Like Elin Nordegren, I started reading my boyfriend's text messages. I also hacked into his email, scoured his Facebook page, and kept careful count of the number of Viagra left in the little orange bottle he'd concealed in the bathroom cabinet.
At the age of thirty, it was the first time I'd ever stooped to this kind of, well, despicable behavior. I'd had it done to me in the past, and hated it. There was the guy in New York I'd ditched who couldn't understand that I didn't want to have a relationship, and was desperately reading my emails to find out if there was someone else (there wasn't). The serial 'infideliter' I dated, who, so used to his own transgressions, couldn't comprehend that I wasn't going to do the same to him (I didn't).
These instances sucked. They were evidence, to me, of my ex-partners' obvious emotional instability, inability to respect privacy and patent insanity. I wasn't cheating on these guys, so it never made sense to me. Why was it OK in their heads to go through my private correspondence?
But when I hit thirty and started dating Richard, I became that woman. And I became that woman for one simple reason: Richard lied to me on a continual basis. He lied about drug abuse (he was a relapsing alcoholic and addict). He lied to get me out of the house so other women could come round -- "just for coffee" he assured me later. He lied about who was texting him as we lay in bed together at midnight. He lied about trying to meet up with his ex-girlfriend in New York. And he left hints and clues littered all over the apartment we shared, almost as if he wanted me to know: names and numbers in his filofax, an incriminating AA Step 4 lying in plain view, empty bottles of wine and drug paraphernalia thrown carelessly in the trash, his blackberry lying on the table when he left the house to do an errand.
I have no idea if Richard subconsciously wanted me to find out: possibly, as the amount of drugs he was ingesting turned him into a sociopathic horror. I have no idea if Tiger Woods wanted Elin to find out. The carelessness of these males suggests either they did (why on earth didn't they hold off on the sexting and change the names of the women they were communicating with into guy's names in their phone?!) or what is more likely: they simply underestimated us women. Women always know, and lying gives us a green card to act like private detectives and disregard all 'normal' levels of ethics and morality -- such as respecting a partner's privacy. There is a huge difference between the woman who snoops on her man because of her own insecurity and a basic lack of ethics, and the woman who snoops on her man because she has a very good suspicion, supported by strange behavior, that something is wrong.
Liz Jones, a British columnist, has been derided for years for chronicling her tempestuous relationship with her much younger husband, Nirpal Dhaliwal, in her weekly columns. Liz's almost pathological dissection of her relationship started to turn hopelessly sad when she revealed that hacking into Nirpal's emails and phone, she had discovered his numerous infidelities. The discovery was not prophylactic for their marriage: it ended in divorce. According to Ruth Houston, a New York based infidelity expert, women are often the last to know about affairs because they don't recognize the early signs -- or they don't intrude on their husband's privacy, and look for text or email proof, until it's too late. A flirtation has turned into an affair.
A friend of mine based in LA, Lulu, swears by frequent intrusions into her husband's privacy for saving her marriage. A routine scanning of her husband's email account revealed a recent tryst between him and an ex-girlfriend that was swiftly nixed when Lulu went into action and confronted him before the tryst became an extra-marital affair. Lulu knows she's married to a man who has the ability and willingness to cheat. She's happy to live with this. When I asked her how she hacked into his email, she said; "Try the name of his favorite sports team, his mother's name or his mother's birthdate. Men are predictable."
When I bring up the ethics of reading your partner's texts and emails to male friends, opinion is divided. Half of my male friends agree that if you suspect something and find out definitive proof by snooping, then your behavior is excusable on the grounds you were doing it to protect yourself. The other half tend to believe that there is no excuse for an invasion of privacy.
My ex constantly brought up the fact I'd read his texts and emails and said it made him feel violated -- ignoring the fact that he had violated my trust with constant lies, and had also read my texts, half-expecting me to be like him: a liar and a cheat. Does a violation of privacy get 'canceled out' by a violation of trust? I'm tempted to say it does. But it does provide your partner with great fuel in the ensuing break-up wars. "We split up because she read my texts and emails," is a continual bleat from my ex -- and it's one I have to agree with. We did break up because I read his texts and emails, and found out exactly what kind of person I was dating. A man who thought lying to me was acceptable and excusable.
It's interesting to note that a court in New Jersey reviewed a case (White Vs. White) on whether a spouse reading the e-mails between her husband and his girlfriend violated the New Jersey wiretap law (state version of the ECPA). The court held that no reasonable expectation of privacy existed. Because the couple were sharing a home, their expectation of privacy was diminished.
We can speculate forever why men -- particularly powerful men like Tiger Woods, David Letterman, Elliot Spitzer, Jude Law, Bill Clinton, Lulu's husband, my ex -- think they can cheat and get away with it. Partly I think it's the genetic ability of men to separate sex and love. I worked in a strip club for eighteen months in New York and I was constantly astounded as to what constitutes 'cheating' to a man. Serial 'infideliters' seem to believe that if they still love their wife/partner/girlfriend, sex or a non-serious relationship, which is sexually based, somehow doesn't count. For these men, cheating is when the heart strays, not the roving penis. My guy always excused the lies and the flirtations with other women by saying he loved me, he supported me, he fed me, he lived with me. The only woman he loved more than me, wouldn't have him anyway(!). Surely that was enough?
It wasn't. It certainly wasn't for Elin Nordegren, judging by her violent reaction to the proof that her husband was cheating. I suspect it's not really enough for Lulu, who is doomed to a life with a man she can never fully trust. If there's one thing I learned about my relationship with the guy whose texts I continually read, whose words I always doubted: it is that invading your partner's privacy to find out something horrendous is morally dubious, but logically the best thing to do.
If I get to the point where I have to start hacking into my next boyfriend's emails, I know I'm not with the right guy. But unlike Lulu, or Elin Nordegren, or Hillary Clinton, I certainly don't intend to stay with him.