Esther Perel is a sex and relationship therapist, the best-selling author of Mating in Captivity and a consultant for the hit Showtime series The Affair. Her TED talks on Desire and Infidelity have been viewed more than 14 million times. This article was originally published as “Close Encounters: The Case Against Snooping” in the July 2016 issue of Cosmopolitan.
In your ideal relationship, do you hope you’ll tell each other everything?
Chances are, yes. We’ve begun to believe that intimacy means we should be able to tell our partners anything and that we have a right to know everything about their behaviors, thoughts, and feelings. “Where did you go? Who did you see? What are you thinking right now?” We feel entitled to know all these things immediately and constantly. The result is that a lot of us confuse being close to someone with something more dangerous to relationships: surveillance.
In fact, our desire to know every detail about our partner’s life provides us with a false sense of security. We think, If we were truly close, then s/he’d tell me everything. What actually happens is that you have all this data about your partner, but the facts don’t necessarily give you true insight into him or her. Small gestures — liking someone’s post, friending, responding or not responding — can take on a much bigger, unintended meaning.
We are bombarded with this surveillance data through social media, and we don’t know what is important or not important anymore. This has made many of us afraid of letting our partner have any privacy — we think privacy will cloak infidelity. Even worse, demanding to know all these little details invites a sort of parental mode — “What did you talk about with your friends? What did you eat for lunch?” — these are things we ask of children. Instead of fueling desire and closeness, they turn our relationships into scavenger hunts. (A better tactic is to ask your partner, “What was great about your day?” or “Did anything happen that made you feel down?” That’s different from tracking their daily data.)
When we’re afraid of letting things be personal with our partner, we get the urge to snoop, usually on their phones. When you get that itch, first consider how you would feel if he or she read your texts or diary or rifled through your bag. It’s remarkable how well we can justify doing it to others. If I do it to you, it’s because you acted weird today. If you do it to me, you’re a creep.
Ask yourself: What am I looking to find, and if I find it, what happens? Whenever you go looking, you’re going to find something that you’re not happy with, whether it is a serious offense or not. The bottom line is that snooping doesn’t work. It doesn’t give you what you really want and deserve to have: the feeling that your partner is loyal, that s/he isn’t going to hurt you, that s/he values you. Snooping doesn’t give you the trust and security you’re looking for. It only fuels your fears.
You deserve to have your needs met, but I’ll give you a better way to do it. Say you get the urge to snoop because your partner is being distant or you think s/he’s emailing with an ex or s/he’s liking other men’s/women’s pictures on Instagram. If you say to him/her, “I know you’ve been doing such and such,” s/he’s going to be pissed off about the snooping, and your conversation is going to be about that and not about your worries and his/her misdemeanors — the thing you really wanted to talk about.
Also key: Is your suspicion coming from what you know about his/her behavior or what you know about yourself? Could it have to do with your background (your ex cheated on you or your father cheated on your mother, for instance)? Or is it truly based on his/her behavior? So many of us would rather find our partner guilty than talk about our concerns and anxieties. It’s easier for us to say, “You can’t be trusted,” than “I struggle with trusting you.”
ASK YOURSELF: WHAT AM I LOOKING TO FIND, AND IF I FIND IT, WHAT HAPPENS?
So let’s say you bring up your fears in a non-accusatory way. The worst that can happen is that your partner gets defensive. Then you have a bigger issue and a conversation where you have to say, “We’re not able to communicate here — this is not mature. We can’t build a relationship where I bring things up and you just deflect them so you don’t have to deal with stuff.” In a better scenario, your partner says, “I care about you and I don’t want you to feel this way, and I’m going to do what I need to do for that not to be the case.”
These shouldn’t be baiting conversations. If I said to you, “I told you I don’t like it when you talk to an ex, so obviously you’re going to stop seeing her/him now,” I’m basically telling you what you should be secretive about. Instead, I could lead with “This is how it would make me feel if you talked to your ex.” That gives your partner a chance to say, “I can understand how it would make you feel this way, but honestly, for me, it’s just a nice way to stay in touch.” And then you hear each other out.
The thing is – conversations like this are happening only when the shit hits the fan — and that’s a problem. Talking about boundaries within your relationship should be normal from the very start … and throughout. It’s important to discuss things like, “What are we going to do with our online-dating accounts now that we’re dating? Who are the friends we see together and the friends we see alone? What are the boundaries around our exes?” You are not problematizing the issues, and you’re not solving them. You’re just exploring them together. The more you have these talks, the less compelled you’ll feel to find out answers by snooping.
Many people wrongly think that if you need to discuss this stuff, it means that there is a problem, because the assumption is that we picked a partner and we shouldn’t have any interest in anybody else anymore. I call it the convent of monogamy — this idea that all your desires, thoughts, and fantasies are going to be geared only to your partner for the next umpteen years. Thoughts about other people are normal. We choose out of love and loyalty not to act on them. Fire needs air … so does a relationship for it to breathe and thrive. We all need experiences of our own, unique to ourselves. It would help so many couples to accept that there are things about our partner that we don’t know and that, in fact, not knowing your partner like the inside of your pocket is what will preserve the mystery, curiosity, and interest that truly keeps a bond alive.