What misdeeds are hiding in that little rectangle in your pocket? Is it a steamy DM to an Instagram model? Maybe a dating app that you promised you deleted… that you will definitely delete… eventually. Is it a text to an ex that you probably shouldn’t have sent? Is it a folder of pictures of someone you lust over? Or maybe an uncleared search history revealing all your darkest fantasies. It’s so, so, so, so easy to transgress online. Thousands and thousands of strangers are at your fingertips, not to mention all the people who could have been, your crushes past and current.
When everyone presents a glossy veneer of their most attractive selves, it’s hard not to let your eyes wander. I don’t blame you – even the most disciplined of us struggle to resist temptation from time to time. And it’s not just your fault; we’re all being algorithmically nudged at the right moment when we have our emotional guards down. A suggestive ad pops up as you’re lying alone in bed; usually, you scroll past… but not every time. The painful fights with our exes are erased and repackaged as exclusively happy memories that Facebook gleefully presents as a photo montage. Reaching out can’t hurt, right?
“When everyone presents a glossy veneer of their most attractive selves, it’s hard not to let your eyes wander.”
Our phones protect us from shame by feeding our beliefs that these innocent transgressions have no real-life consequences. So you send a well-crafted flirty text, a perfectly lit nude, an invitation for a little affection – who’s going to stop you? We permit ourselves to go just a little bit further than we know we should. We bypass the awkwardness of face-to-face interactions. Most of us wouldn’t cheat on our partners; we know our real-life boundaries. But our phones deliberately blur our sense of reality, the consequences seem less tangible, and the rules less opaque. Watching porn isn’t cheating, after all, but is camming cheating? Is Snapchatting? What about the emotional affairs with someone hundreds of miles away? It can’t be that bad if we’re not actually doing anything. And let’s be honest, it’s so satisfying getting attention.
For those of us who are non-monogamous, the dangers of our phones are slightly different. It’s not necessarily that we shouldn’t be looking, texting, or flirting. Most of the time our partners know that we’re seeing other people, and digital communication is just part of dating in 2023. But even so, these sanctioned private exchanges can get painful when they’re intercepted.
I've certainly seen more than one of my meta’s nudes, accidentally opened by my pal in front of me. It stings. Even benign interactions can feel painful. When we’re already experiencing jealousy, it can push us over the edge to see our pals absorbed in their phones, constantly texting our perceived rival. Monogamous people aren’t the only ones with messages, pictures, and histories that they’d like to keep hidden.
“When we’re already experiencing jealousy, it can push us over the edge to see our pals absorbed in their phones, constantly texting our perceived rival.”
While our phones promise to keep our secrets, they are, in fact, great betrayers. Each move we make is well-documented proof and most of us aren’t very diligent about covering our tracks. And it doesn’t take a genius to unlock our partner’s phone while they’re in the shower. Who among us can say we haven’t snooped just a little? It’s the top confession I hear from my polyamorous clients. When they feel like their partners aren’t telling them the truth, they turn to their phones for the full story. Now granted, not everyone is as audacious. But a well-timed peek at a name that flashes on the screen’s notification is just as likely to reveal secrets as a deep search in their browser history.
I don’t shame my clients for snooping – most of them are looking for reassurance (or at least proof) that they aren’t crazy. They confess snooping with such embarrassment that I feel for them. I’ve been there too when I felt like I had exercised all the best options already. You don’t snoop from a place of dignity; it’s a last-ditch effort to better understand what is happening. While I don’t shame my clients for snooping, I do warn them. No matter what, you will find something you didn’t want to see. It might not be as egregious as you assumed; hopefully, it’s benign. But if you go snooping for proof, there’s an incredibly high chance that you’ll eventually come across something you don’t like… Four digits and our phones are willing to spill.
The question is less ‘what will I find?’; the question you need to ask is: how much do I want to know? Does it actually matter that your pal is secretly infatuated with a cam girl? Do you care that they’re still swiping on dating apps? Obviously, there’s no right or wrong answer – each of us has different levels of tolerance. But from my perspective, ignorance is often bliss. That is until the phone secrets come crashing into real life. Unfortunately, you can’t always escape the consequences because there are real people on both ends of the screen. Those people are not the calm, rational, perfect images they put up online. When secrets get discovered, the real people involved tend to get messy.
“You don’t snoop from a place of dignity, it’s a last-ditch effort to better understand what is happening.”
The moral is simple: define what is acceptable. Most of us haven’t had clear conversations with our pals about what we consider to be a breach of agreements online. Those who practice ethical non-monogamy also have to discuss how their relationship agreements translate digitally. You may have an explicit agreement that you won’t have sex with other partners but does that also mean no sexting?
Remember that expectations can be ambiguous if they aren’t clearly defined. If you have a distinct problem with your pal behaving a certain way digitally, make sure that’s clear going into the relationship. It’s not fair for you to get mad at a pal for being on cam sites if y’all never talked about it. Our tolerance is unique and just because you’re not okay with a certain behavior doesn’t mean that is automatically the same for everyone. I also encourage y’all to examine where some of these agreements come from. Oftentimes whorephobia dictates ‘no porn’ rules in couples but that’s not universally true either.
Lastly, set agreements about each other’s phones. I consider it a breach of trust for my pal to go through my phone without my consent. Likewise, I have established a strict no-snooping boundary for myself when it comes to my pals’ phones. I’ve been burned one too many times by this shitty behavior. I prefer the peace of mind than to find a text on my pal’s phone from her secret girlfriend asking if she’s broken up with me yet. I never need to be in that situation again. I don’t snoop anymore. I’d rather trust my pals to fill me in than give in to my paranoid impulses. If they aren’t telling me something, they probably have a reason. But hey, that’s me. Maybe you and your pal disagree – and that’s perfectly fine, as long as you talk about it together! Happy snooping (or, ideally, not).