OK, be honest. Have you ever looked at your partner’s texts, DMs, Insta or emails? Maybe you did it juuust that one time when they were in the shower. Or maybe it’s a regular occurance. Perhaps you and your significant other are totally open and share passwords, making it easy to do a little snooping.
Whatever the reason, you might be curious if checking your partner’s phone is acceptable—whether you do it in secret, or out in the open as part of your normal relationship.
Here, we’ll delve into this question, and how the habit may impact your mental health and relationship.
So, should you check your partner’s phone?
In a word, no, says April Kilduff, MA, LCPC, LMHC, a licensed therapist and clinical trainer with NOCD. And the same answer applies even if they let you. (More on this later.)
While everyone has their own reasons for looking at their partner’s phone, it’s usually driven by the urge to want to have more information without directly asking.
“I think it’s important to remember that boundaries and privacy are allowable in relationships,” says Kilduff. “When you start checking someone’s phone, you erode the trust and the natural leap of faith you took when entering into the relationship.”
The reality is that there is always uncertainty about what your partner is doing, and while it might seem like peeking at their phone will give you the info you’re looking for, it rarely stops there.
“Checking your partner’s phone feeds the part of your brain that asks those questions,” says Kilduff. So, for example, you may have looked at their phone last week, but now it’s a new day and if they did something that upset you, you might check again. And again.
The more times you check, the more your doubt is apt to increase, as opposed to be alleviated, says Kilduff. There’s also a tendency for this behavior to snowball, leading to more things you need to check. Maybe you started just looking at your partner’s text messages, then after some time you might start checking their DMs or even start to comb through cell phone records, emails, or follow them to a work happy hour where you know their attractive coworker will be. “The checks tend to grow in nature beyond the phone. It’s a pointless and stressful exercise that has no end. There is no number of times you’ll check someone’s phone and decide you trust them completely,” Kilduff adds.
When the urge to check their phone is a sign of something more
Sometimes it’s not a problem in the relationship that may be driving you to check your partner’s phone—in fact, they may not have given you any reason to doubt them.
There’s a specific subtype of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) called Relationship OCD, which can sometimes fuel this behavior. OCD is a chronic mental health disorder that revolves around a cycle of obsessions, distress, and then compulsions. More specifically:
- Something triggers an obsession. This is a recurring thought, image, sensation and/or urge that causes significant distress and anxiety.
- In order to relieve that distress, you perform a compulsion, which is a behavior—either something done physically or thought mentally—that’s done in an attempt to relieve the anxiety and/or prevent something feared from happening.
However, the relief felt after doing a compulsion is only temporary, so the cycle starts again and repeats. With a true case of OCD, symptoms take up at least an hour each day.
OCD can appear in your life in an endless number of ways. Relationship OCD (or ROCD) is characterized by the presence of intrusive thoughts, images, sensations and/or urges about your relationship. This might include how you feel about your partner, how your partner feels about you, and questions about if you’re meant for each other or should stay together.
Everyone has doubts about their relationship from time to time. It’s normal to wonder if you’re in the right relationship, and whether you should stay together or end it. But with ROCD, you can’t let these thoughts go, and they become consuming. As a result, you may feel the need to perform compulsions, such as:
- Reassurance seeking
- Mental review
- Social comparison
Reassurance seeking is where checking a partner’s phone comes in. It’s about looking for confirmation from the outside world that your relationship is OK. While you may turn to family or friends to see if they think your relationship is good, you may also snoop through their phone, too.
It can be tough to separate OCD behavior from other relationship issues, but this condition is particularly nasty because it demands absolute certainty. And, since you’re not your partner, you can never get the certainty that you’re seeking. “The degree to which you feel you have to be sure you know what your partner is doing is what sets ROCD apart from a relationship conflict,” says Kilduff.
OCD will continue to push you, asking you if you are 100% sure that your partner isn’t doing something wrong. And you won’t be able to let that go, which means these thoughts will likely consume you, take up a lot of time, and affect your bond with your partner. This differs from checking their phone because you’re worried that they’re cheating and knowing that those actions are not the best way to handle it.
How to let go of the urge and stop the habit
First, you should know that this is a road you will continue to go down, unless you put a stop to it—stat. “Checking a partner’s phone just brings about suspicion, and then more suspicion,” says Kilduff. “Rather than bringing you closer, it puts a wedge between the two of you and drives you further apart.”
Your partner may feel upset and defensive, while you might be worried all the time. The anxiety is why you may want to check their phone, but it’s only a temporary relief before the anxiety comes back—prompting you to check again. You can see how your worries won’t actually be eased in the end, right?
Learning to live with the natural uncertainty in a relationship is key, says Kilduff. Relationships take a lot of trust and vulnerability.
What’s more, it’s not just what you’re doing to your partner, but what you’re doing to yourself. “Habitually checking a partner’s phone keeps you focused on a hypothetical fear that’s not happening, rather than allowing you to be present in a relationship,” says Kilduff. “You won’t be able to enjoy them because you’re caught up in the idea of what if they’re cheating, or doing something else that feels like a betrayal.”
How to find help to build confidence in your relationship
You owe your partner trust and privacy in a relationship, but that doesn’t mean it always comes easy. It also doesn’t mean that they’re not cheating on you. Or that you wouldn’t actually find anything on their phone. In fact, you might have even been in a relationship where the other person did cheat on you. Your suspicions and fears may not actually be overblown—or wrong.
However, if you find yourself repeatedly consumed with thoughts of your partner cheating or acting inappropriately, it’s important to reach out to a mental health professional.
If your issues are rooted in trust with your partner—either real, like a prior history of cheating, or hypothetical—then opening up the lines of communication is key. Kilduff adds that these problems may also be rooted in your own attachment issues. Talking in an honest way can be a challenge itself, so this is where a relationship therapist can come into play.
A licensed mental health therapist who is knowledgeable about anxiety—and OCD, specifically—can help you explore whether the disorder is the reason for your urge to check your partner’s phone, and identify other obsessions and compulsions that may indicate OCD.
For example, you may also find that you spend a lot of time and energy mentally reviewing your time together or conversations you’ve had. Did they look at the restaurant server like they thought they were attractive when you went out last week? Have they been talking more about their coworker? These may be other examples of obsessions related to ROCD.
If OCD is diagnosed, the most effective form of treatment is exposure and response prevention, or ERP. It’s used to target all subtypes of OCD and involves:
Exposure—An obsession is triggered on purpose in order to activate your anxiety around the situation. Exposures start with the least difficult instances and slowly work up until you can face the hardest circumstances.
Response prevention—Rather than giving into the anxiety and performing a compulsion in order to get rid of it, you’ll make the conscious choice to sit with that discomfort until it subsides—without doing compulsions.
OCD is unique to the individual, so a therapist will tailor an ERP plan to your needs. Kilduff says that some of the exposures that may involve checking your partner’s phone could be:
- Watching shows or movies that involve cheating.
- Finding stories where someone discovered a partner’s cheating by looking at their phone.
- Writing down the worst-case scenario about how you discovered your partner cheating and what happened.
- Saying things like, “I don’t know what my partner is doing. They could be cheating on me. It’s impossible to know for sure.”
If your partner allows you to check their phone, they may be involved in therapy and will be instructed to not let the behavior continue. For example, they may be encouraged to put a passcode on their phone.
If this all sounds scary, know that you’ll take things step-by-step at a pace that’s bearable, but still challenging. And you’ll go through it with the help of an ERP-trained therapist who will guide you every step of the way.
There’s always the risk that you’ll get heart broken in a relationship. Looking through your partner’s phone won’t make them more trustworthy or loyal, or the person you want them to be. “The only way to eliminate all risk of being cheated on is to not be in a relationship. So I urge you to accept the natural uncertainty and take a leap of faith into your relationship with your partner,” says Kilduff.