The End of the Affair

Location sharing with romantic partners, friends and kids

Posted Oct 07, 2019

After the discovery of infidelity, a couple tries to reestablish trust. The betrayed spouse demands that her husband share his location continuously—and he passively retaliates. Previously glued to his phone, he starts “forgetting” to bring it with him when he leaves the house. We should consider such scenarios before sharing our whereabouts, whether that's with tools on our phones or the newly announced Facebook Threads.  

Natalia Mikhaleva/iStock
Location sharing can have unintended consequences.
Source: Natalia Mikhaleva/iStock

When I began a recent reading of Left to Our Own Devices with a story about this relationship (“The End of the Affair”), I asked audience members for their reactions. One woman blurted out a critique, “That’s no way to rebuild trust. That shows distrust.” About sharing location with a romantic partner, some asked incredulously “Who would do that?!” Others responded, “We’ve always done that.”

The story brings up strong reactions, perhaps because it points to the lack of control experienced by both people. One reaches to technology for reassurance that it is unlikely to provide, and the other feels he cannot opt-out of surveillance. Even when there aren’t major relationship ruptures, opinions on location sharing in close relationships tend to be vehement. Some feel it is essential for coordinating schedules and safety. Others decry it as a violation of autonomy. Pitfalls go beyond awkward revelations about how time is spent on surveillance in abusive relationships.

Some people at that night’s reading thought that the dynamics of location sharing depend on the initial motive. If the sharing began out of a desire to ease coordination it might be okay, but not if it was motivated by suspicion. One man said that chasing clues about a spouse out of distrust would just lead to more searching, “Even if I know she’s at the ice cream shop, how do I know she’s not with someone else?”

Location sharing, like most technologies, needs to be used with intention. When shared willingly, information about where we are can foster connection. Phone calls and texts often begin with chatter or images of our immediate surroundings, even if it isn’t logistically relevant to the conversation. And even if inadvertently shared, clues to one’s recent locations in clothing or social media often spark conversation.  

I wonder, in this example of the affair above, how things could have played out differently. Perhaps if the location sharing had been offered by the spouse who strayed rather than demanded by the spouse who had been hurt, it might have helped in a small way to restore trust. I’ve seen some people offer reassurance within a close relationship by frequently sharing images of what they see throughout the day or conveying what is most relevant about their location to another person (e.g. colored lights that convey one’s proximity to home).

Sharing one’s location does not necessarily build trust or intimacy though; sometimes broadcasting our whereabouts can have the opposite effect. A teenager in the audience talked about how he has been hurt by location data on social media. With Snap Map, a feature of Snapchat, he can see where his friends are as well as what they are doing. One night, he noticed that some of his friends were out and about after they declined his invitation to meet up. “It’s like, wait a minute, I thought you were staying in,” he said, half-joking. He wasn’t distraught, but the signs of deception and exclusion registered. He had an immediate reaction to location data and didn’t struggle to interpret it.

Navigation systems also get caught up in our relationships. It’s not just that they trace who we spend our time with as they map our route to a restaurant, a friend’s home or a colleague’s office. Their authoritative commands can also spark power struggles. Dare I deviate from directions, Waze orders me with increasing alarm to “Do a legal U-turn” or whatever it takes to get back on course. In these situations, it feels like Waze needs to have its way. One friend said she feels a little bad when she ignores Waze. But that changed after her 13-year-old daughter recorded all the little Waze snippets in her own voice. Now it’s her daughter commanding, "At the roundabout, continue straight." "In a quarter of a mile, turn left." And so on.

Like many moms, my friend sometimes feels like a chauffeur to her demanding teenage children. Ignoring the voice is a rare chance to defy these commands, one that gives a slight charge of power. Her daughter, naturally, is plotting revenge. To replace the Waze’s standard response of “rerouting,” she’s thinking of adding some personal touches such as “Fine. If you don’t want to listen to me then…” Their game goes on.

In this daily mother-daughter commute and the couple’s attempt to move on from infidelity, there’s a struggle for control. One person reaches to technology in an attempt to steer the other. There are lessons here for how we use technology to navigate relationships. When there’s an impulse to track someone, we should think about our goals and those of the other person. If it's trust is the end goal, for example, is location data going to provide that? If tracking still seems like a good idea, it may help to propose it as an experiment rather than a demand. There needs to be room for the other person to negotiate. Reflection and openness are just as important when we are the ones being tracked.

When it comes to the government or industry surveillance, meaningful resistance probably requires collective legal action. But in close relationships, we can individually push back when someone suggests using technology to monitor us in any way that doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t work to play along in silent resentment, but we can take a cue from the mom who builds intimacy through playful resistance.