How to Do It

Is It Really So Bad to Snoop On Your Partner’s Phone?

I don’t see it.

A woman snooping through a phone.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Moore Media/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

How to Do It is Slate’s sex advice column. Have a question? Send it to Stoya and Rich here. It’s anonymous!

Every Thursday night, the crew responds to a bonus question in chat form.

Dear How to Do It,

I have never snooped on a significant other’s phone or email and don’t plan to, nor am I worried about it. I promise. But I do read these columns, and I’ve noticed a pattern where: 1) Someone suspects something, 2) they snoop, 3) they find something, and 4) they write in. Alternatively, 1) Someone suspects something, 2) they snoop, 3) they don’t find anything, and 4) they write in.

I’ve noticed that you tend to admonish people for snooping no matter what. Is the answer that simple? I understand that in a perfect world you confront your partner if you suspected something was amiss, but in the real world, it’s not that simple. What if they lie? What if the accusation ruins things, even if there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation? What if you’re right? I dunno—could you talk through why the “don’t snoop” answer seems so natural to you and, frankly, all advice columnists?

—Spy Games

Stoya: This is a good question.

Rich: I agree! I appreciate the prompt to tease out our logic.

Stoya: I think my main reason for the don’t-snoop edict is that if you feel like snooping, something is wrong. As in, if you’re tempted to snoop, you should look at what’s going on in the relationship.

Rich: Yes. I don’t like it because it violates trust for the sake of checking if trust has been violated. It’s hypocritical. You can argue that looking through someone’s email and having sex with someone are on different levels of violation, but it’s trust that’s crucial in both. The worst thing about cheating for many isn’t the sex—a lot of people desire sex with people who aren’t their partners—but the lying and trust-violating that goes into it. In that sense, snooping and cheating are similar.

Stoya: So we quickly get into two-wrongs-don’t-make-a-right territory.

Rich: Absolutely. And I’m sensitive to this because I’ve been snooped on in open arrangements and still been castigated for the content of my messages. In those cases, I have felt persecuted for violating rules we didn’t have because of my partner’s visceral reaction to the communicative specifics. It created problems I didn’t even know we could have.

Stoya: It can be really easy for the snoopee to read things into messages that aren’t there. Or to take unreciprocated flirtation as evidence of cheating.

Rich: Right. In one example, I was charged with being too affectionate in texts to a guy whom my boyfriend and I had both slept with together. I felt totally free to express myself prior to that, knowing that this guy was not a threat to our relationship. He was cute! It was fun to dote on him. I thought I had already established that literally in front of my boyfriend’s face, but it still enraged him.

And years later, guess what? I didn’t leave my boyfriend for the guy. He wasn’t a threat after all (like I knew from jump). In that case, all snooping did was stir up some drama. As much as I prize transparency, this has led me to consider that there’s probably a certain level of what-they-don’t-know-won’t-hurt-them that I think is healthy in relationships?

Stoya: There’s a certain amount of trust required to tolerate not knowing everything.

Rich: And I’ve done fairly well in don’t-ask-don’t-tell arrangements—when that hasn’t been violated by someone who doesn’t even ask but goes ahead and rifles through my stuff.

Stoya: Doesn’t snooping ruin the point of don’t ask don’t tell?

Rich: Sure seems like it! I guess I don’t see a huge problem practically of someone who suspects they’re being lied to, investigates, and uncovers that they were right. That’s the journalist in me. But the chances of that happening are far from certain. And then if you snoop, you may see something you can’t unsee but that doesn’t technically violate the terms of the relationship—or you might just feel shitty for violating someone’s privacy in vain.

Stoya: I think if you can’t believe what your partner says to you, they’re the wrong partner.

Rich: Yes. And to speak to the meta element of this question, while it’s important to stay grounded in the realm of the practical, part of the task of writing advice is to explore and uphold certain healthy ideals, right?

Stoya: Agreed.

Rich: Also, this notion: “What if the accusation ruins things even if there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation?” I mean, don’t accuse so severely as to ruin things?

Stoya: What is an accusation going to ruin that snooping won’t?

Rich: Frame it as a discussion of your own insecurities and you’re less likely to “ruin” things.

Stoya: Sage advice.

More How to Do It

Recently, I found that something just wasn’t right with my husband. I am a nurse and just happened to work a rare night shift. I looked at the GPS app around 5 a.m. To my shock, I saw my husband driving very slowly in a sketchy part of town. This went on for hours. When I got home at 8 a.m., he acted as if he had never been anywhere. He then took a long nap, and I was able to get into his iPad and iPhone. He was reading sex stories involving prostitution and incest. The porn he was watching was also of the same nature. Needless to say, knowing he enjoys watching and reading about teenagers having sex with their fathers was very disturbing.

When confronted, he said he would never buy sex because of his security clearance. He said he would not be able to pass his polygraph. I now have no ability to see what he is doing online because he keeps his phone on him at all times. I can’t touch it without him getting mad. My question is: What kind of monitoring, if any, should I be doing? Should I just leave him?