A Psychologist Explains 4 Texting Behaviors That Signal A Toxic Relationship
"If anything happened to you, what would I tell your parents?"
He was livid because I didn't want to have my location tracked. The same happened with refusing to hand my passwords over. It was a matter of personal space—I'd been using computers since I was 2, and my protective Singaporean parents had never asked for passwords. Why should 26-year-old me suddenly have to hand them over to someone?
But I caved eventually, worn down by his excuses—a nonsensical jumble of how they were for my own good coupled with assuaging his deep-seated paranoia. I had nothing to hide, I reasoned.
Except it was never enough. They were simply part of him widening his net of control and abuse.
That time in my life may be ancient history in my book, but technology is increasingly weaponized to abuse people in relationships. Some people in healthy relationships may elect to share email, social media accounts, and devices; I'm all for that. I also understand that some couples may have agreed-upon parameters around transparency within their relationship—some of us are a little more insecure, and the added transparency can be an easy way to alleviate some of one person's anxiousness.
But when your phone—or tech—is wielded to threaten, isolate, and confuse you, here's where it gets murky. You might lose your sense of self before long.
The signs of digital abuse:
In 1791, social theorist Jeremy Bentham proposed the model of the Panopticon, where a guard can see into every cell from a central tower, but the prisoners cannot see into this tower. Because they never know if they are being watched, inmates internalize the prison guard—they start to watch and police their own behaviors constantly.
From reading all your communications to tracking your location, you are policed. Or you're asked to take photos with a certain number of fingers showing in a given location or to prove who you're with via photographic evidence.
That's not all. An abuser will twist these out of context—they may find any reason to accuse you of cheating. When I was in this type of toxic relationship, I learned to stop communicating with heterosexual males—the happily married professor 3,000 miles away who’d written me a testimonial was allegedly in love with me, and I must be having an affair with an associate of his who'd added me on Facebook.
"I've just had 10 missed calls and 10 insecure and angry voice-mails. I'm in trouble," a friend once said to me.
Back then, our younger selves simply dismissed it as a "poor, insecure guy."
But whatever a person's reason is for their insecurity—perhaps his parents cheated on each other, his previous partners (or someone else) hurt him, or he's simply an anxious person—doesn't warrant you needing to attend to their neediness. You're not their doctor or therapist; you're their partner.
"Toxic manipulators also create burnout by demanding constant contact through technology," my friend and fellow therapist Shannon Thomas adds. "They insist that their texts, IMs, phone calls, video chats, or emails receive immediate attention. These behaviors cause burnout by trying to juggle the attention demands of the abuser and daily life demands."
Messing with your devices behind your back can be a form of gaslighting, a way to warp your sense of reality so you believe you're crazy. In my past abusive relationship, names would go missing from my contacts list—and somehow my ex would convince me that I was the one doing it, to mess with his head. At first I thought it was an Apple glitch, but the names disappearing were specifically my family and closest friends. I thought I was going crazy.
They could also delete your messages to stop you from communicating with someone or answer someone on your behalf and insist you did that.
Even when you can show evidence that you've done nothing wrong, they make you work harder and harder to prove your innocence, to the point that you wonder if you actually did do the terrible things they've suggested.
Because gaslighting makes you doubt yourself. It's as though you're in a state of trance—you start to believe their reality.
"I hate your phone," he'd say. "You know it's how I found out my exes were cheating on me."
There were times he confiscated it in front of our friends, allegedly for my own good while pecking me on the cheek, because I was "addicted to tech." Never mind if I was an immigrant 6,000 miles from home, and my phone was my portal to my loved ones. And there were times he confiscated it in private, threatening to hurl it out of the window. ("If you don't want to show it to me, it means you have something on it you want to hide," he'd jeer. I was damned either way.)
Abusers do this to subtly train you to stop communicating with others. Eventually you're in your little world, with no reference point of what's acceptable or what's not, and no one to seek wisdom from.
Why anyone can fall for this type of abuse.
My clients are bright and sociable, with demanding jobs. I've heard many naysayers quip that only stupid people get abused, but this myth breeds shame and entraps victims within abusive relationships.
An abuser never demands control immediately. If so, most of us would run away very quickly. They bombard you with affection, letting you taste paradise before taking it away. Or, more accurately, because they cannot sustain that act any longer. Periodically you'll then get short-lived glimpses of amazing times, but you pay the price with more abuse.
They'll intersperse their digital abuse with reasons they need to keep tabs on you— some sort of paranoia stemming from insecurity. They may also give you access to their tech to prove a point.
My friend and fellow psychologist Jonathan Marshall, Ph.D., says to watch out for the two red flags here: "If you really love me" and "If you have nothing to hide."
He also comments that many of us have been raised with the Hollywood ideal of devotion, the idea that partnership means devoting ourselves, no matter how this makes us overextend. Couple this with family backgrounds where overgiving was demanded, "a toxic relationship has that appeal, in some ways. It's about saying, 'I surrender my sense of reality to you.'"
What to do.
Marshall advises that we consider the domino effect: "How will you leave in three years' time if you're going to break up?"
Of course, many abusers tell you early on and often that you're their Forever Person, whom they want to spend the rest of their lives with. It lowers the risk of giving them your passwords.
But you should be able to protect yourself from the worst-case scenarios. Marshall says giving someone access to your tech effectively clips your wings. "Imagine you're thinking about leaving, and you cannot use digital means to correspond with other people," he says. Essentially, you limit yourself.
Having this in mind can help you reconsider if you're flirting with the idea of giving a demanding partner access to your technology, and this feels energetically asymmetrical.
And if you have already done so and wish to turn things around, you can. Change your passwords (and master password) on a device separate from you both, and if possible, use an entirely new device. You can check if your phone is being bugged, and which devices your accounts have been logged into from. Have an inventory of your different accounts, and go about this systematically.
Forewarned is forearmed, you can shut down this avenue of abuse if it's already happening.
In Marshall's words, "If you have to be so suspicious of each other, then maybe this relationship isn't working. You don't have to put up with that. You can just say no."
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