Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Who’s Checking on Whom?

New research on who's more likely to check a partner's phone, and what it means.

Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock
Source: Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock

"Suspicion torments my heart, suspicion keeps us apart."

These lyrics are from "Suspicion," a song recorded by Elvis Presley and Terry Stafford in the 1960s, and its message still rings true today.

In 2003, William Ickles and colleagues designed a scale—motivation to acquire relationship-threatening information, or MARTI—to measure a person’s motivation to find, or even seek out, relationship-threatening information from their partner. The scale featured 21 items, about which people were asked to state if they would prefer to know or not to know. Examples include:

  • Which of my same-sex friends my partner is secretly the most strongly attracted to.
  • The most intimate detail of our relationship that my partner has revealed to one of his/her same-sex friends.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, they found that partners who scored higher on this scale—that is, those who wanted to know these facts and were therefore highly motivated to try to find relationship-threatening information—also reported engaging in more suspicion behaviors, such as listening in on a partner’s phone conversations or asking someone to check to see who a partner was spending time with. These same people also had lower scores on relationship trust.

Further, relationship partners with high scores on the MARTI scale were more likely to dissolve their relationships within five months. The rate of breakups was higher among those who both scored high on the MARTI scale and who also reported being less close or less personally connected to their partners (Ickes, Dugosh, Simpson, & Wilson, 2003)

Today the opportunity to check on a partner’s behavior is much more prevalent, thanks to the internet, social networks, and smartphones. Indeed, online communication means that romantic relationships are now managed and conducted more openly than ever before. At the very beginning of a relationship, for example, the one thing we all probably do (even if we don't admit it) is check out a new love interest online.

Ickles et al (2003) would suggest that relationships in which individuals are on a quest to find information about their partner don’t last. Therefore, the suggestion is that those who are married have either passed this suspicious phase or are not the types of people who engage in such surveillance behavior. However, Ellen Helsper and Monica Whitty present evidence that suggests online surveillance continues into married life (Helsper & Whitty, 2010). The researchers collected data using an online survey of more than 2,000 married people. (When one partner in a couple responded to the survey, their partner was then approached to participate as well.)

To assess surveillance of their partner, respondents were asked: "Have you ever checked on your partner’s activities without them knowing by doing the following?:

  • Reading their emails.
  • Reading their text messages.
  • Checking their browser history.
  • Reading their instant message logs.
  • Using monitoring software.
  • Pretending to be another person."

In 30 percent of couples, one or both people had looked at their partner's emails or text messages without the partner knowing. Further, in around a fifth of the couples, one or both partners had checked their partner’s browsing history. Reading instant messages was reported by 2 percent of husbands and 4 percent of wives. The other behaviors reported by just 1 percent of husbands and wives.

The researchers suggest that checking emails on a partner's computer could happen accidentally if the computer was left on. However, reading text messages really only happens when a phone that a person normally carries is taken and opened specifically for the purpose of checking and reading their messages.

This study also found that there was a degree of similarity in the surveillance behavior of each partner. In other words, if a person engaged in surveillance of a partner’s online behavior, it was likely that their online behavior was also being examined their partner. Similarly, if an individual did not engage in surveillance behavior, it was likely that their partner didn't, either.

In the married couples surveyed, wives were more likely than husbands to engage in surveillance behavior, a finding is consistent with the fact that females are more likely than males to worry about socially undesirable or risky actions (viewing porn sites, excessive gambling), which may motivate them to engage in more online surveillance of partners.

Helsper and Whitty are also interested in looking at agreements between partners of what's considered acceptable online behavior, or "netiquette," and if differences in acceptable netiquette in a relationship might lead to more surveillance.

Surveillance behavior is not only motivated by the desire to find out what a partner may be doing offline, but also what they do online—further evidence that we now live in a part-time online world as well as an offline one.

Visit my website, and follow me on Twitter—@martingraff007—and on YouTube.


Helsper, E. J. & Whitty, M. T. (2010) ‘Netiquette within married couples: Agreement about acceptable online behaviour and surveillance between partners’ Computers in Human Behaviour, 26, 916-926.

Ickes, W., Dugosh, J. W., Simpson, J. A., & Wilson, C. L. (2003). Suspicious minds: The motive to acquire relationship-threatening information. Personal Relationships, 10(2), 131–148.