partner can create a sense of intimacy and trust by engaging in open, intimacy-building conversation, snooping may not ever be considered by the other. If you (or your partner) are snooping, perhaps an honest conversation about trust is in order.

Further Reading:

Helsper, E., & Whitty, M. (2010). Netiquette within married couples: Agreement about acceptable online behavior and surveillance between partners Computers in Human Behavior, 26 (5), 916-926 DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2010.02.006

Vinkers, C., Finkenauer, C., & Hawk, S. (2011). Why do close partners snoop? Predictors of intrusive behavior in newlywed couples Personal Relationships, 18 (1), 110-124 DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-6811.2010.01314.x

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