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What Counts as ‘Cheating’ When It’s on Your Phone?

There are four parties in every monogamous relationship — you, your partner and your phones

Not to be a “kids these days”-ass bitch, but: Kids these days! Are they remotely aware of how much we’ve fucked things up for them? 

I’m speaking, of course, about how my ultimate frenemy, the smartphone, changed our lives. Back when I started clanging teeth mid-makeout with my first boyfriend in 2005, the iPhone was barely a twinkle in Steve Jobs’ eye. At the time, we just had Myspace, and if you were a college student, Facebook, to worry about. The only texting that existed was primitive and costly. If your boyfriend was using his flip phone or his Myspace to flirt with other girls, you were probably unaware of it — snooping wasn’t as easy as holding up a phone to his sleeping face. 

Now, though, we have numerous etiquette guidelines on what we’re allowed to use our smartphones for. And monogamy is no longer necessarily as easy as pledging to be physically faithful to one another. Is your boyfriend “allowed” to like e-girls’ photos on social media or subscribe to their OnlyFans accounts? If you ask him not to and he does so from a secret account, does that violate the terms of your relationship? If you poke around on his phone to learn that he’s doing it, have you violated his trust? 

Social media has granted us access to dozens of new worlds — and opened a new frontier of rules surrounding trust and faithfulness in a monogamous relationship. 

Some people simply demand total transparency from their lovers. “I know a girl’s got to make a living, but I’m not comfortable with her making a living flirting with my boyfriend,” says Suzanne, 31, of the OnlyFans models that she sees as possible temptations. “That stuff is a step too far. He can buy all the porn he wants, but he can’t talk to e-girls or webcam models — that crosses a line for me. And he’s done it before, so the only way I feel comfortable knowing he’s not crossing that line anymore is if he’s willing to be open with me.” 

For Suzanne, openness means having her boyfriend’s passcode. She claims she never uses it, but this way, she has “passcode insurance,” and this ability to check his behavior whenever she wants helps her feel like she doesn’t actually need to.

That would never work for Clark, 39 and married. “I love my wife, and I would never cheat on her — she’s the mother of my kids. She knows this,” he says. “You don’t stay together for years and years if you can’t take the training wheels off with stuff like that — I mean, phone passcodes and shit. That said, there are a lot of beautiful women out there. I’m a man, I like to look at them. I like when they flirt with me.” 

What does “flirting” mean to him, and how much does his wife know about it? “When you pay for a woman’s OnlyFans, she’s willing to talk to you that way,” he tells me. “That’s all I’m going to say about that. Women talk to me, and my wife doesn’t know, although I don’t think she’d care.”

That, for me, is the crux of the issue — of course your partner isn’t going to know every single thing you’re doing. But flirtation is a sensitive thing, and even anti-snooping evangelists tend to agree that you should err on the side of revealing it to your partner. It’s one thing if your wife knows what’s going on in your DMs and doesn’t care; it’s quite another if you won’t give her the opportunity to object. “I don’t disagree,” says Clark, laughing. “In fact, if I’m going to be the bad guy of this article anyway, I’ll admit that I’d fucking hate it if my wife was DMing, like, hot porn dudes. Maybe that’s part of why I don’t tell her. If she knows what I’m doing, it gives her license.”

There it is — the elephant in the room during so many blowout fights over whether Partner A should be able to look at the contents of Partner B’s phone. When Partner A wants to confirm that Partner B is not acting with an unacceptable degree of license, and Partner B is, is anyone in the right? Is it the partner who wants to violate privacy, or the partner who wants to behave with one-sided impunity? 

Frankly, most of us are probably doing a couple of low stakes things that our partners wouldn’t like in the course of our day-to-day lives. I’ve lived with partners who were recycling evangelists, and I always felt a little wild when I’d throw a plastic bottle in the trash rather than the recycling bin. I never really thought my failure to observe recycling protocol would lead to a huge fight, but I hid it just the same, because sometimes it’s easier to dodge the unlikely fight entirely than it is to steel yourself for it.

It’s just that those hidden, ugly behaviors are so much uglier when they pertain to the rules of commitment. Whether you like monogamy or not, a person who has entered into a monogamous commitment has agreed to observe certain guidelines. The most obvious guideline is: Don’t cheat. It’s the golden rule of monogamy, and informs the less stringent rules that individual monogamous couples set with each other (“don’t gawk at other attractive people when we’re walking together,” say, or “don’t flirt with my friends”). Those other rules guide behavior that may not qualify as cheating in itself, but might open the door right onto a slippery slope. The problem is that smartphones alone contain so many more of those doors than the whole rest of the in-person world.

Other monogamous relationship rules may be less hard and fast than “don’t cheat,” and some of the biggest fights you have as a couple might stem from one party’s misinterpretation of them. But they all look a lot like “don’t cheat” and are rarely difficult to parse out from that origin point. You can claim plausible deniability when your girlfriend notices you interacting with a porn star on Instagram: “I’m sorry, honey, I didn’t realize that would upset you.” The deniability grows less plausible, however, when the reason your girlfriend hasn’t noticed the behavior is that you’re hiding it from her.

Suzanne agrees, and while having her boyfriend’s passcode gives her some comfort, she also hopes the arrangement could influence his behavior. “My thing is, I want him to know the option is there,” she says. “I want him to behave as if I might find out what he’s up to.” 

Has she considered the possibility that he’s still misbehaving, but hiding his behavior — by deleting DMs after he’s sent them, say, or by using a burner phone? “I think about that all the time! But at some point, it’s like, ‘Okay, that’s enough panopticon,’” she tells me. “He gets the point. I mean, I do trust him.” 

I follow up by asking if he’s ever done anything to betray that trust, and she hesitates. “Yes,” she eventually responds. “Not recently, and he didn’t cheat on me — it wasn’t as big a deal as that — but he’s fucked it up before. Maybe that’s why I want the passcode insurance.”

Clark sees it another way. “Trust but verify isn’t trust at all,” he says. “Look, my wife trusts me. She trusts me, and she never bothers to verify. And for all the DMs I’ve sent hot commie babes on Twitter, I’ve never cheated on her and I never will.”