April 9, 2010 at 9:00 AM ET
His cell phone sits on the night table while he showers. Her e-mail is left accidentally on the computer screen while she uses the bathroom. To look or not to look?
It's perhaps the strongest new temptation of the 21st century -- the casual glance at a lover's cell phone text messages or e-mail. This level of snooping once required rather deliberate spy-like behavior, such as rustling through a bedroom drawer to find stashes of old-fashioned letters. Now it can happen as quickly as an instant glance. And, according to one new study, it's happening a lot.But is such amateur sleuthing a normal part of life in the digital world, or does it mean couples need professional help?
A study commissioned by online gadget review site Retrevo.com found that 38 percent of people under age 25 had stolen a glance at their lover's texts or e-mails - without that person's permission or awareness. Among married adults of any age, the rate was 36 percent.
"We were surprised to see how large the percentage was," said Manish Rathi, co-founder of Retrevo.
California-based couples counselor Jay Slupesky was not.
"It happens all the time," he said. "That has brought people into counseling on many occasions."
Spousal spying can be illegal
There are numerous examples of extreme spousal spying. Entire Web sites are devoted to buying hidden cameras, special cell phone snooping software, cracking e-mail passwords- and all manner of cyberspying. The newest trick, says Slupesky, is for one partner to secretly enable the GPS location software on a cell phone that's designed to help parents keep track of children. Then, a jealous spouse can virtually follow their lover's every move.
"Snooping on spouses has been taken to the next level. The next lower level, that is," he wrote in a recent blog entry. "This … is downright creepy."
In some cases, spousal spying is illegal. In 2005, the Department of Justice indicted the owners of a firm named LoverSpy, which sold electronic greeting cards laced with Trojan horse software designed to track a lover's Internet activity. Authorities also charged four LoverSpy customers with illegal wiretapping.
While most reasonable adults would agree that going to such lengths to spy on a lover is inappropriate, the issue is not nearly so clear when considering casual glances at cell phones or e-mail inboxes.
Healthy relationship boundaries are constantly under assault from 21st century hyper-connectivity.
"In the past if you looked around after your lover you'd get caught. You had to look at their phone bill or rummage through someone's drawers," said Rathi. The spying required at least some measure of premeditation. Today, spying can be completely impulsive. "Now, it's always available, and people don't necessarily see it as spying. It's just so easy to do it. The phone is sitting right there."
Adding fuel to the fire is the rapid growth of smartphones, which put personal e-mail and texts in one handy, easily accessible gadget. According to The Nielsen Company, only 10 percent of U.S. adults had a smartphone during the second quarter of 2008. By the end of last year, that number had risen to 21 percent, and by 2011, Nielsen expects half of America to be using smartphones. That's a lot of opportunity for casual spying.
Online relationship forums are jammed with debate about the ethics and mental health impact of such snooping. In numerous places, lovers say they discovered infidelity by snooping and swear by the tactic. But nearly as often, the spying ends poorly. In one anonymous thread, a woman admits reading her boyfriend's text messages and says she regrets it because "I found nothing to help me nor did I find anything to make me worry about our relationship." She later admitted the snooping to her boyfriend, who felt violated.
"One of the things you will learn in life, as a girlfriend, or a parent," responds one advice giver, "is NEVER to admit when you spy."
But Slupesky, the therapist, says it's never a good idea to cross that line.
"I am always opposed to spying. If you are in a loving relationship, you just don't spy on your partner," he says. If there is suspicion of infidelity, the relationship needs therapy, not snooping-. "There are better ways to address your concerns."
He did offer a broader perspective on cell phone spying, however.
"I think some people are feeling distance from their spouse for whatever reason, and they think if they see who their spouse is e-mailing they will feel more connected. That happens a lot," he said. "They are looking for a way to restore the connection...it's a way of asking, 'Are you still close to me? Am I still the most important person in your life? Do you still love me?' "
Of course, there are healthier ways to deal with those profound questions. In therapy, Slupesky always tries to get lovers to stop the spying behavior.
"One thing I do when someone tells me they are doing that is I ask, 'Did you feel better after you looked at his phone?' They usually say, 'No.' And then I ask, 'If it doesn't make you feel better, why do you keep doing it?' "
But often, he said, the compulsion is too strong, and the access too easy, for his patients to stop.
While the Retrevo survey found that men and women utilize casual spying equally, Slupesky said two-thirds of his spying patients are women.
"Women are more likely to notice something is missing in the emotional connection, and men cheat more," he said.
Rathi said one way to help solve the problem of casual spying is to take away the opportunity. Smartphone users should password-protect their gadgets to avoid creating an irresistible temptation for their lovers, he said. Logging out of Web sites and e-mail accounts is also a sound, safe computing practice.
Retrevo plans to study the spying issue annually to identify any shifts in social standards on spying.
"The amount of time people spend using these gadgets is increasing, and the amount of data they are consuming through these devices is continuing to increase. So I think we will see more (spying) as time goes by," he said.