Editor’s Note: Strong relationships are at the core of a happy life, but sometimes, dealing with the people in our lives is tricky. That’s why Thrive Global partnered with The Gottman Institute on this advice column, Asking for a Friend. Every week, Gottman’s relationship experts will answer your most pressing questions about navigating relationships — with romantic partners, family members, co-workers, friends, and more. Have a question? Send it to [email protected]!

Q: I recently saw my partner reading through my texts with other people, and when I asked him about it, he made up an excuse about trying to find someone’s phone number. He was obviously snooping, which makes me think he doesn’t trust me. I brushed it off, but I feel like it’s the elephant in the room that still needs to be addressed. I’ve given him no reason not to think I’m completely loyal, so why was he snooping? And how can I address it without seeming defensive?

A: Many couples do not directly address the issue of privacy and what the boundaries are around personal privacy in their romantic relationship. Should each individual have complete privacy regarding their cell phone, social media, and email? Or should couples openly share their phones and emails with their partners? How can partners feel secure that their relationships are safe from betrayal? These are difficult questions to navigate in this modern world of digital communication.

The fact is, most people are very attached to their phones. Look at any table at any restaurant and you will likely find people looking at their phones rather than talking to each other. Partners on the receiving end of this behavior often feel turned away from. They get the message that the phone and whoever they are interacting with on the phone is more important than they are. This can create doubt and insecurity about their partner’s feeling toward them, which could then lead to an urge to snoop.  

To address this sense of being turned away from, it might be helpful to have a policy around phone usage when at dinner or even at home that feel fair to both individuals. Try a simple suggestion such as, “I love it when we spend time together without the distractions of our phones. Could we do that again sometime soon?” The alternative response, “Why are you always on your phone? You never want to spend time with me!” will likely be heard as a criticism and not elicit the desired response.

Differences in privacy needs can be perpetual problems within relationships that could ultimately lead to gridlock. People might make the assumption that their point of view will automatically be shared by their partner. However, philosophies about privacy in a relationship can vary greatly between partners.  

Our needs around privacy can develop through past relationship experiences. If someone was in a relationship where they felt controlled, they might need to have more privacy. On the other hand, if someone was in a relationship where they were betrayed, they might need to have more of an open book policy.  

Healthy relationships require an open dialogue between partners about their beliefs around the expectation of privacy, including where those beliefs came from and how they got set up. What is each partner’s history around privacy from their families of origin and past relationships?  What are their needs and why is this so important to them? What do they wish for around privacy? How can they honor each person’s needs? How would each partner like to keep their relationship safe from crossing little lines that might ultimately lead to betrayal?

It’s important to address the “snooping” issue with your partner. Not addressing this elephant in the room can lead to increased negativity toward your partner. Try a gentle start up, such as, “I get the message that I can’t be trusted when I see my phone being searched, and I’m a little sensitive to that. I wonder if we could have a conversation about what we each need to feel comfortable about our phones and our privacy needs.”

Trust takes a long time to build and an instant to shatter. It is fundamental to all romantic relationships, so take some time to attend to it.  

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More from Asking for a Friend here.


  • Carrie Cole

    M.Ed., LPC-S, LMHC

    Carrie Cole is a certified therapist and director of research at The Gottman Institute. She received her Master’s degree in educational psychology with a specialization in counseling psychology from the University of Texas at Austin. She has spent 25 years working with individuals and couples in marital therapy, affair recovery, depression, anxiety, parenting, and divorce.