Friday, August 10, 2012


I'm at an art fair with a friend and we stop in front of a booth. My friend doesn't like what she sees and tells me as much in a loud whisper.

The artist happens to be that person to her left, and she is in earshot.  She's not happy.  Maybe sales haven't been good, and now she has to hear what a bad artist she is.  As a result of listening in, an interactional sequence, she suffers an ego slam.  It hurts.

The irony is that my friend hurts now, too. She has hurt someone's feelings and feels horrible about it.  She apologizes, tries to recover, but the deed is done.  Safe to say, the artist hurts even more.

It's an interesting question:
Who hurts more?
People do intentionally listen in on conversations. My grandson listens behind a door as I innocently talk on the telephone while whipping up a salad dressing.  He thinks he's fooling me. He loves the power, the sense of control. It is hard to mentor him, to explain that this isn't good for his character. He's only seven.

But adults do it all of the time, snoop intentionally, and I would posit that this is terrible for their character, their sense of self, too.  The act is probably worse for the snooper than for the snoopee.

Who is this person who reads someone else's mail, who opens closed  files, who deliberately listens in on the conversations of others? Sociopathic, possibly.  Insecure, more likely. Doesn't make it right. Get therapy. Don't lower yourself to this.

It is becoming an every day thing, hacking into electronic media, editing pictures so that they make other people laugh.  A young man kills himself because his roommate hid in a closet, videotaped him having sex with another male student, then posted it. Videotaping has become something we think we can just do.  
Privacy, certainly, isn't sacred anymore.  Not a new issue, really.

So snooping is just one of the many ways of breaching privacy.  No matter how we do it, the behavior reduces our stature, our very selves are diminished in the eyes of others, and our own, when we wake up, too.  We become dangerous as snoopers.  Saying that the means justify the end, merely denial.  By snooping a person morphs into someone to suspect, to watch, to be careful around, untrustworthy.  Not even less trustworthy. Untrustworthy.  The deed is done, it can't be undone.

It's too hard for the victim to regroup, to say, Never mind. We can act as if it is okay, but with no sincere apology from the offender, it won't be. This is the rationale behind the apology in the 12-Step program. At least with an apology there is some hope that a person sincerely regrets having hurt another, a way back.

Sometimes a patient will whip out a cell phone and ask me to listen to voicemail from a spouse or someone else. I've been sucked in, but no more. It's not cool.  Only one of the two invited me into the conversation.

As my son-in-law likes to say, No good can come of it. Whatever I hear from a recording can surely be communicated some other way.  Most people memorize traumatic conversations, semblances, at least.  We don't have to have it word for word.

I always believe only half of what I hear, anyway.

Therapists, especially, and doctors, researchers have to lock their files before they leave the office, shut down the programs. We don't afford the cleaning crew an opportunity to read notes on our patients.  Patients trust us to protect their privacy, like we trust our families to do the same.

And yet.  The same people who would never think to leave out a chart (me, for example) might  justify, reading what is left open on someone else's computer screen. If this weren't public domain, then why was it left open to begin with? Why not at least minimize that window?

We might as well ask, Why don’t people remember to turn off the lights when they leave the room? They forget, is all.

As parents we rationalize listening into our kids' conversations, rifling through clothing, pockets, reading notes in backpacks. We have to protect them, especially our adolescents, we think. They are our charge, we need to be sure they are well. Somehow. We’ll deal with the information, the evidence, figure it out as we go along. But is it right? Can't we accomplish as much developing a truly trusting relationship with our children, one that is intimate and safe?  No, it isn't easy, but it is possible.

Partners snoop, and of course therapists hear it all. One sniffs another's collar for perfume, another reads the texts messages on a phone. It is de riguere, a regular thing in couples therapy, the guy who has programming skills hacking in, reading email from his partner's friends, searching out pictures of her with a lover. Then, because there is evidence of an affair, he assumes, usually incorrectly, that their relationship is over, so he deliberately sets out to trap her, punish her. Things get ugly and complicated.  The therapy gets dicey, too, if they are in couple's therapy, as they should be. Now not only is she guilty, but he is, too, for invading her privacy, her thoughts, her supposedly private conversations.

Women, when they hear about an affair, come to therapy or they talk to their friends, consult a lawyer, maybe confront.  They don't go to the lengths of tapping phones. I'm sure it happens, just not something I hear about.

Which crime is worse? Breaking marital vows or breaching the privacy of a partner?

I discussed it once with a colleague. His patient had taped my patient's phone calls (the two were married and we had permission to speak about them.) I thought my colleague gave his patient (the snooper) too much credit. The psychologist excused the behavior much too readily, basically gave permission, told the his patient that it was okay, his snooping understandable under the circumstances. Man to man he could see why the guy felt driven to trap his spouse by taping her conversations. Busted. He really won that battle.  Now she'll never really trust him, even if they kiss and make up. A perfect system.

I ask the therapist:
“So if the same client told you that he had been taping your visits, that he had recorded every word you ever said to him and locked the tape up somewhere, perhaps in a safe deposit box, how would you feel?”
Note, I did not ask if he could find justification for the behavior. We can find justification for almost anything we do.  I wanted to know how he would feel. Would that feel good, knowing that his words, his thoughts, could be shared with the world?

There are all kinds of ways to rape someone.

He had to think about it. A week later we talked and he answered honestly. He would probably feel violated, abused, horrible, sick. And the sickness wouldn't just end at dinner, it would absorb his thoughts for weeks, make him paranoid about other patients, too,  make him worry that others are running tape recorders in their backpacks.

He certainly would never trust the patient again. Stolen moments and sin upon sin, stolen intellectual time, time wasted obsessing, time that could have been spent more productively. We don't think about this, the extent of the violation, what this really means, the invasion of privacy.  The "rape."

The means don't justify the end, no matter what we think that end should be.

Expressing negativity is therapeutic, some think the curative ingredient in all of of psychotherapy and even friendship. We should be able to vent in peace to our doctors and to our friends.  It is their integrity on the line if they tell over our secrets, and we learn who we can trust with secrets and who we can't in the process.

It can be upsetting, the triangle, being the one left out of the conversation.  We've talked about that before, will get to it again.

But snoop? Snoop on anyone? Not becoming, not dignified, not cool.  Breaching someone's privacy pierces the humanity of both, but casts a shadow upon the snooper, a partner who might otherwise be a thinking, self-assured, kind, attractive human being.

No good will come of it.



Mound Builder said...

Thanks for your post. A few times in my life I have had someone snoop on me. It is a destructive thing to have someone do. I'd never thought of it as being like "rape" but I can see why you'd describe it that way. It is a violation, for sure. I've always been a very private person. By that, I mean that my thoughts and interior life are important to me, something I share with others, but selectively. So to have someone violate that, to spy or snoop, that's a big thing to me.

Years ago, my best friend was going to be gone for a year, living abroad. She had a diary and wanted me to keep it, didn't want it at home where her parents might read it. She and I talked together about EVERYTHING and as she handed it to me, she even admitted that there was nothing in it I didn't already know but that she was still asking me not to read it. And I was as good as my word on that. I never so much as cracked it had even the tiniest peep at it. I returned it to her at the end of the year, when she returned. We're still friends and I know I can trust her with anything that I tell her explicitly not to repeat elsewhere. She also has good sense about things I don't tell her not to share. I think I treat her the same way. We've been friends for about 40 years, a long time.

I have a boss who snoops. I've known of her to snoop on a co-worker's computer and there are other ways, too. I know because she announced it loudly while her victim was away. It has left me thinking that there's no reason to believe she wouldn't do it to me. I feel careful around her, as a result, for this and for other reasons, too.

Anyway, thanks for your post. I don't think I've ever heard anyone talk about this topic in quite that way before. Helpful. Much appreciated.

Anonymous said...

Twenty years ago I was suffering tremendous torment...I suspected my husband was having an affair but he repeatedly denied it. I had no way of knowing for sure, wanted to believe him, but my gut feeling told me something was wrong.

We had been married for 10 years, had three children and everyone thought we were the perfect family. We really seemed to have it all. And I loved him so very much.

After months of doubts, feeling sick and like I was going crazy, I put a recorder on our home telephone. The recording confirmed that he was, indeed, having an affair with a local waitress. They talked about having sex at a local beach and other escapades. I threw up when I heard the recording but was ultimately relieved to know the truth.

He and I went into counseling - he was not able to end the affair - and I filed for divorce. It was heartbreaking but I became a stronger person. My ex-husband and I remained friends for the sake of our children. And I became independent and enpowered.

Ten years ago I married my second husband and am happier than ever!

I have never regretted using the recorder to discover the truth about my former husband's affair. If I had it to over, I would do the same thing. I feel I was entitled to the truth and didn't know any other way to get it. It gave me the answers I needed and I was able to make informed decisions about my own life moving forward with the truth.

therapydoc said...

Thanks both of you. So many sides to this, obviously, and my take, that snooping is just too invasive for words, is wrong. There are plenty of words on this one. And perhaps, no absolutes.

And yet, I can't help but wonder, Anonymous, if he could have been more honest under other circumstances. Confronted in front of a therapist, maybe he would deny it, but after the denial, seen individually by that doc, he might come clean. Some of us insist upon the individual visits, at least once, and we get compliance, and often a painful earful of truth. Even when we don't get the whole truth, the safety of the office enables a frank discussion of dissatisfaction, needing more from the relationship, or merely, something else.

Then we can steer toward divorce, make it a divorce therapy, if that is what the couple really wants. He could have said to you, if not admit the affair, "We're not as compatible as we look, I'm unhappy, etc." Admitting the affair and apologizing, obviously, the entire process is on much higher ground.

Anon,maybe you were, maybe you weren't ready to let it go, but you knew you didn't feel that emotional intimacy born of honesty. He might not have known that.

And if you did tell him, hearing that you'll be okay without him (from a professional) makes it more real, okay. At some point, with honesty, even watered-down honesty, a friendship is even possible, even during the divorce process. In the best of all possible worlds. Preferable to becoming polite friends.

Mound Builder said...

An irony to me is that one of the people who snooped on me was someone who seemed impatient when I would talk about things: what I did at work, people, books, etc. And was also someone I kept trying to draw out by asking questions (things like how was your day, what did you do at lunch), stating that my questions were too probing, that I was too probing.

Lisa said...

Hmmm..I'm on the fence with this one. I've had clients who HAVE lied, cheated, etc...and in trying to rebuild that trust have to be willing to be absolutely transparent. Now, this may be a little different than snooping, if the partner is willing to allow the other one to check the phone, the mileage, the emails, the whatevers...In the end of course, people will do what they will do and will find a way around being policed. But sometimes, I do think it's okay to get that validation. I do think there's a difference between privacy and secrecy.

Liz said...

thanks for such an interesting post...

Anonymous said...

I think this is a really interesting, thought-provoking subject. I understand the parallels you are drawing here and why an invasion of privacy might be similar to an invasion of body/spirit, but I object to the use of the word "rape" here. I know your meaning isn't the same as, for example, a college student who says "that exam really raped me". However, using such a word to express a feeling of violation that is more trivial than an actual assault is problematic, I think, for those who have experienced it. Just my two cents. I like what you have to say, I just object to the word being used inaccurately as I feel it could be harmful. It seems to minimize the meaning of "rape" used accurately to depict something quite different and - despite the parallels - something that is a different, more profound, violation of self.

My Name's not Really Bridget said...

A few years ago, I discovered that my husband had been reading my journal without my permission. I felt incredibly violated -- especially because it has been emotionally painful to stay with him all these years (25) and being able to write about some of my struggles has been very therapeutic for me. Since his violation of my privacy, I have become much more secretive -- keeping a private on-line journal in the form of a blog so it will always be "off site."

When he had a terrible accident recently, and I had to take charge of his finances and business, I discovered accounts I didn't know he had and messes he has been hiding. This process of "having to" sift through his stuff has caused me to rethink my own secrecy. Any day the same thing could happen to me, and my records would be open for him and my children to peruse as they like. That thought makes me want to figure out a way to come clean. I know that honesty is likely to break us up (because how likely is he to want to stay with me if he finds out how much I don't want to stay with him? I've only been doing it for the kids), but maybe that's the healthiest thing for our family in the long run.

therapydoc said...

These are great comments, exactly what I was looking for when I wrote the post. I feel like a new-comer to the subject.

MoundBuilder—gives us insight to the complexity of human behavior, right? We’re all hypocrites (okay, maybe not all) but it is much easier to talk than to walk.

Lisa— the permission you’re talking about sounds great on paper, but it is true, that if someone wants to cheat there is definitely a way, and the excitement grows (people are addicted to the excitement of control, getting away with it) and makes it even more of a forbidden fruit. Which is why the discussion has to get off that topic, the cheating, and onto what is wrong, so that the excitement is in the rebuilding a new home, not recreating the old one and pretending to like it.

ANONYMOUS: Rape, you are right, and I could say I did it as a test, threw in the word rape, knowing full well how incredibly intelligent this readership is. But I didn’t.

Fact is, when we think of rape it is a stab, the stab of a broken bottle or a penis, anything one can put into one of our three physical openings.

In this case the pain of someone’s ears, someone’s brain, occupying our own, can be very intense, much worse than most people think it is or will be, a lot like people might think of acquaintance rape under the influence. The victim of snooping does not suffer the same physical pain or many of the other ugly consequences of the act.

But I would posit that the emotional pain of the invasion is extremely intense and there is PTSD, the onslaught of initial depression and anxiety do last well over two months (if it were acute stress disorder they should resolve in two). Snooping IS a violation, a breach of boundaries, and it IS something that has to be talked about, rectified, and there is no fixing the relationship, or other relationships to follow afterwards without time and some sort of change in the personality, in the mind, preferably with good therapy.

The comments above don’t speak of it this way, but we should ask each writer how deeply this intrusion affected her, and if she ever felt the same way about people again.

That said, rape, real rape, certainly affects the victim in more insidious ways. The victim, until she becomes a survivor, loses her sense of self, self-respect and sense of worthiness. The victim of the snooper is likely to become somewhat self-righteous over time.


You win.

Bridget—the honesty thing can get messy, too, but at least both partners are on the same playing field and have to deal with how to change the relationship. The truth hurts, as they say, but I’m thinking the deception is worse, and it is a disrespect to think that people can’t handle it. Unless, of course, you know he’s going to throw you across the room. In which case, you shouldn’t be in the room.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for clarifying. My concern is that the word "rape" loses its power if we dilute its meaning to include other - obviously traumatic, but different - forms of assault. I appreciate you placing this in context. I really enjoyed this post - certainly a lot to think about.

Sarah (Anonymous above)

therapydoc said...

Thanks Sarah.

jewaicious said...

Well articulated, and I totally agree. The diminishing and demeaning effect and affect that snooping has one the snooper can not be emphasized enough.

lynette said...

Personally, I really don't think that "snooping" and breaking marital vows fall into the same category. Most healthy individuals will not check up on their partners unless they have suspicions, and most of the time, those suspicions pan out.

I myself had always trusted my ex-husband to stand by his vows. I expect privacy and trust in return. I gave him privacy. However, he treated me with an extreme lack of respect which became worse over time (read: abusive), and when he started exhibiting weird cell phone behavior and going out multiple nights a week without saying where he was going, I became upset and suspicious. Especially since he became concerned that other men were hitting on me (he was never the jealous type). So I checked his cell phone.

Easy enough to do -- it was lying on my desk, never turned off, no password. All I had to do was open it. And lo, I found pics of him being "serviced by" some woman who was not me.

Was this snooping? Or was I better off knowing? What diseases was he potentially subjecting me to? What if my kids had found those photos, and not me? He had denied any of this when I had asked him if he was seeing someone.

I am GLAD I know what kind of man he is. I am GLAD I found those pics before my kids. I am GLAD I know the TRUTH.

He broke the vows. I would not have unnecessarily looked for things gone awry, but he forced my hand.

I am sorry he feels ashamed and guilty -- but he should! We were in counseling for five years and he could have brought it up.

Being lied to is a horrible thing by someone you trust and love with all your heart. For me it was the last straw, and I am glad.

Being dragged down the hall, being bullied, being thrown against a wall, being denied sex... this is rape.

Checking his cell phone? That is trying to uncover the truth.

therapydoc said...

How did I not see this commeny?! I'm so sorry, Lynette. What an ordeal. That open cell phone is the same, to me, as the computer screen with no screen saver. What we have here is a snooping spectrum.

Better Things-- Seeing Ghosts