The digital age has neatly divided us into two categories: those who have had their personal data compromised and those who will. Most of us think of financial institutions, cell phone providers, and insurance companies when we think of data breaches. But what happens when the invasion of privacy occurs right in your own living room?
The following letter was submitted by a reader who wants an answer to this very question. Let's dig in!
Dear Dr. Jill,
My fiancé (let’s call her Tammy) and I have been together for about six months. After three months, we moved in together. We recently got engaged and are talking about an August 2018 wedding. I am 25. She is 27. Neither of us have been married before.
The reason I’m writing to you is because of something I found on Tammy’s phone recently. While she was in another room, I saw a text message from an unrecognized number. No name. Just the words “Hi. Can you talk tonight?"
When I saw the message, my heart started to race and my mind went crazy! I’m embarrassed to say what came next. I know I shouldn’t have done it but I opened Tammy’s phone and read the text history. Turns out that Tammy and "the mystery man” have been trading raunchy messages, sexy photos, etc. for over a month!
I am in a total state of shock. The idea that Tammy could do this to me…to US…just devastates me. While we have been planning our future, she has been carrying on like that with someone else.
Things haven’t been the same since that night. Here’s the kicker: I feel so guilty for snooping on her phone, I haven’t told her what I saw. I have been quiet and keeping to myself. When she notices I am acting weird, I lie and tell her I am not feeling well. I think I’m just stalling, trying to figure out where to go from here. I know it can’t go on like this forever.
I talked with a buddy who told me I should just cut my losses. But that feels too severe. Pretending like nothing happened really is starting to make me feel sick. I can’t eat or sleep. I’m nervous all of the time.
Can you help me?
Worried About The Future
With all that you are holding right now, no wonder your body is feeling sick! Let's see if we can sort a few things out, on both the micro and macro level, and, hopefully, lighten the load a bit.
On the micro level, I see two issues here: your partner's behavior and the means with which you discovered it. It is painful enough to learn that a person you love hasn't been honest with you but it’s even more complicated when that information is ill-gotten.
When facts are uncovered this way, I usually encourage people to first weigh the potential consequences of saying something vs. saying nothing. When there is relatively little at stake, silence is probably the best bet. However, given that remaining silent appears to be upsetting both you and Tammy and given that August is just around the corner, the stakes here seem pretty high to me.
To disentangle a relationship from dishonesty, one or both partners must speak the truth. Since Tammy did not choose to tell you about the mystery man herself, I encourage you to make the first move. More on that in a minute.
Now for the macro. After six months of courtship, how well can any two people know each other? The short answer is "not super well." For the first two years of any romantic relationship, we are awash with a hormone (Oxytocin) that hijacks the body and puts the brain on hold for a while. Under its spell, it's easy to see our partners through rose-colored glasses, overlooking behaviors that would otherwise be considered red flags.
After about six months to two years, oxytocin slowly leaves our systems, our brains come back online, and our hearts and heads join forces to determine if the object of our infatuation is a decent long-term bet. The determinant of long-term compatibility is not the butterflies in our stomachs; it's commonality of our values (e.g., monogamy).
I believe that partners have affairs to solve a problem or avoid a problem. When couples consult with me post-infidelity, I always want to know the unique meaning or purpose that the affair served for the person who chose it. Without this information, it's hard for any healing to take place.
While only you can decide whether to stay or go, your recent discovery suggests it may be wise to pause and gather a bit more information.
I encourage you to schedule a time to talk with your partner. Tell her what you saw. If you're not sure where to go after that, try something like, "It was wrong of me to violate your privacy and I completely understand if you are upset. Now that the secret is out, I would like to discuss the situation openly with you." The result of these talks will likely deepen your knowledge and understanding of each other, which is good for any relationship regardless of the outcome.
Deception is painful and rebuilding after betrayal can take a while. Slowing things down a bit will give you and Tammy the time each of you deserves to make a well-informed decision about the next best step.
In the meantime, if the conversations get too overwhelming, I recommend seeking assistance from a qualified couples therapist. Having a well-informed, neutral third party in the room can make a huge difference.
Good luck to you both and thanks for writing in.
Yours In Health,
Dr. Jill Gross is a licensed psychologist, therapist, and counselor. She offers grief therapy, divorce support, and other counseling services in the Phinney Greenwood area of Seattle, WA.
Dr. Jill Gross is a licensed psychologist, grief counselor, and dating coach. Her coaching and therapy practice is located in the Phinney - Greenwood area of North Seattle in Washington.