When Patricia Masterson’s boyfriend broke into her email account in search of evidence that she had been cheating, she was deeply offended by the violation of her privacy. The fact that she had, indeed, been cheating hardly seemed like a good excuse.
She changed her tune 10 years later, when, married and pregnant, Masterson innocently spotted a text message on her husband’s cellphone from a woman regarding a baby. Her husband said it must have been sent to him by mistake, and Masterson, sensitive to privacy, left it alone — until a few months later, when the woman contacted Masterson through Facebook to reveal she’d recently given birth to her husband’s child.
“I became a snooper,” said Masterson, now 39, a Defense Department contractor living in northern Virginia. She tore through cellphone records and installed software to recover deleted emails, gathering all the details she could. “It was so not me; up until that point I had believed in absolute privacy.”
When, if ever, is it OK to invade a romantic partner’s privacy? Masterson and others who have perpetrated or suffered betrayal (or both) say it’s often the only way to confirm suspicions of infidelity when all else fails.
But it can take much less for people to snoop.
Thirty-three percent of dating couples and 37 percent of spouses — slightly more women than men — say they have checked their partner’s email or call history on the sly, according to a survey last year by the gadget shopping site Retrevo.com, which queried more than 1,000 people online. Among those younger than 25, almost half reported snooping. Just 9 percent discovered evidence of cheating.
Retrevo.com spokeswoman Jennifer Jacobson said she doesn’t think young couples are less trusting. “It’s just that technology has made everyone’s communications highly accessible and people probably don’t see it as a violation of trust, because of how easy it is to do.”
Larry Rosen, author of “iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession With Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us” (Palgrave Macmillan), said millennials raised on a culture of Facebook stalking view privacy differently from baby boomers or Gen Xers (roughly, people older than 35).
“For older people, the lines are clear: Private is private, public is public,” said Rosen, a research psychologist and professor at California State University at Dominguez Hills. “For younger people, it’s much more murky.”
If technology has made it easier to spy, it has also made it easier to cheat, muddying what is considered appropriate relationships. Facebook invites flirting with exes, and some people never know whom their partner is texting. Is that OK? Depends on the couple. But it can get out of hand.
The ping of a saucy text message stimulates the brain’s pleasure centers, as does cocaine, and people want more, Rosen said.
He recommends people abide by a five-minute “e-waiting period” before sending an electronic communication so that they can be more clear-headed about whether it’s a good idea.
“It’s an issue of higher-level thinking versus lower-order responding,” Rosen said. “We have turned into salivating dogs, and we have to back off a bit.”
Generally, a relationship is harmful if you’re redirecting intimacies and energies from your partner to someone else, or if you’re hiding behavior because you know it would make your partner uncomfortable.
“People are trying to hang on to two worlds, and it’s been my experience that those things blow up,” said Randi Gunther, an L.A.-based clinical psychologist and marriage counselor, and author of “Relationship Saboteurs” (New Harbinger). “Do you want to spend your life looking over your shoulder?”
It’s up to each couple to determine what’s appropriate regarding privacy, but the problem is that most couples don’t talk about their values until someone gets hurt, said Linda Young, a counseling psychologist who sits on the board of the Council on Contemporary Families. Young said couples should get on the same page about their expectations (What is cheating? How transparent should you be? Do you have access to each other’s passwords?) just as they would about children or finances.
But first, she added, it’s important to understand why you desire a certain level of privacy or transparency.
It’s unfair to project insecurities or baggage from prior betrayals onto an innocent partner and go searching for faults, Young said. Innocuous material can easily be misinterpreted. And hypervigilance can be controlling and push someone away.
If, however, trust has been breached, privacy goes out the window and it falls to the betrayer to make their life an open book, Young said.
He or she should proactively announce who just texted during dinner or just friended them on Facebook, and allow phones and email accounts to be snooped, to earn back the trust broken. It’s best if the transparency is voluntary, not a penance that feels like a parent checking up on a bad child, which invites rebellion, Young said.
Masterson, now divorced, said she and her new boyfriend have found a healthy balance between transparency and privacy. She said she would happily hand over her cellphone if he asked, as would he, though she would be angry if he peeked behind her back.
Most important, she tells him everything, especially about any “light friendships” with other men. Whereas she used to consider that her private business, she now prefers openness.
“That’s a slippery slope I don’t walk anymore,” she said.
Still, your partner doesn’t have to know everything: Your journals. Your hobbies. Your box of old love letters. Friends’ confidences. Family dramas. They’re no one’s business but your own — and sometimes it’s healthiest to keep it that way.
Iris Krasnow, a journalist who interviewed 200 women for her book “The Secret Lives of Wives: Women Share What It Really Takes to Stay Married” (Gotham), said the happiest spouses were those who maintained a separate identity, some by taking separate summer vacations from their spouse, others by keeping their “soulful secrets” — dreams about what they want to do or be, thoughts about the fabric of their lives — to themselves.
Having fulfilling friendships with both sexes also breeds happiness, she said — including flirting (with boundaries), to get that shot of flattery that you can take back home.
“It takes a village to make a happy person,” Krasnow said. “I have so many great men friends, I just make sure my husband loves them, too.”