(Disclaimer: Some names have been changed in the stories I’m about to tell.)

Browsing in the dark

I’ve always firmly believed that invading someone else’s privacy is wrong. Reading their emails, searching their diaries, logging into their Facebook account, going through their texts… It’s hard for me to imagine how anyone wouldn’t feel violated and betrayed if a person did these things to them, especially if that person was someone close. Someone you trusted. Yet everyone I know, guy or girl, who has gone through their significant other’s things has always found exactly what they were looking for: evidence of cheating.

It’s easier than ever to find out about a partner’s infidelities. Many articles have been written about how Facebook alone has been used in court as grounds for divorce, what with its electronic paper trail of incriminating messages, posts, and pictures. No longer do we have to take a husband or wife at their word when confronting them with suspicions of adultery. Gone are the days of throwing secret letters into the fireplace to hide one’s discretions. All we have to do now is go through a lover’s cell phone and we can find out anything and everything. Sometimes our virtual lives allow us to find out by accident…

One of the most audacious cheating dramas I’ve ever heard happened to my friend Margaret. On a chilly night in February, she called me and our friend Sarah over to her apartment for moral support. She was about to meet her boyfriend’s other girlfriend.

Earlier that morning, Margaret had posted pictures on Facebook of herself and Jonathan at a Valentine’s Day party from the night before. She looked adorable in her red Anthropology dress, and Jonathan looked completely besotted with her in pic after pic. He’d been living with her for four months and she was happier than any of her friends had seen her in years. It didn’t matter to her that he was currently broke and without a car. She supported him financially and cheerfully let him borrow her Mini Cooper when she didn’t need it for auditions. On days that she did need her car, she’d drop him off at his workplace, complete with a packed lunch that she made herself. (Margaret is the embodiment of a 1950’s domestic goddess.) What he lacked in material goods he made up for in romantic gestures. Margaret would come out of the shower to see “I love you” written in red lipstick on her mirror. Jonathan waxed poetic to her of his dreams to take her on a desert honeymoon, where they’d make love in a Bedouin tent under a starry Arabian sky. Instead of buying her flowers, which he viewed as symbols of death, he gave her a potted, living tree that they humorously referred to as their Love Child. He doted on her and made her feel like the treasured princess she is.

That post-Valentine’s Day morning, after the infatuous photos had been uploaded, Margaret received a Facebook message from a girl she didn’t know named Michelle. “Why is there a picture of you making out with my boyfriend?” it read. Michelle had obviously seen the photo tagged of Jonathan on his wall.

“Excuse me, he’s my boyfriend and has been living with me for the past four months,” Margaret wrote back.

So began a dialogue between the two girls that led to Michelle driving all the way from Orange County to Margaret’s apartment in Hollywood. Michelle was a pretty blonde, like Margaret, who looked just as sob-stricken. Margaret, Sarah, and I discovered that Jonathan’s family had been long-time friends with Michelle’s family down in Laguna Beach. She’d practically grown up with him, though he was several years older than her twenty. Jonathan had been steadily courting her since October, right around the time he moved in with Margaret.

“But how did he drive down to see you?” Sarah asked.

“He borrowed his friend’s Mini Cooper,” Michelle replied.

Our mouths dropped. The gall! Michelle tearfully told us that she even lost her virginity to Jonathan on New Year’s Eve. Margaret had been in Ohio with her family.

Then stuff came out that just felt creepy. Jonathan had told Michelle the same desert-honeymoon-in-the-tent story he’d told Margaret. He’d written her the same “I love you” messages on the mirror. He’d probably given her a Love Child plant, too. When she would ask why Jonathan took so long to visit her, he’d make up stories, saying he was in New York for work, or in a hospital in Florida with meningitis. There had been some close calls. One morning, he’d even made love to Michelle and then kissed Margaret hello at the airport hours later. Margaret remembered the kiss tasted… funny.

As the web of pathological lies was revealed, both girls—and Sarah and I—were stunned. None of us had thought Jonathan was capable of pulling off such a scheme. He wasn’t a dolt, but he’d never given off clever-psycho vibe either. In retrospect, all the clues added up, and all of us felt foolish for not having seen the signs before. Was he even fucking employed? (The answer, we later found out, was no.)

Ultimately, Margaret and Michelle hugged it out, then Michelle left for her long drive back to Laguna Beach. Sarah and I helped our devastated friend gather Jonathan’s belongings into a box. Margaret stuffed deli meat in the pockets of his clothes, a final lunch farewell. Sarah and I left to give her privacy for when Jonathan came home—“from work”—and she later told us that she was as cool as a cucumber when she handed him is stuff. “We’re done,” she calmly told him, “and I know everything.” Thank you, Facebook, for exposing a cad for the two-timing low life he is.

What about the electronic discrepancies that come to light not by accident? I believe snooping is wrong, but is it really, when the wrong of unfaithfulness is revealed? Like I said, every single person I know who has snooped found out their boyfriend/girlfriend/wife/husband was cheating.

Now, cheating is a relative word. To some, it means any sexual contact outside of the supposedly monogamous relationship, including kissing, groping, intercourse, oral, etc. To others, cheating can include a grind on the dance floor or even a mere exchange of words with an ex. This is how I personally define cheating: doing anything with someone else that I wouldn’t do if my boyfriend could see me, whether it was a snuggle, a fuck, a dance, a text, or an email. Then there’s “emotional cheating”, which is an even more gray area that isn’t exclusive to emotions alone.

For my friend Charlotte, she felt emotionally cheated on by her boyfriend Jason when she found nude pictures of a girl in his phone. They weren’t of her. They were of Kandice, a girl she knew he used to hook up with. She’d initially discovered the conversation by accident—her iPhone had been lost and she was borrowing Jason’s, with his permission, to text a friend. As with all iPhones, there was a preview snipet upon opening the Messages icon of the all the text exchanges he’d had recently. Whatever preview Charlotte saw of the dialogue with Kandice gave her instant anxiety. Though she knew it was wrong to open it, her dread got the better of her and she read everything. The multiple pictures of Kandice in various naked positions were sent to Jason asking which he thought was sexier, so she’d know which was better to send to her boyfriend. (Yeah, right.) Jason couldn’t help receiving the pictures, but where Charlotte felt wronged was when he engaged with Kandice by replying which he did think was sexier. Kandice proceeded to describe in detail how much she missed having sex with him, and Jason continued to engage with her. As it would turn out, in the past he’d remind the persistent Kandice that he was with Charlotte now. For whatever reason, this time he indulged her.

He never mentioned this exchange to Charlotte, which had occurred two days before she found it. If he’d approached her right away and immediately confessed his blunder, Charlotte says she would have felt upset, but not cheated on. The fact that he engaged with Kandice and hid it from Charlotte is where the line was crossed for her. She confronted him immediately, and he admitted he knew it was wrong to have done and to keep from her. He’d been wrestling with how to tell her, which explained his withdrawn behavior over the past couple of days.

Whether you think Jason was actually cheating or not, I’m guessing most could agree that lines of some kind were crossed. Charlotte felt very disrespected by both Jason and Kandice. She felt like Jason chose to sacrifice her happiness for someone else’s by putting Kandice’s insecure ego over being loyal to her. She was extremely hurt, as it reopened the wound of how her last relationship ended: with her finding out her boyfriend was cheating by going through his email. So yes, she invaded both boyfriends’ privacy, but how can it be unwarranted when both times she found confirmation for what her intuition had already suspected? (This wasn’t the first time she and Jason had argued about his relationship with Kandice.) It would seem that intuition and hunches, and the “I just knew” instincts cheat-ees have declared with genuine conviction, are rarely wrong. Sometimes these gut feelings prompt you to find proof, even it means digging through another’s personal belongings.

My friend Amanda found out her boyfriend Josh was cheating when she followed her hunch and went through his texts while he was asleep. While she’d been out of town, he’d hit up an old flame, writing, “I miss your blow jobs.” They flirted and he asked her if she’d come over and give him one, to which she replied, “Only if you take me on a date first. I’m not that kind of girl.” His response? “I can’t take you on a date, I have a girlfriend.” She was classy enough not to get involved any further. Amanda was furious and hurt, but forgave him.

Unfortunately (or fortunately?), the seeds of distrust are hard to uproot once they’ve been planted. When Amanda went to visit Josh at work, she went through his email, following another irrepressible suspicion, and found yet another girl with whom he was exchanging inappropriate correspondence. They hadn’t slept together, but there was enough to insinuate that it was headed that way. One could argue that he hadn’t crossed the finish line yet by actually, physically cheating; but when Amanda confronted him, he apologized profusely and admitted that he knew it was wrong, begging her not to leave him. It just showed that even he knew it was serious grounds for a break up.

What about sleeping with other people while you and your significant other are on a “break”? Does that count as cheating? A break is one of the most ambiguous relationship-related terms I’ve ever heard. Apparently it means something different to everyone, and the major reason I take issue with this term is because of that. When someone says to their boyfriend or girlfriend that they need a break, how often do they take the time to define for them both what that word means? It could mean anything from a break in conversation to a break from sexual monogamy. The vagueness of that word seems to know no bounds. In the experiences I’ve observed in my friends, a break doesn’t usually have clearly laid out boundaries and expectations. Personally, I think a break is a cowardly way of saying you wanna see other people while keeping your partner on the backburner. I wouldn’t want to be the partner kept on the backburner while my boyfriend tried his luck with other girls under the guise of needing space.

Lauren had been having issues in her relationship with her boyfriend of over a year. She told me one day that they had agreed to take a break for a few weeks. She didn’t say whether or not they agreed to continue being sexually monogamous during this period, but when I ran into her at a party as she was making out with another guy, she couldn’t even meet my eyes. I couldn’t help but think that if her boyfriend had been there, she wouldn’t have been kissing this other man. Was she cheating?

So what should we do when our intuition is telling us that our partner isn’t faithful? One might say to confront them directly instead of going through their things, but what if you do, and they deny any infidelity, but you just can’t shake the feeling that they lied?  Was Charlotte really wrong to have opened her boyfriend’s texts with Kandice, which confirmed his disloyalty, debatable though it may be given that nothing physical happened? Was Amanda wrong to have read her boyfriend’s texts while he slept, or to sift through his emails behind his back, when both affirmed what her intuition had been telling her? Was Lauren cheating on her boyfriend, whom she was on a break with, by making out with the other guy in the nightclub?

And to any people who have been the cheater, a question begs to be asked… Why do you leave paper trails? Do you want to get caught? Because when you don’t delete clandestine emails and flirty texts, I can’t help but think that you must want your partner to find out. If you really didn’t, you’d be more strategic in your plotting, creating a private email account perhaps, and erasing those texts, pics, and voicemails from your phone as soon as you get them.

What are your thoughts and experiences with cheating, snooping, and breaking?