Is it wrong to be going through your boyfriend’s phone?

Consult with Krystal I sometimes find myself going through my boyfriend’s phone when he leaves it around. We’ve been together a couple of years and…

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Consult with Krystal

I sometimes find myself going through my boyfriend’s phone when he leaves it around. We’ve been together a couple of years and I have never found anything sus on his phone. But I find that it’s a habit I can’t seem to break. He knows about this, and we’ve had fights because of it. He tells me that I’m being disrespectful. But I think if he has nothing to hide what is the big deal?

I know that I snoop on his phone because my first boyfriend cheated on me. We were together for five years. I found out by seeing a text pop up on his phone that he was seeing another girl he met at work. It devastated me and I felt like such a fool. I vowed to myself I’d never be blindsided like this again!

My boyfriend knows about my past. He says he understands how painful this is but that it’s not fair for me to punish him for what my ex-boyfriend did. I get that but I don’t know how to get rid of this terrible anxiety I get sometimes. It feels like the only solution is to check his phone! But to be honest, even though I’m relieved when I see my boyfriend isn’t doing anything shady, I also feel disgusted after I go through his phone.

I don’t like feeling anxious (or disgusted!), but I don’t know what else to do besides go through his phone. But I don’t want to keep upsetting him and I’m tired of fighting about this with him. Is it wrong that I go through his phone? Should he get used to it or how do I manage my anxiety?

– Anxious Girlfriend

Going through your boyfriend’s phone because of trauma

Thank you for writing, Anxious Girlfriend. Like your boyfriend, I have empathy for how painful it must have been to have found out your ex was cheating on you. That type of experience can be not only painful but humiliating and disorienting.

It is honestly so emotional that it can be traumatic to have our trust betrayed by someone we love. I know it may sound weird to say it was “traumatic.” But the word trauma simply originates from the Greek word for “wound.”

Related: Should I take him back after he cheated?

Trauma triggers – seeing your boyfriend’s phone

One of the symptoms of trauma is that it makes it feel like the past is the present. Dr. Bessel van der Kolk is a leading trauma expert and author of The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. He discovered in one study that images, sounds, or thoughts which remind a person of their trauma activate the amygdala.

The amygdala is the part of our brain that processes threats and activates the fight or flight response if it perceives we are in danger. Most basically, this response activates your sympathetic nervous system and you literally cannot relax. Your body is preparing to run away or fight a perceived threat (like a lion).

Your anxiety makes sense

In your case, it sounds like your boyfriend’s phone may trigger your fight or flight response. When this happens, you are absolutely going to experience a high level of anxiety. This is because your brain’s alarm system has assessed that your boyfriend’s phone may be a threat to your safety.

This may sound odd at first, but the amygdala does not know the difference between a literal threat to our safety like being chased by a lion or an emotional threat like potentially discovering our partner is being unfaithful. Please have compassion for yourself that your anxiety is understandable. It is a natural result of being cheated on in the past and the phone being the way you discovered this.

The need to be respectful

At the same time, you have the responsibility to be a safe and respectful partner to your boyfriend. We often hear about boundaries as limits we set on others to feel safe such as being treated kindly. Yet boundaries are also about the limits we set on ourselves to be a safe person to others. Despite our traumas or anxieties, we do not have the right to disregard others’ personal boundaries.

While I have so much empathy for how overwhelmed you sometimes feel when you see your boyfriend’s phone lying around, it is necessary to have healthy boundaries. In this case, you do not have the right to go through your boyfriend’s phone despite your anxieties and trauma.

Healing from the past

From everything I have read, it sounds like your boyfriend has not given you any literal cause for concern. (While it’s always wrong to go through other people’s phones as it is a boundary violation, the urge to snoop when we know someone is lying to us is another conversation.) I feel joy and relief for you that you have found someone who is not acting in any suspicious ways. It sounds like your boyfriend genuinely cares for you but is asking for you to respect his boundaries. This is healthy!

While it was truly awful that your ex devastated you by cheating, you do not have the right to use your pain as a justification to disregard your boyfriend’s boundaries. Instead, you are responsible to heal from your past. Because it sounds like your anxiety is stemming from a traumatic memory, I would highly encourage you to seek out a therapist who does Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. You may do this by searching for providers in your network if you will be using insurance or through the Psychology Today directory.

Putting the past in the past

The amazing thing about EMDR is that it allows the brain to process the traumatic memory. Instead of your brain’s alarm system going off when you see your boyfriend’s phone because it reminds you of discovering your ex was cheating on you, you will be able to stay in the present. You will not feel overwhelmingly anxious because your brain will be able to see the phone for what it is now: your trustworthy boyfriend’s phone rather than your ex’s.

This may sound too good to be true, but I have seen time and again that EMDR works wonders in helping clients process traumatic memories so that they can see things clearly. This is the best recommendation I have for you to heal and move forward because of how you’re moving into fight or flight when you see the phone sometimes. (This is different than general anxiety.)

Vulnerability is scary

When your ex cheated on you, you made the decision to not be a “fool” again. I understand this but please know that while it was deeply painful, you may have never been a “fool.” Of course, you may have chosen to ignore red flags in your relationship with your ex. This is unclear to me but please know, if you did ignore things before you discovered your ex cheated on you, this denial is often because of self-worth issues. Sometimes, we don’t listen to ourselves because we don’t trust ourselves. Instead of beating yourself up if this is the case, please try to be kind towards yourself.

However, whatever the case may be, it is always a risk to choose to trust someone. While your ex proved untrustworthy, I don’t get the sense that your current boyfriend is from what you shared. If you believe he is trustworthy, deep down, then I encourage you to remember that it’s always scary to lean into a relationship. When we are vulnerable and close to someone, we are always risking the potential to be hurt – for them to betray us or for us to break up or for them to die. This is the reality of human life. We don’t talk about it very often but it’s true. The wisest thing we can do as human beings is to ensure we are looking at reality clearly (not ignoring red flags) and trusting ourselves. Then, we make a choice to be brave and lean into vulnerability!

About The Author, Krystal

Krystal Mazzola Wood, LMFT is a practicing relationship therapist with over a decade of experience. She has focused her entire career to empowering people to heal from unhealthy relationship processes. She teaches the skills and tools necessary to have a life filled with healthy and loving relationships.

This passion led her to write her best-selling books and create courses. Her books, The Codependency Recovery Plan: A 5-Step Guide to Understand, Accept, and Break Free from the Codependent Cycle and The Codependency Workbook: Simple Practices for Developing and Maintaining Your Independence have helped many people heal.

Her course, Confidently Authentic: Stop People Pleasing and Start Being True to Yourself, provides the skills necessary to have a healthy relationship. This course features over a year of relationship skills you would learn in therapy. Students share this course has been “life changing.”

Each week, she answers your relationship questions from a place of expertise and compassion. To submit your relationship questions, please DM us @confidentlyauthentic.com