Mindpath Health’s Kiana Shelton, LCSW, helps discuss what to do when you find yourself snooping through your partner’s phone.
It goes a little something like this: your partner’s phone is lying right there. It’s almost begging to be opened. Your curiosity, insecurity, or a toxic combination of both takes over. You can’t help yourself.
So, you start frantically scrolling through their texts and DMs. According to a 2020 Pew Research survey, more than one-third of people admit to snooping on their partner’s phones — even though 70% agree that this activity is rarely or never acceptable.
Obviously, looking through your devices and communications can breed some serious trust issues. But if it’s too late and you’ve already done it (or your partner’s done it to you) you’re probably wondering how you can rebuild that trust and move forward.
“Any successful relationship is built on trust,” says Kiana Shelton, a licensed clinical social worker with Mindpath Health.
According to Shelton, snooping plants a seed. Not only does it suggest that there’s a lack of trust on your part, but also triggers distrust from your partner because now they can’t be sure whether or not you’ll respect their privacy in the future. They may even feel like their sense of safety in the relationship has been compromised.
Fortunately, experts agree that there is a way to bounce back from this incident. Read on to find out how to recover and rebuild your bond in a healthy way.
5 Steps to Recover from Phone Snooping in a Relationship
Take some time to reflect before even talking to your partner, says Billie Tyler, a licensed marriage and family therapist. Specifically, you want to hone in on understanding what led to feeling the need to snoop.
“Getting curious will allow you to grow,” adds Shelton.
Did they betray you in the past, and you’re still not over it? Have you been feeling insecure about the connection between you and your partner? Are you struggling with jealousy lately about their closeness with a coworker or friend? Or do you have deep-rooted trust issues from a previous partner cheating on you?
Once you have a better grasp on what the trigger was, you’ll be primed for a more meaningful discussion with your partner about the snooping itself.
- Decide Whether or Not to Come Clean
Experts agree that honesty is the best policy in any relationship — so as a general rule, it’s a good idea to admit to the snooping.
The only exception, according to Dr. David Helfand, PsyD, a licensed psychologist and co-owner of LifeWise, is if it was a one-time offense that you’re able to learn and grow from, and you feel confident that you have the willpower to abstain from ever doing it again.
According to Tyler, whether to admit to it or not ultimately comes down to the nature of your relationship and the reason for your snooping. If there’s a larger concern that you both need to address, that’s one thing. But if you’re in a brand new relationship and the snooping stems from an old pattern in a previous relationship, Tyler says it may be OK to just focus on doing some self-work to figure out how to address those anxieties.
On the other hand, Shelton says, “The old saying ‘the truth will set you free’ holds a lot of validity.”
“Shame and guilt thrive in silence,” she adds. “If one chooses not to share what they did, most likely these feelings will continue to grow and can create increased relationship issues.”
- Take Accountability
When you do come clean, Tyler highly recommends starting the conversation with empathy and an “I” statement. For example:
“I can imagine it feels like a violation for me to look through your phone. I am feeling really shut out and wanted to see if I could better understand your perspective.”
“This is helpful because it focuses on addressing the core concern of uncertainty rather than creating defensiveness and/or debates over the details of what was or wasn’t found,” she explains.
“When couples start arguing about what exactly was shared or done, they often make assumptions about intentions, and this gets away from actually building trust and security,” Tyler adds. “Focusing on the understanding allows both people to feel heard and an opportunity to adjust their relationship in accordance.”
Helfand says it’s a good idea to share the emotional need you were trying to fulfill — as well as propose healthier ways to get that need met. This simple step fosters intimacy and has the potential to turn what could be a very negative experience into a positive emotional connection.
Helfand also recommends saying how you plan to handle snooping temptation in the future. For example, you might say:
“Next time I have the urge to look through your phone, I’ll just find you and tell you how I’m feeling instead.”
“When we authentically state a behavior change out loud, it is more likely to occur,” he says. “So, this strategy helps repair the relationship while also increasing the chances of you making positive changes.”
- Establish Boundaries
Dr. Brenda Wade — a practicing psychologist, relationship expert, and advisor to Online for Love — says clearly stating boundaries around privacy is crucial.
For instance, you might want to discuss how you’ll handle situations going forward in which you need to access your partner’s devices for a legitimate reason. Is it OK to use their laptop if you need to borrow it for work, or search their desk to confirm that a bill was paid? What about looking through their bag for a piece of gum? Are there certain bedroom or office drawers that are off-limits?
Being clearer about these things can help ensure you don’t cross the line going forward.
- Try Counseling
If your snooping either stems from or is causing seemingly unresolvable issues in your relationship, then you may want to seek out professional counseling.
A couples therapist can help you and your partner rebuild trust and repair the damage, says Helfand.
“Relationship counseling allows you to tackle an issue together and learn in real time from each other the ways in which you both are processing the incident and what may be coming up,” explains Shelton. “This is all done within a safe and neutral space that will allow you both the ability to share and learn.”
Or, if you’re dealing with longstanding trust issues and insecurities that are unrelated to your current relationship, you might seek individual counseling, according to Tyler.
The important thing to remember is this: You’re human, you made a mistake, and your relationship doesn’t have to be doomed because of it. If you can take responsibility, dig deep about what drove you to violate your partner’s privacy, and prove to them that you’re dedicated to avoiding this behavior in the future, then there’s a good chance that you can use this misstep as a learning experience.
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