My girlfriend’s last boyfriend cheated on her. I don’t do that kind of thing, being a faithful kind of guy, but she says that she now has trust issues and the only way that she will feel better is to check my phone all the time. I feel bad for her…but I also feel invaded by this. Otherwise, the relationship is great. What do I do?
Yes. As a dog, I get this. There are certain things that are for everybody to sniff, like the beautifully-yellow-hued snowbanks at the entrance of my favorite walking trail. There are other things that aren’t, such as my breakfast. Key word, my.
Some things belong to the group (whether that’s a family, community, or couple) and some things belong only to the individual. It’s the process of figuring out “what’s what” that can get complicated, and this is especially a problem for humans, because the nuances of your social lives are so much more knotty than snowbanks and my morning meal.
My psychotherapist friend calls these things, “boundaries.” Boundaries are the lines, visible and invisible, that tell people who is responsible to take care of what. And some boundaries are really basic. Physical boundaries, like fences, walls, and even bodies, are easy to see and therefore fairly easy to respect. You don’t walk into your neighbor’s house without being invited, because if you did, it would be trespassing. Trespassing is a violation of boundaries.
My human sidekick had to explain this whole concept to her daughter’s little chihuahua. Coco, who can squeeze through anything, thought it would be totally cool to visit the neighbor’s garage and help herself to a most exquisite smelling bag of kitchen trash. I barked to tell Coco to stop, but she wouldn’t listen to me. (Okay, so, actually, I barked out of jealousy and then I tried to dig a gigantic hole under the fence so that I could fit through it and go join her, but that’s besides the point).
The point is, this isn’t just a human problem. But it’s a whole lot trickier for humans than it is for dogs. You folks are complex.
You’d think that physical boundaries would be so simple that no one would violate them, but humans have trouble with this kind of stuff. Even when the lines are clear cut, some folks struggle. Humans always have. (Think of some of the earliest stories and myths—most of them involve stealing this, taking that, fighting over who gets what)…
If people have trouble with physical boundaries, it goes without saying that humans will have all sorts of confusion surrounding the invisible boundaries of human relationships. Consider, for a moment, the personal boundary of inner belief. In a healthy boundary system, what a person believes is their individual business. But other humans have created whole entire wars, and still do, all because they don’t understand that it is a boundary violation to try to force someone to believe something that they simply don’t.
So how do you know when a thing is within your sphere or not? A really good way to figure out where the invisible boundaries are is to ask, “Who is responsible for what?”
Who is responsible for taking care of your phone? That’s a pretty easy question. You are. It’s your phone.
Who is responsible for taking care of your emotions? That is a trickier question (and a key sticking spot in co-dependent relationships as well as in abusive ones). Often, a humans will mistakenly think that someone else is responsible for taking care of one’s own feelings. And, um, no.
The people around you will ideally be sensitive to your feelings. They will be understanding, kind, and supportive. As sidekicks. Not as the people in charge of your feelings. Why? Because each person is in charge of their own feelings.
Your feelings are yours. That means you are responsible for them and for how you want to manage them. That means your girlfriend’s feelings are hers. That means you aren’t responsible for managing them.
Yes, your girlfriend got hurt. That’s a very real thing. It’s traumatizing to be in a committed relationship and find out that the other person isn’t as committed as they claimed to be. She felt betrayed. She felt deeply wounded. She felt shocked. She felt confused. She thought she was safe to trust, but she wasn’t. Those are some big feelings going on, there.
Here is the complicated part and something that is her responsibility to work through. In situations where a deep boundary violation occurred, a lot of people also turn to type of self-blame. It is their well-intentioned brain’s way of helping them figure out how to be safe next time.
It’s just a mind-story, and it’s not even rational, but it feeeeels so reassuring to the emotion center of the brain that it’s really hard to think it through more carefully. (Once something feels good, a lot of humans tend to just go with it).
“What? There is something that I can do to ensure that this will never happen again? Yes! I’ll get right on it!” It feels so handy, so practical, so relieving. I mean, what could possibly go wrong?
I bet that your girlfriend is probably thinking things like, “If only I had been paying better attention, this wouldn’t have happened to me.” And, since she thinks that there is something that she could do to prevent this from happening to her again, she’s going to do it. Which includes constantly reading your phone.
But, wait. Let’s say you aren’t a nice guy. Just being hypothetical here. What if you are flirting with other women or planning to cheat on her? Let’s say that you are the kind of guy who won’t respect her boundaries because he will view his wants and needs as more important than hers, and he isn’t interested in changing that. Will reading through your phone solve that problem for her?
You would just figure out ways to hide it better. Because her checking her partner’s phone religiously does not make her any safer. Why not? Because the problem isn’t her level of vigilance.
That wasn’t ever the problem. The problem is that she was with someone who chooses not to respect the mutually agreed-upon boundary of commitment.
(Sidenote: as a dog, here, when that is the case, I’d then recommend considering the ultimate “safety” plan, which is to talk to some healthy people, get support, and then figure out how to safely remove yourself from that relationship. Your time on this planet is precious. Why spend it with someone who is isn’t interested in respecting you? Ain’t nobody got no time for that)…
But, assuming you are a nice guy who wants to respect your partner’s boundaries and works to treat her with love and kindness, you are now struggling, hence your letter to me, because you have a girlfriend who wants to “stay safe” from your potential choice to cheat on her. She has an idea in her head that you might cheat. And she is treating you as if.
As if you will. Because now she knows, first-hand, that some people do. She thinks that unless she is vigilant, she will be cheated on again, so she decides that she will set up boundaries that act as if it is a high risk relationship where her safety is ever in doubt. And that, unfortunately, doesn’t work so well in a healthy relationship.
Who is responsible for your phone and for your communications on it?
You. So that’s your business. Not hers. If she doesn’t trust you, or doesn’t like some of your communications, it is her job to discuss this with you, make her preferences known, and then make a decision about what she wants to do with your choices. That part is her business. Not to manage your communications, but to decide what to do about how you manage your communications.
Who is responsible for your girlfriend’s need to feel safe after being cheated on?
Her. That’s her business. She has to figure out how she is going to do the work to heal her heart. She can’t figure that out at your expense. The answer to solving her sense of betrayal is not going to be found in her demanding that she violate your boundaries. That is solving one problem by doing the same underlying thing, albeit on a much lesser scale. So, while it might make her feel better in the moment, it’s problematic in terms of growing healthy boundaries. It’s simply not the kind of behavior that will nurture and grow a healthy love.
Does she need to figure out how she is going to emotionally navigate serious relationships, now that she knows that a partner could potentially betray her? Yes. But, in ways that respect you both.
If your girlfriend wants to have a healthy relationship, she has got to step back and let you be responsible for you (and she can then take a load off and only be responsible for herself).
Which might not be safe. You might betray her. She might get hurt again.
But, she can’t know that for sure. That’s only a “might.” A maybe. A possibility.
That’s the tough thing about love. It always comes with risk. Because we can’t control other people or the things that may or may not happen. We can only do our best to make the wisest choices we know to make at the time. Part of having an open heart towards someone is accepting that it may include the pain of loss.
Based on all of the facts available, it sounds like you are interested in being a good boyfriend to her. It sounds like you place a high value on commitment and trust. It sounds like you want to treat her well. You show concern for her traumatic experience and you want to handle it with sensitivity, while also showing concern for her violation of your privacy. In short, you sound like a guy who is interested in respecting her and respecting yourself. This is a good thing.
And, I’m guessing that you probably feel compassion for her, given that it is a terrible thing to experience relational betrayal. Just because she is responsible for her emotions doesn’t mean that you can’t care about her emotions. Of course you will care. Your girlfriend went through a really tough thing.
Because of this, you might choose to allow her to read through your phone from time to time. Only if you want to. Not because she demands to. Not because she has to. But because it is yours and you are willing to invite her in as a guest. That generous invitation might help her feel a little bit better, too. And you won’t resent it, that way, because it’s your choice.
That action, when it comes from your own free will, will feel bonding and connective to you both. Because your boundaries are respected, you are free to reassure her in ways that are healthy for you both.
As for me, that’s enough human boundary talk for one day. I’ve got work to do out in the backyard.
The psychology of dog boundaries is a lot more simple, which makes things easier for those of us who live in the canine family. Like, if the food is out, it’s fair game. And whoever is the biggest and gets to the food first, gets it. I try to respect those human boundaries, because I do dearly enjoy you people, but you still might not want to leave any bags of trash out on the ground by your front door. Because I am really good at digging holes. Just saying.