Imagine that Blake is tempted from time to time to snoop on his partner Taylor (for example, he sometimes desires to go through her phone or email to see who she’s been talking to). What might determine whether or not he intrudes on Taylor’s privacy? We already know that people are more likely to engage in intrusive behavior, such as snooping on their partner, when they have low trust. Basically, distrustful people need reassurance that everything is fine in their relationships, so they sometimes invade their partners’ privacy to make sure everything is indeed fine. People who have high trust, on the other hand, don’t worry about their relationships, so they don’t tend to snoop. But high trust may not be the only thing a person needs to avoid intruding on others’ privacy. One potential contender that could help someone fight the urge to snoop is high self-control, which is the ability to override or inhibit impulses and adjust behavior so that we can effectively achieve our goals. Self-control is a major part of our everyday lives; for instance, we exert self-control when we stay in on a Friday to study instead of going out and partying with friends, when (if dieting) we choose to eat a healthy snack instead of cupcakes, when we resist the urge to chew out our partners if we’re tired and they do something wrong, and so on. Some scholars have argued recently that intrusive behavior (like snooping) occurs when someone puts their own self-interest and need for reassurance above their partner’s need for privacy (in other words, intrusive behavior occurs when Blake follows his impulse to go through his partner Taylor’s phone to satisfy his own needs at the expense of respecting Taylor’s privacy).1 So what matters for intrusive behavior: trust, self-control, or both?
To answer this question, researchers recruited 189 heterosexual married couples and asked them to fill out questionnaires over three “waves,” or study sessions, that were each one year apart.1 At each wave of the study, couples reported their trust, self-control, and intrusive behaviors using well-validated measures. The researchers found that the key to putting the brakes on intrusive behavior in relationships is not trust or self-control alone. Instead, the combination of trust and self-control explained who snooped and who didn’t. For people with low trust, self-control didn’t matter; low trust people engaged in the same amount of intrusive behavior no matter how much self-control they had. Similarly, for people with low self-control, trust didn’t matter; low self-control people engaged in the same amount of snooping no matter how much they trusted their partners. The key was people with high trust and high self-control, who were the least likely to snoop over time.
What does this mean for you? Whether or not you feel you trust your partner may not be enough to keep away those occasional (or not-so-occasional) urges to snoop. You need high trust and a good amount of self-control to best avoid engaging in intrusive behaviors. With high trust, you may not feel the need to snoop on your partner in the first place, and with high self-control, you should be able to forgo your self-interest for the sake of your partner or relationship should any impulses to intrude on your partner’s privacy arise. Thus, the critical combination of (a) not needing to snoop in general and (b) being able to override any snooping urges is the best setup for keeping intrusive behaviors at bay.
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1Buyukcan-Tetik, A., Finkenauer, C., Kuppens, S., & Vohs, K. D. (2013). Both trust and self-control are necessary to prevent intrusive behaviors: Evidence from a longitudinal study of married couples. Journal of Family Psychology, 27, 671-676.
Sarah Stanton, M.Sc. - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Sarah is interested in how different types of people think, feel, and behave in relationships, the positive and negative relationship outcomes associated with low self-regulatory ability, and how relationship experiences influence goal pursuit, bodily stress responses, and mental and physical health outcomes.