Have you ever found yourself glancing at your partner’s email, searching his or her browser history, reading your partner’s texts, or even checking his or her pockets? I confess, I am notorious for checking my partner’s email just to see what’s going on that he might have neglected to tell me or as a quick way to get updates on what is happening in his life. Importantly, he gave me his password and knows that I do this. Often, however, people invade a partner’s privacy without his or her knowledge and for less innocent reasons. For instance, snooping to confirm/dispel concerns of cheating or other situations that have them feeling uncertain about their relationship. Or perhaps they just want to know more information about their partner’s private experience (which he or she is choosing not to share). So the big question is, why do we resort to snooping rather than asking?
Researchers of this topic tend to work under the assumption that we as individuals are avid information seekers and we continually make decisions as to how to obtain the information we feel we need.1 One possible option is the direct approach (ask your partner), but people are often unsure of the outcome of the conversation or are snooping because they feel distant from their partner and that same distance makes it harder to approach their partner directly. Alternatively one could pursue the information indirectly by talking around a topic, dropping hints, inducing jealousy (in some cases), and, of course, snooping.1 Individuals tend to think of this type of information seeking as less confrontational and thus less risky. If you think talking to your partner about the topic that you are worried about is going to upset your partner or lead to a fight, the more likely you are to avoid that possible confrontation and instead turn to their browser history to get your answers.
One of our previous short articles highlighted that an individual’s level of trust and the amount of information a partner shares impacts intrusive behaviors (i.e., snooping). Specifically, if you feel your partner is pretty up front with you about things, you are less likely to snoop. However, if you feel like your partner is actively withholding information you are more likely to snoop.2 Interestingly, snooping is an equal opportunity behavior in that both men and women engage in it at equal frequency even though women do tend to value intimate disclosure more. Not surprisingly, if you don’t think your partner will give you an honest answer, you are more likely to try to find the information you are seeking through indirect means.1
Now that we have a better understanding of when and why snooping is likely to occur, the next question to ask is: are there consequences for my relationship depending on my choice? To find out what the research says, check out Part 2 of To Snoop or Not to Snoop, that is the Question!
1Afifi, W. A., Dillow, M. R., & Morse, C. (2004). Examining predictors and consequences of information seeking in close relationships. Personal Relationships, 11, 429–449.
2Vinkers, C., Finkenauer, C., & Hawk, S. (2011). Why do close partners snoop? Predictors of intrusive behavior in newlywed couples. Personal Relationships, 18, 110-124.
Karlene Cunningham – Science of Relationships articles
Karlene’s research focuses on novel ways of assessing sexual and relationship functioning, including aspects of relationship regret, alternative seeking tendencies, and sexual communication. Her clinical interests revolve around sexual intimacy difficulties and couple conflict related to infertility.