In an era of social media over-sharing, it can be easy to forget that we have a right to privacy. We also have a right to privacy in our intimate relationships — even if we “have nothing to hide.” I hear that quite a bit from clients and the occasional friend who have surrendered their phones and passwords to their partners. “I don’t have anything to hide.” That’s not the point, folks.
If your abusive narcissistic, borderline, histrionic, paranoiac, psychopath spouse, girlfriend or boyfriend has demanded your passcodes and logins, that’s not normal. It’s controlling and tyrannical. If you’re in an abusive relationship, you don’t have to be “hiding anything” for them to have a rage episode or make wild accusations about infidelity or anything else they can manufacture out of thin air.
Your sister could text you to invite you for coffee and the borderline or narcissist control freak-abandonment fear switch is activated:
Why does your sister want to have coffee with you?! Why wasn’t I invited?! Why can’t I be there?! What are you hiding from me? If there’s nothing to hide, why wasn’t I invited? Your sister is being disrespectful to me! She should’ve asked me if I could go at that time before she asked you! You love your sister more than me! Is there something going on with you two?!
Push back all you want. Before you jump down my throat because, “My husband/wife cheated on me and they have to PROVE to me that I can trust them again!!” please know, I’ve been there, too.
My ex cheated on me with a mullet-haired, buck-toothed, bisexual former child actress. (I giggle each time I use what’s become one of my literary devices – lemons –> lemonade.) The betrayal was awful and I understand the compulsion to have access to texts and email. Really, I do, but it isn’t healthy.
It comes down to how you want to live your life. This goes for relationships in which there’s been no infidelity as well. If you don’t trust your partner or your partner doesn’t trust you to the point phones and computers are expected to have an all-access pass, you don’t have much of a relationship. Especially if these demands are coupled with unfounded accusations of cheating or perceived abandonment. “I know you’re going to break up with me!!! You and your friends are discussing it!!! Oh no? Then let me see your phone!!!”
When I got together with the ex, I knew he’d cheated on his first wife multiple times. How did I know? He admitted it. It was the usual excuses narcs make for infidelity by blaming their partners for their behavior. It was an obvious red flag that I ignored them. He traveled a lot for business and I worried me he’d cheat on me, too. I tortured myself with those fears the first 4 weeks we lived together. The anxiety and suspicion felt awful.
I didn’t want to live like that, so made the decision to trust and could breathe again. The other choice I gave myself then was to end it if I couldn’t trust him. I chose to trust and stayed. In hindsight, it was obviously the wrong decision.
If you’ve surrendered your phone to your partner, please consider doing your friends, family and colleagues a courtesy and let them know your partner reads all incoming and outgoing messages. You may not care about your right to privacy, but some or all of your friends and family probably do. Also, they may want to bypass written communication with you altogether because, as previously, noted, there doesn’t have to be anything to hide. An abusive asshole can turn nothing into something with the misfire of a synapse.
For example, I’m friendly with a maintenance guy who does work at my house. Strictly platonic, nothing to see. He’s super nice and could easily be one of my clients — abusive marriage, alienated from his kids and a whole string of crazy ass girlfriends, including his most recent one.
We live in a very insular part of the world. If you’re single, it isn’t exactly what you’d call a target rich environment. Maintenance Man met the current live-in girlfriend during last call at a bar. She went home with him for a one-night stand and hasn’t left as of 6+ months later. For the sake of anonymity, let’s call her Squatty.
It took him about 6 weeks for him to sheepishly tell me what he’d done. She’s an unemployed, married deadbeat mother of two. Her estranged husband was able to have her removed from the marital home. He and the 2 kids are currently protected from her by a restraining order. The third day of Squatty’s squatting, Maintenance Man took her to get an abortion. Heaven only knows who the daddy was. This is just the crazy tip of the crazy iceberg. Squatty has a host of other issues, one more dysfunctional than the next.
After Maintenance Man finished his tale, I pointed to a tree bough high above my deck and said, “See that hornet’s nest up there. You may as well stick your penis in that instead because it’ll probably be quicker and less painful.” He laughed to which I added, “I’m not kidding.”
A few months later, he turned up for quarterly work items. We chatted and, no surprise, Squatty’s still squatting. He’s financially supporting her and she has the passcode to his phone. I told him he has a right to privacy and he looked surprised. My friend said she looks at his phone to see what he’s doing because “if [he’s] doing anything [she’s] going to do the same.” That’s so healthy! But, hey, he has nothing to hide. Which is why he was interrogated about whose house he was working at and who I am.
Maybe you’re wondering what’s wrong with her attitude. Her rationale is “I want to see if you’re cheating because if you are, then it’s okay for me to cheat.” If your partner cheats on you and that’s a problem for you, you end the relationship. You don’t cheat in retaliation. Unless you’re just as dysfunctional and immature.
None of this is healthy.
If your partner has access to your devices, but you’re not allowed to monitor their phones, be concerned. It’s practically guaranteed they’re doing things they don’t want you to know about — cheating, trash talking you or both. If you’re just beginning a relationship and they’re demanding this, get out while it’s still easy to do so. Even if you both have mutual access, it’s still not okay, unless you’re both narcissistic control freaks or terrified of abandonment borderlines.
This won’t get better with time. It’ll likely get much, much worse. There’s no reassuring those kinds of insecurities and abandonment fears. A control freak’s gonna control freak. Run.
Counseling, Consulting and Coaching with Dr. Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD
Dr. Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD provides services to help individuals work through their relationship issues via telephone or Skype, particularly men and women who trying to break free of an abusive relationship, cope with the stress of an abusive relationship or heal from an abusive relationship. She combines practical advice, support, reality testing and goal-oriented outcomes. Please visit the Schedule a Session page for professional inquiries.
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Hi Dr T,
Thanks for writing this article, it again confirms that I was in an abusive relationship. It really helps me in dealing with the aftermath of my abusive relationship.
Concerning the need to check on your partner’s phone… I’ve been there also (important note: I never used to have that urge in previous relationships). The problem was that every time I checked on her I actually found something (a lie, contact with another man etc.).
Also one time I had a strange feeling and asked her what she was doing on her phone, she said nothing special. I asked her if she could show me and she gave me hell and never showed.
So there is a point where when your partner is really in doubt, you can take that away with showing that you have nothing to hide. The problem begins when there is no suspicion or that it becomes a systematic control process. There is a nice quote from William Shakespeare that goes like…:
“Suspicion always haunts the guilty mind; the thief doth fear each bush an officer.”
So because the CB partner does all kinds of things herself she projects those on you.
The point I’m trying to make is that a lot of partners (mostly co-depedent ones) learned to ignore their feeling. As you described your narcissistic ex cheated on you, so your gut feeling was actually right and warning you about something. You chose the rational approach and pushed away that feeling. I’ve been there! It’s the right thing to do in a healthy relationship but not in the kind of relationships talked about on this website.
I wish I would have followed my instincts and checked everything and would understand that those instincts are good and healthy and the relationship was not. To be honest if I would have listened to my feeling I would have gone into the relationship, as I have advised other guys to stay away from her long before I ever had something with her.
Would advice everybody to learn to trust your gut feeling and do not rationalize, usually where there is smoke there is fire.
Would love to hear your thoughts! Keep up the good work Dr T. you are a tremendous help to all of us!
Completely agree with Richard on this-
“Also one time I had a strange feeling and asked her what she was doing on her phone, she said nothing special. I asked her if she could show me and she gave me hell and never showed. So there is a point where when your partner is really in doubt, you can take that away with showing that you have nothing to hide. The problem begins when there is no suspicion or that it becomes a systematic control process.”
And… “The point I’m trying to make is that a lot of partners (mostly co-depedent ones) learned to ignore their feeling.”
Nar-Spin is about robbing you of your valuable instinct by distorting reality. Caring partners will demonstrate
they are trustworthy when -occasionally- requested (not all the time). It’s part of building that trust that is the framework
of a good relationship. Nar-Spinners will immediately question your rationale for asking them to demonstrate their integrity.
Unfortunately, many people (including myself) will extend them the benefit of the doubt and they will then take full advantage
of your good graces.
I think, we just try to deny that sinking, gut wrenching, disappointment when we realize the truth about these people.
I just pushed the feeling away, because confronting the feeling would leave me with one option… leaving her. Because she would never, ever give in or admit. So yes, for the sake of trying to keep the fairy tale alive we bury our head in the sand.
And my previous example was technicality just a suspicion, but I also have examples of things that I saw with my own eyes. I found a picture on Social Media that she went out a week before. While she told me she did not. First she denied and said it was an old picture, but the picture revealed which party it was and Google was my friend. Afterwards (talking hours of arguments here) she claimed that she forgot that she went to that club because she was so sad about an argument we had before. That she felt really heartbroken that I didn’t consider that and that I was sneaky for checking up on her.
If you’re still reading ;-), you might like to know this detail… The whole subject of going out was brought up by her a few times before. She asked me (multiple times )if I went out. Because she asked I returned the question and she answered (multiple times) with no. I believed her, but coincidentally found that picture.
Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me 😉
Funny how Dr. T just published an article in which she give the professional analysis of my case studie ;-).
I really don’t know what I’ve would have done without these articles . I doubted myself so much. But these articles leave nothing to the imagination. It is exactly what I have experienced, day in day out.
Thanks again Dr. T
Hi Dr T, i am a long time reader of your site but it is the first time i felt the need to comment on an article because i have a different opinion on this particular issue. Perhaps it is my painful experience with matters of privacy, but i strongly believe that when 2 people are in a long term serious relationship or marriage, they should have no secrets at all from each other. And yes, people who have nothing to hide don’t feel the need to hide anything.
I am not saying that checking each other’s phone every 10 minutes is healthy. Obviously this is crazy and a sign of a disorder. But on the other hand, “the right to privacy” is a fitting excuse for cheaters and other abusers to cover their tracks, so i never accept it in my relationships. If i am in a serious relationship with someone and i have reasons to suspect her, i DEMAND to have access to her communications or i just break up. There is a reason for this.
A few years ago i was in a serious relationship with a woman i intented to marry. We were together for 6 whole years. During the last year of our relationship her behaviour changed. She showed some signs of infidelity and my gut was screaming about it. So i decided to do something some people may disagree with, to use her online accounts to find out if she is up to something. I knew her password because i had helped her create a strong password to use (i am an IT professional and she trusted me with this), but i had never used it until then. When i tried to enter her facebook and email accounts though, the password was changed. This was odd to me, because she never mentioned anything.
So next time we met i asked her about it and asked her for access to her accounts. She screamed about “privacy” and called me a creep. I felt really bad and i was embarrassed i had stooped so low. Then she said she wanted to break up with me, right then and there. Just like that, after 6 years, “privacy” was her reason (or excuse) for breaking things up…
3 weeks later, i was trying to reconcile with her, and after many questions regarding any other man in her life, she dropped the bomb: There was another man, and she had a crush on him for months…
After i learned this information, i was very angry for feeling like a monster for trusting my instinct and wanting to know the truth. I kept thinking how awful i was for “violating her rights” while the truth of the matter was that she was a blatant cheater, she hid stuff from me for many months and all the show about “her right to privacy” was just an excuse to break up with me without taking the blame for her infidelity.
I then began researching personality disorders like crazy because this hurt me deeply, i really loved that woman and i needed an explanation for this total personality change. I am no mental health professional by any means, but i strongly suspect after learning about BPD that she fits most of the criteria.
So now, years after the fact, i don’t believe in privacy between 2 partners. Sure, when things aren’t serious and you are just getting to now each other privacy is fine, but as long as things get serious, each person should have on demand access to the other’s communications. If i am to allow a person in my life and give them the opportunity to make or break me (i faced a serious depression after my break up), i want some insurance policy…
PS: Sorry for any english mistakes, i am not a native speaker.
Dr Tara Palmatier says
Not all women are your ex. Not all men are my ex. It takes some time to heal after one’s trust has been violated. Particularly when you sense something is going on, you ask and they lies, gaslight and guilt you for intuiting their deception and betrayal. It is your right to make access to phones and devices a deal-breaker in your future relationships, but doing so may eliminate women who are healthy and trustworthy.
Obviously, if you’re catching your partner in lies, behaving differently, etc., follow your gut, but that’s a different matter.
Thanks for these articles. I’m going through a similar situation.. Nice to know I’m not nuts..