TikTok users may recognize a rising trend of viral videos on the social media platform showing users iPhone hacks of how to access someone’s location data. These videos may seem harmless to viewers who aren’t questioning their partner’s faithfulness, but as a relationship and marriage therapist, I can tell you that trying to sleuth if a partner is cheating has serious consequences and implications for the relationship.
For those who are in such a situation—suspecting their partner has been unfaithful—it can obviously be quite painful and worrisome. However, while tempting to use “easy” iPhone hacks learned from social media to suspiciously stalk one’s partner, taking the time to step back and examine where this urge comes from may prove useful personally or in the relationship. Further, there are safer, more respectful, and healthier-for-the-relationship ways to deal with suspected infidelities instead of snooping and invading a partner’s privacy.
Why snooping isn’t healthy
If there is an urge to sniff out cheating, there is likely already some mistrust in the relationship or one of the partners has personal issues with trust. The former may be due to trust issues in the relationship (such as prior infidelity of one of the partners—could be emotional, physical, or financial infidelity). The latter could be due to one of the partner’s having an experience in another relationship (romantic, familial, or other) in which their trust was betrayed—this could have been an infidelity, abuse, or trauma of some kind. In either case, an urge to try to sniff out a partner cheating is likely due to some form of trust betrayal in the history of one or both partners..
Further, the act of “sniffing out” itself can be considered a form of cheating. Trying to spy on the other person, crack into their phone, look into their private conversations/emails/texts is a breach of privacy and another example of not being honest. Once the snooping begins, no outcome is a “good” outcome. Worst case scenario, the suspecting partner finds out that the other person is cheating, which can be devastating—the fallout from which can be difficult to predict. Best case scenario, the snooping never “confirms” that the suspected partner is cheating, but the snooping partner never feels 100 percent sure of this, and is left feeling perpetually suspicious. If the suspecting partner doesn't have evidence of cheating, do they ever get confirmation of not cheating? This supposed “best case scenario” might mean that the suspecting partner is always left wondering if they’re being cheated on, in a state of anxiety, never with enough evidence to confirm your partner is cheating, but always feeling paranoid, not fully trusting your partner.
Consider another scenario: The suspected partner is not cheating but finds out the suspecting partner was spying and invading their privacy—this would likely feel like a huge betrayal of trust to that partner. To find out that their partner has been going through their private conversations and spying on them would likely cause a huge chasm in the relationship that may be difficult to regain trust from—just as an infidelity does. As a marriage and family therapist, I’ve seen this, too, and while I never will know who is or isn’t telling the truth, even when it seems fairly certain that the suspected partner is being faithful, it’s painful to see the suspecting partner left in a state of paranoia, never fully trusting the other. This, too, can wound the relationship.
Healthy relationships require honesty, and if a partner has betrayed trust but wants to continue the relationship, he or she should be open to earning back the trust lost. As a result, some relationship therapy practices in the sex-addiction specialty offer therapy-facilitated polygraph testing to offer betrayed partners a stepping stone of honest disclosure on which to build trust. In addition to being an accountability tool, this helps suspicious partners to stop cycles of stressful snooping, and learn to expect their partners to self-report unfaithful behavior or have it revealed at their next therapy-led polygraph.
When tracking a partner can be dangerous to snoop
Another reason that sniffing out cheating is unhealthy? Encouraging and enabling people to stalk their partners can put people—particularly women who are already or have the potential to be victims of domestic violence—at risk for abuse. As told to The Sun by Ruth Davison, CEO of the charity Refuge, this stalking trend can be an “insidious form of abuse that puts victims’ lives at risk.” According to The Sun, Davison went on to say that her charity, Refuge, “supports women every day who have been harassed, stalked, controlled, and intimidated by their partners or ex-partners who are using technology to perpetrate abuse.”
Ann Moulds, chief executive of the charity Action Against Stalking, also reportedly commented on the TikTok trend to The Sun: “This is a clever use of technology to teach would-be stalkers and abusers how to track their partners. . . . It's very dangerous to share. It is encouraging people to commit a criminal offense.”
While to some the trend of using social media to sniff out a potentially cheating partner may be intriguing to read and even go viral, there are clearly real dangers and consequences of such technology uses and behaviors.
Think he’s cheating? What you can do instead
All of this is not to say that doubting a partner’s faithfulness is not hurtful or worrisome—it certainly can be! And while suspecting a partner is cheating can be a sign of betrayed trust in the relationship or in past life experiences of the suspecting partner, this is not always the case. Of course there are times when a person has not experienced trust betrayals individually or in the relationship, yet their partner’s behavior suggests infidelity of some kind. In these instances, or in any situation in which an infidelity is suspected, there are prudent options to take other than snooping on the suspected partner.
The first option is to step away from the romantic relationship. While this is certainly painful for both partners, if the relationship is not built on a strong foundation, then it is worth reconsidering whether you should continue giving your time, attention, and love to someone who you’re not confident is doing so in return. Regardless if an infidelity has occurred or not—if one partner continually suspects a betrayal, this can be difficult for both of them to continue the relationship with confidence, happiness, and of course, trust. Whether the faithfulness concerns are valid or not, feeling continually under the microscope and potentially even dealing with the suspecting partner’s paranoia can be exhausting. In light of this, if you feel your boyfriend is cheating on you, one option, albeit a difficult one, is to end the relationship.
It is important to note that when abuse is occurring, that is always a tell-tale sign to step away from the relationship. Enduring abuse is never healthy or good for a relationship. Calling a domestic abuse hotline (1-800-799-7233), speaking to a therapist, and discussing options with select trustworthy people can help partners discuss a plan toward leaving the relationship safely.
When there isn’t abuse, ending the relationship is not always the right decision for the couple or the suspecting partner. Particularly in a marriage, walking away from the relationship is not always that simple—divorce can be a long, costly, painful process, not to mention the added difficulties when children are involved. While it takes effort and commitment on behalf of both partners, healing is still possible in marriages and relationships in which an infidelity, or any type of trust betrayal, has occurred. Often, if you suspect an infidelity has occurred, working to confront it within the relationship and then working to build trust is a healthy and viable option.
How to confront your partner about suspected infidelity
While confronting your partner about a suspected infidelity (rather than snooping or stalking them) is a healthy option, it is not always easy. You can work with a therapist individually who can help you prepare and practice what to say to your partner to address the suspected infidelity. You can also work with a couples therapist with your partner, and bring it up in therapy, where the therapist can help monitor the conversation and can help you work on the relationship going forward. If you’ve already confronted your partner about it, you can still work with a couples therapist together to healthily process the inevitable pain even a suspected betrayal can cause.
I recommend looking for a therapist who is trained to work with couples like a marriage and family therapist (MFT) or a therapist whose special interests are listed as “couples” and even “infidelity.” If you suspect your partner has a sex addiction or chronic unfaithful behavior, consider seeking a certified sex addiction therapist (CSAT).
If you are unable to work with a therapist to confront your partner, think about what you are going to say ahead of time. Be mindful of using a “soft startup,” or being less critical and not blaming, even when coming to your partner with a legitimate concern. Relationship expert and couples researcher John Gottman found that couples who use soft-startups in their conflict discussions are more likely to have “stable and happy” relationships.
One way to ensure a soft-startup is by using an I-statement formula, like this: “I feel (emotion) when you (behavior) because (reason). I need (state your needs).” This might sound like, “Hey Joe, I feel scared/sad/insecure/worried when I see you talking to other girls at the bar because I don’t know what you are saying to them. Is there any way you could let me know what you are talking about or find ways to pull me into those conversations?” Adjust the specifics to fit your circumstances and use language that fits your voice rather than sounding formulaic. Using I-statements can help disarm your partner since you are talking about your experience rather than attacking or accusing them. This can help facilitate a more open, honest dialogue rather than making them feel defensive, which can escalate into an unproductive argument.
Once you have an idea of what you’re going to say, you can then ask a trusted friend to help you practice and receive feedback. Practice not only the words you’ll say but the tone you will convey it in, as tone has the power to make or break a soft-startup. Ask your friend to give you feedback on your statement and tone.
When you do confront your partner, their reaction can be quite telling. Your partner’s reaction may provide a window into what has happened and if they are really willing to put in the work to rebuild trust in the relationship. A partner who responds with anger, criticism, gaslighting, or makes you feel crazy for thinking this may not be someone who is willing or able right now to put in the work to get the relationship back on track. A partner who responds with more compassion, understanding, or ability to see things from your point of view—even if they disagree or are confused—is likely a partner who is able to work through the inevitable conflicts of relationships well.
If, after confronting your partner, you decide to continue the relationship, remember that everything won’t magically be perfect. You will have to work to rebuild trust in the relationship, whether or not the suspected infidelity occurred. And building trust takes time. If you have yet to go to therapy, now is a great time to go together. Rebuilding trust involves being open and honest, taking responsibility when you’ve done something to hurt the other person and being genuinely sorry for it. Listening to each other and being able to see from their point of view—even if you disagree with them—is essential to learning where their hurts and doubts are coming from.
Lastly, it is worth remembering that one’s openness to or lack of trust starts in their family of origin. Listening to your partner’s past, learning about their family relationships, learning about their former trust betrayals—and sharing yours—can help you understand and have empathy for why your partner (or you) struggle to trust. Doing this with a therapist is invaluable if one or both of the partners have trauma or abuse in their past. Of course, sharing our experiences on these sensitive topics requires vulnerability, but that in and of itself can help rebuild trust if received with compassion.
Our culture's current obsession with catching cheaters might suggest an underlying desire for greater commitment and fidelity in relationships. If that's the case, we can start by re-examining ourselves and whether our relationship habits match our hopes and goals. And when it comes to relationships built on honest and trust, we can begin with ourselves.