Leon Walker, 33, is a Michigan man who faces five years in prison, if convicted, for allegedly hacking into his wife's e-mails when he suspected her of cheating. Not surprisingly, Walker and his wife are now divorced, but his trial is set for Feb. 7, 2011.
It got me thinking not so much about the legal or even ethical ramifications of cyber-snooping, but about the issue of spying on one's partner from a relationship perspective. Personally, I don't think spying on a partner's e-mail account should ever be punishable by law -- not because it isn't a violation of privacy, but because it's really more a violation of trust, which is a relationship issue, not a legal one.
Cyber-snooping constitutes, in my view, a second betrayal, and this begs the rhetorical question: do two wrongs make a right?
Bottom line: Cyber-snooping in the case of suspected infidelity only results in bringing more negative baggage into the relationship. If you step over this line of trust, it greatly complicates the healing process. In previous times among older generations, people kept diaries, and there was a strict code of privacy surrounding them. It was never okay to read another person's private diary. The same should be true about our electronic communications. As much as possible, they should remain ours and ours alone.
In my own private practice, when clients talk to me about their partner's infidelity or, indeed, their own, more often than not the betrayal was discovered electronically -- through e-mail, texts or on Facebook. As one client described it, "I didn't set out to spy on my wife. It's just that I started to notice she'd dim her screen if I walked by the computer, or she'd kind of flinch when a text would come on her phone if I was sitting next to her. It was her body language, really, that made me feel like she was hiding something."
But if we agree that cyber-snooping does not contribute to a healthy, trusting relationship, what do you do if you suspect your partner of relationship infidelity or some other type of betrayal? Is it ever okay to snoop?
Here are some strategies that may help you if you find yourself in this situation.
Step 1: Do some self-inquiry first.
If you are jumping to the conclusion that your partner has found someone else, this clearly demonstrates one of two possibilities: (1) You don't have confidence in your partner and the relationship; or (2) as an individual, you are feeling insecure -- perhaps unlovable or undesirable. Both of these are indications that your relationship is unhealthy. But by looking at your own perceptions of the situation, it can give you a solid stepping-off place for figuring out how to approach your partner and get to work on healing.
Step 2: Talk to a trusted friend.
It is not unethical to bounce some ideas off a trusted friend. In fact, I encourage it. Go to someone who knows you very well. He or she doesn't have to know your partner but should be someone to whom you are comfortable revealing your suspicions. Ideally, this friend is a person who has knowledge and insights about your previous relationships and behavior patterns with love partners. This friend may be able to quickly recognize that you have a history of insecurity, for example. Mainly, though, talking to a friend is a release valve for your frustrations and fears -- and can help steer you away from the urge to spy.
Step 3: Have a talk with your partner.
After taking the above two steps, it's time to talk to your partner. Snooping is the antithesis of communicating. In a solid relationship, you should be able to honestly and openly discuss your reservations, doubts, fears and feelings. To keep the communication flowing freely, never begin with accusations. Instead, talk about your observations and emotions (always beginning with I statements): "I feel as if you're secretive. I notice you leave the room to talk on the phone. I feel like you're working late a lot -- more than in the past. I feel like we don't get to spend much time together anymore. Our relationship is really important to me, and I'm wondering how you feel about it these days. I'd like to know if you're having new feelings about our relationship and if so, if there's something you'd like to talk about." Give your partner a chance to explain his or her recent behavior, your feelings and his or her feelings. And by the way, this step can and should be repeated often -- until you reach a satisfying resolution with your partner.
Step 4: Gauge the seriousness of the betrayal.
Let's say that after all of the above, you are convinced that your partner is engaging in secretive behavior -- be it an affair, hidden drinking or drug use, gambling, compulsive spending, stealing, etc. Ask yourself if your partner's behavior endangers him or her, you, or your children. If so, you may need to investigate, which means gathering personal information without his or her knowledge. If you have evidence, it is easier to go to a doctor, a minister or rabbi, or your partner's family to tell them about the dangerous behavior and enlist their help.
If you find yourself in a situation that tempts you to cyber-snoop, I hope the above strategies give you pause and help you consider the consequences of your action before you leap headlong down a path you could regret, and perhaps lead you on a more honest, open and healthy path of healing and reconciliation with your partner. Remember: two wrongs never make a right.