This kind of controlling behaviour can isolate partners, and experts believe, lead to domestic abuse. From reading messages, to Geotagging, or recording conversations - do we need help finding boundaries in the digital age?

It’s a gloomy winter afternoon and I’m in a chilly church hall in the suburbs delivering a confidence workshop to victims of domestic abuse. The group consists of two men and about twenty women. They are, without exception, intelligent, attractive and most importantly, they have an admirable capacity for kindness. They’re tolerant, empathetic and eager to please - exactly the sort of people abusers tend to target.

Afterwards, over tea and custard creams (nibbled in an incredulous way by some, as if they are so unused to feeling entitled enough to eat something just for the sheer pleasure of it) I get chatting to Sophia*. Sophia left her partner of twenty years after an attack which has left her with an enduring painful spinal condition and a consequent inability to undertake anything more strenuous than a brisk walk.

“But you know,” she tells me, “it was actually years before the physical attack that I knew he was dangerous”.

She said that her partner began coming home from work in “terrible moods”, refusing to speak to her for reasons she couldn’t understand. Occasionally, he’d let the odd detail slip, saying things like “you were bitching about my sister” or “I know you bought those trousers, even though I told you not to”.

“I couldn’t work out how he knew these things,’ she explained. “When I asked him he claimed to be ‘psychic’, which I obviously knew was ridiculous. Then one day he repeated all the details of a conversation I’d been having with my daughter. He had been at work at the time and we were in her bedroom. I thought perhaps the house was bugged. Then I remembered my daughter had been waiting to phone a friend and had lifted the receiver of our house phone. She’d had it in her hand as we’d been talking. I realised that he’d been monitoring my phone calls and that whatever device he was using was activated whenever the phone was off the hook.”

It’s clear from the way Sophia recounts this story that this experience had a profound effect on her. She lists the various injuries she received at the hands of her ex-husband without so much as flinching, yet as she tells me about the incident with the phones, she visibly shudders.

“I found piles of audio cassettes in his car, with all my phone conversations recorded on them. And that’s when I thought...this man is a nutter. The silly thing was I was too scared to even confront him about it. I just used to shake whenever he was near me. That’s the first time I considered the idea that he might kill me because I thought if he could do that he was capable of anything”.

This week, the Mirror ran a story on people using apps to monitor their partner’s whereabouts, indicating that, more than ten years after Sophia’s ordeal, technological advancement makes this easier than ever. In the article, Catherine Higginson explained that she has no problem with her husband being able to track her movements via an app saying “I realise it sounds like my husband is being creepy and a stalker. But he isn’t. He is a self-employed website developer, therefore a geek, and is probably more up to speed about technology than the likes of M15”.  

“I don’t see it as him spying on me – I view it as him caring about my wellbeing. I know people say “what about your right to privacy” but I know he trusts me.” She points to the practical and safety advantages which she feels use of the app can provide.


Another piece by an anonymous female author on Independent Voices, said that she tracked her partner’s whereabouts by Geotagging, which he also consents to.

Yet according to Polly Neat, Chief Executive at Women’s Aid,  in contrast to “ benign” activity, consented to by the other partner, stories like Sophia’s are all-too common and there is a direct link between snooping and both emotional and physical abuse:

“Coercive and controlling behaviour in an intimate relationship is abusive and always unacceptable. We know that women whose partners are abusive will often track them through GPS, read texts, hack into emails, and generally demand complete knowledge and control of their activities. This kind of controlling behaviour can have a huge impact, isolating women and making it impossible for them to ask for help and escape”.

In a chilling echo of Sophia’s words, Polly then adds: “Controlling behaviour such as this can be as good an indicator that a man will kill his partner as previous physical violence, so must always be taken seriously.”

I ask Sophia what she thinks of Women’s Aid’s stance. “The thing is” she answers, in hushed tones, “if you had the opportunity to be a fly on the wall, wouldn’t you? I think they’re right, in a way. But I also think you have to seriously contemplate whether you’d be tempted to look if your partner left their Facebook open, or they accidentally called you from their pocket and you could hear their conversation. It’s a fine line”.

These sentiments are echoed by Clare Prendergast at Relate, who has counselled several couples who have been guilty of invading privacy.

“You can’t label all behaviour of this kind as abuse. It’s more complicated than that” she tells me. “I work in Manchester and we work very closely alongside a domestic violence perpetrator programme. We have to do a lot of assessment with couples to establish whether abuse is taking place. If it is, you can’t counsel them. But it might just be that the couple have trust issues and some therapy will help them fix things.”

So, where is the line between a relationship on the rocks and emotional abuse? To answer that question, Clare gives me two examples of past clients.

“In one instance there had been an affair and the male partner was tracking his wife because the trust had gone. We agreed in those circumstances that we could turn a blind eye to his behaviour until they had worked through it. But in another case I dealt with a woman was stalking her boyfriend using a gizmo she had put in his car and she felt she was totally entitled to do it. And that’s what marked it out as abusive – It was the entitlement”.

Clare also believes there is a generational element. As the mother of a teenager, she points out that a lot of young people need “re-educating” about what is and is not acceptable, to help them “find their boundaries in the digital age”.

Aaron Balick, author of The Psychodynamics of Social Networking simply says “technology is not to blame for snooping behaviours – it simply lowers the bar”. But what motivates people to snoop in the first place?

“It usually happens for one of two reasons,” says Aaron. “Either the relationship is unhealthy and one person is looking for confirmation of their mistrust, or the relationship is fine, but having been scarred by mistrust in earlier bad relationships, he or she cannot let go of feelings of insecurity and suspicion”.

So, where should monitoring location, internet and phone activity fit into our understanding of the relatively new guidelines on emotional abuse in relationships? Sandra Horley CBE, chief executive of national domestic violence charity Refuge issued the following statement:

“Nearly half of women experiencing domestic violence face some sort of abuse online. It makes it harder for women to escape abuse and harassment since men are able to offend across geographical boundaries, often with very few restrictions”.

Clare supports this sentiment, stressing that snooping needs to be seen within the context of a “package of behaviours” before it can be assessed as abusive.

Taking everything into account, one thing is for certain: snooping indicates that something is wrong within a relationship. Either both parties need to work through it using counselling, or, as Sophia’s story demonstrates, it’s a red flag that can signify something far more sinister.

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