"We are never so vulnerable as when we trust someone. But paradoxically, if we cannot trust, neither can we find love or joy." —Walter Anderson
One of the fundamental problems with falling in love is that, by nature, we are so infatuated we have a difficult time tapping into our higher sensibilities—our reasonable self. And that’s half the fun of it. Falling in love is a purely gut-level emotion. We tend to see what we want to see, and formulate the story of the future around those very blurry feelings.
And then the real relationship begins.
Are you suspicious of your partner’s activities?
Strange things happen to the best of us when our sense of relationship security is challenged. Suddenly, you are bombarded with thoughts and feelings that have you spinning with suspicion and mistrust. In the worst of cases, even the most rational among us might resort to highly uncharacteristic, even objectionable behavior that brings out the worst in us. And typically, no matter what the truth turns out to be, this does not bode well for the efficacy of the relationship.
Some people are suspicious by nature. Is that you? Maybe you have been burned with deception in past relationships. Maybe you buy into the idea that “all men cheat.” Others may become suspicious only following an actual trigger. An unknown phone number that shows up on the phone bill. An unexplained charge on the credit card statement. Maybe they caught their partner in a lie. That’s how it begins: some tiny tidbit, real or imagined, raises that initial red flag and launches a flood of reactivity.
Some suspicion is perfectly normal. Even healthy. Our emotional instincts can serve to protect us in an almost primal way. In that sense, we’re all insecure. We all have doubts that raise concerns, whether warranted or imaginary. So being suspicious alone isn’t necessarily a problem. But a toxic mix of insecurity and suspicion can prove to be a very destructive cocktail. Because how you go about coping with suspicion can determine the fate of your relationship.
How far would you go?
Think back on your relationships. When relationship insecurity kicked in for you (remember, we’re talking about either justified or unfounded insecurity), what have you been willing to do about it?
• Have you searched through his pockets or his briefcase?
• Have you peeked at his emails? His phone? His social media pages? His internet history?
• Have you checked the phone bill? The credit card statements?
• Have you eavesdropped on his phone conversations?
• Have you tracked his movements with GPS?
• Have you been tempted to follow him?
• Have you actually followed him? Even once?
How did it go, this secret rummaging through his life? Did you find evidence that he was lying? That he had been unfaithful? And if you didn’t, did you give up and accept the fact that you were probably overreacting? Or did you take your tactics up a notch?
Just how far would you go to prove or disprove his guilt?
Sometimes, once you start down this frenzied road of suspicion and spying, it creates a snowball effect. The frenzy gets bigger and bigger, more and more desperate. If you have evidence of wrongdoing, then you demand even more. Now, you need even further proof that he is cheating. So, as if you’re assembling an arsenal in preparation for war, you keep going and going.
To what end?
And let’s say you have produced no evidence that he is cheating. Then, you very well might choose continue to look for it, increasing the intensity of your search. And why? Because now, if he is truly innocent and your suspicions have been completely unsubstantiated, what does it say about you that you’ve gone through all of this absurdity? What does it say about the relationship? Because, at this point, you have worked yourself into some pretty crazy behavior. And by doing so, it was you, not him, who has broken a sacred trust in the relationship. So to save face, you up the ante, compelled to keep going to find the proof that will justify your behavior.
Again, to what end?
So now we arrive at the biggest spying-on-the-person-I-love tactic there is. Now, you’re tempted to hire a private investigator. And you’re wondering if you should do it.
The best answer, and my personal general rule, is: never.
That was probably not what you wanted to hear. There are exceptions to my rule, which I will address later, but in general, there is never a good reason or time to hire a professional to spy on someone you love.
I feel your frenzy mounting as I write this. “What if he’s cheating? I need to know.”
Again, to what end?
Ask yourself: What is my goal in hiring a private investigator?
Is it your goal to save the relationship? Is it your goal to be right? Will you be able accept his innocence, if that’s the result? Will you feel satisfied once you’ve reached that “ah ha!” moment? Or will you continue to spiral out of control?
Chances are, if you’ve gotten so far as to consider hiring a professional, then you have probably built up to it by doing your own spying. And if all that has occurred, I would venture to say that, whether you are right or whether you are wrong about the cheating, you have a bigger problem—a much more systemic relationship problem that the relationship is hard-pressed to survive.
I think we can agree: Investigative efforts (whether you spy on your own, through a professional, or both) will produce one of two results: He’s guilty or he’s not guilty.
If he’s guilty, and making that discovery has driven you to such extreme methods to prove it, the relationship is probably over. This isn’t a case where he made a mistake, came clean about it with remorse, and made sincere amends to you. This is a person who worked hard to maintain his cover. And that drove you into an uncharacteristic tailspin. There are some very basic healthy relationship qualities that are missing or damaged here.
If he’s not guilty, and you have worked yourself into this level of suspicion and panic on your own, then (and I repeat myself) there are some basic healthy relationship qualities that are missing or damaged here. And in both cases, that is an understatement.
Maybe it is time to consider that those essential healthy relationship qualities were missing or damaged from the beginning.
Can a relationship survive spying?
The simple and most probable answer is: no.
With work and commitment, relationships can survive and recover from a lot of really challenging problems: in-law issues, struggles with kids, economic difficulties, even life disasters. And with a great deal of dedication and some pretty deep soul searching, relationships can even survive infidelity. But this kind of sneaky spying has a parasitic-like effect on a relationship. By it’s very nature, it exponentially adds toxicity to an already highly fragile and damaged environment.
With either result, guilty or not guilty, chances are, the true culprit in the relationship is far more comprehensive. Sometimes people bring to relationships their own deep-rooted personality wounds that can create an atmosphere fertile for dysfunction. For instance, the kind of personality that allows someone to cheat without remorse or regret; that allows them to watch their partner descend into despair and suspicion, again, without remorse or regret. Other personality traits can be just as destructive. A person with pathological insecurity, jealousy, obsession, or need for control can not contribute in a healthy way.
When a relationship is built on these kinds of inherent deficits, it doesn’t have a strong foundation. And that makes it ripe for failure.
So what is the exception? When is it OK to hire a private investigator?
I’ll begin by reiterating that there are occasions when it is appropriate, maybe even advised, to bring in a private investigator. But I will warn you before I go any further: the relationship is still over.
However, if there are any concerns around legality or safety—regarding money, property, yourself and/or children—that may be in jeopardy because of some suspicion, by all means, hire a professional to protect yourself. Safety and security always come first. But know that the relationship is over. At this point, your actions are about self-protection or the protection of children or others, and it is not about saving the relationship.
How do I avoid all of this?
If you find yourself triggered by suspicion and anxiety in your relationship, there are alternatives to spinning out of control.
1. First and foremost, it is important to stay calm and avoid reactivity.
2. Recognize that something is wrong in the relationship. At this point, it’s not important to know if it’s you or if it’s him. Recognize it and try to keep your head.
3. Don’t talk to your friends and family about your concerns. If he is innocent, you will be poisoning the waters with them. If he isn’t, you’re likely to get stirred up which will only increase your anxiety and reactivity. Either way, you end up turning your friends and family into judge, jury and whistleblower. And if you decide to reconcile in the end, these relationship will suffer for it.
4. Consider consulting a professional therapist; someone who can help you sort out the spinning thoughts, define your goal, and help you make decisions about your next move.
Ultimately, you have some choices to make. It is important to think about whether you are ready to analyze your own part in the issues that have led to suspicion. And whether your partner will be ready to look at his. A healthy, happy relationship must be a safe, secure and loving place. Choosing to spy on love is the least likely way to create that relationship.
Bobbi is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Sherman Oaks, California. She focuses primarily on couples and individuals (adolescents and adults) with particular emphasis on developing personal relationships with deeper connections and overcoming obstacles to living a whole life.