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Is Our Biggest Relationship Secret That We Spy on Each Other Constantly?

Pack your bags, but consider erasing your phone first: According to some family law experts, it’s Divorce Day, the single most popular day of the year for people to get the legal ball rolling to end their terrible relationship. The inevitable impending split was likely in part fueled by recently suffering through the holidays with your in-laws, but maybe also intel gathered off you or your partner’s phone from spyware. Happy New Year!

Sp-sp-spyware! What’s that, honey? Why it’s just a secret app installed on your phone, tracking your every move or recording your every keystroke. Maybe both! Over at NPR, we learn that it appears to be coming up more often in relationships, and reporter Mollie Simon talks to divorce lawyers about a number of possible scenarios involving digital oversharing (willingly or not) and what it all means. In short, nothing much good.

Maybe you had a shared email account with your ex and now you don’t know what to do. (Change the account and even change all your new security questions to things they can’t possibly guess.) Maybe you think your spouse is cheating and want to know if it’s legal to spy (it isn’t.) Maybe you suspect your spouse has installed spyware on your computer and knows exactly what you’ve been up to. (Try to detect it on your computer or phone.)

Though the piece is largely focused on how spyware might impact divorce proceedings, it illuminates the dark underbelly of modern-day romance in a ubiquitous digital age to highlight that, at least by the time things are falling apart, partners are using increasingly invasive methods to keep tabs on each other.

In many ways it makes perfect sense. It’s never been easier to snoop or browse someone else’s private correspondence, whether you’re just playing casual CSI on their public social media accounts to see whose Tweets and Instas they follow and/or like, or actually deep diving into their phone to read their Facebook messages, emails and texts.

But just because we can doesn’t mean we are. Or are we? Are couples always casually spying on each other in some form or another nowadays?

It’s hard to say. We have no real way of knowing how many couples spy on each other aside from what they admit. A recent study from July of this year found that 37 percent of millennials admitted to spying on their partner’s texts and social media once a week. A full quarter of people aged 35 to 54 said they were snooping on their partner’s phone activity on a weekly basis, and just 10 percent of people over 55 confessed to doing so. The researchers theorized that millennials may do this more because they expect less digital privacy overall than other groups, possibly because they’re more comfortable with technology. (There’s also the possibility that gramps couldn’t snoop even if he wanted to, because just doesn’t know enough about those dang computers.)

CNN reported that men are twice as likely as women to check a partner’s phone, but regardless of who is doing the snooping, the snooping almost never ends well.

The first time a girlfriend told me she had looked through her boyfriend’s computer, we were in college and everyone knew he was a big flirt. She hadn’t found anything amiss yet, but something told her she just wasn’t looking hard enough. I’d been told by a number of female friends that they’d casually snooped a boyfriend’s computer or journals just to see what was up, but most of them were up to very little aside from a porn stash.

But by the next time I ran into that same girlfriend, she and her boyfriend had broken up. She told me she’d installed a keylogger on his computer, and now that she’d been receiving hourly text files of his every keystroke, she had his passwords and could read all the emails he was sending and deleting. There were dozens of messages to as many as three other women he was maintaining relationships with, insisting to them that he was single the whole time.

This actually counts as arguably the only useful kind of spying there is, if you can call it that. You know there’s a smoking gun, you’ve talked to your partner to try to find out the truth, but still feel they are not giving it to you. In this case, the relationship is most likely going to end anyway, but you need the intel to end it. Experts agree that if you just don’t want to waste any more time with a liar or cheat and just need to know, that’s a good motivation for looking.

More often, though, spying and snooping just reveals ambiguously bad enough details to make partners go crazy with jealousy but ultimately damage trust in the long run. In the CNN report, multiple couples explain that finding out that someone has pilfered through your stuff (or you doing the pilfering) will often do far more damage than the low-level, open-to-interpretation communications that can usually be explained away, such as questionable remarks made in private email or the content of text messages that may or may not be flirty. As a result, some of those relationships ended, too — not because of the actual communications being had, but because of the breach of trust.

But it’s not as if it’s so black and white in real life. Case in point is a recent letter to an advice columnist at the Boston Globe, where an advice seeker writes that she began snooping on her boyfriend’s phone, and found a number of messages with women trying to get nude pictures of them or trying to meet up. The boyfriend claimed that he had never met with anyone and was simply being “a man with temptation on the internet,” and effectively blamed the girlfriend for causing the trouble. “If I if I didn’t go through his phone, we would not have these problems,” she said that he told her.

This is, of course, true, but also horrible, and it’s the problem with so many relationships in general: There’s a stated commitment or set of values or goals you say you’re following together, and then there’s reality. Sussing out how close your relationship actually is to the one you’re pretending to have is in essence the work of deciding if you can actually stand to be with someone.

Of course, in this case, as the columnist correctly notes, the boyfriend sucks and doesn’t have to cheat to be up to no good. He’s essentially gaslighting her to make her feel crazy, when in reality he is in constant attention-seeking mode with other women. For most people, that would be a deal breaker.

Of course, in a perfect world, we’d all be honest about exactly who we are, but it’s hard to imagine a relationship where a guy like that tells a woman up front Hey I love you honey, but make no mistake, I will be privately hounding women online to meet me and send me pics of their tits. Or a woman admitting it either: I love you, but I will be messaging my ex boyfriend on Facebook sharing far more intimate details about my life with him than you.

While no studies indicate it, I find it far far easier to believe that snooping is about these kinds of fears — not the full-fledged cheater, not the complete sociopath, though we all know they exist. It’s the in between asshole pretending to be truer and purer than he or she really is. Good relationships balance transparency with being given the benefit of the doubt, and everyone should be given enough rope to hang themselves with. But figuring out whose love for you is like that, and therefore, really worth the long haul, is a much more nuanced picture. You can track where someone goes or who they talk to, but there’s no spyware to tell you that.