I discovered my mum’s diary in her bedside drawer. I read it compulsively and in secret. I was 14, that despicable adolescent age when my friends were desperate to swap body fluids and I just wanted to stay home and do magic tricks. I found the sacred book one Saturday night when my parents were out. I’d had a craving to go snooping. They always locked their bedroom door – it was no wonder I wanted to mine the off-limits zone.
The diary rocked my existence. A tome of secrets that revealed the inner sanctum of my parents’ marriage, it consumed me, and ripped apart the fairytale narrative I had been sold, instead revealing the jagged truth of their relationship. The pain was addictive. But soon, reading the diary wasn’t enough. I started hacking into their mobile phones (it was easier back then). And it was the days of the landline, so I was able to silently listen into their hushed phone calls. I was a pubescent Nancy Drew trying to crack the mystery of my parents’ marriage.
They were both, separately, carrying their own secrets, and now I was holding them all, but had no one to share them with. It didn’t take long for my parents to realise that I was carrying more than I could handle. My anxiety ratcheted, causing me to get medicated and therapised and almost sent away. Really, all I was trying to do was find the solution to fix their marriage. Pretty soon after finding the diary, my parents announced they were separating. And then they got back together. And now they’re incredibly loving grandparents who fancy the pants off each other. A modern-day love story. But the anxious detective lived on. The dissonance between the parental relationship I had perceived as a daughter and the unfiltered reality I had spied was huge. To me, that discovery was shattering and significant. In learning the truth, something had broken. As I travelled further into my adolescence, I began to enter new relationships with an underlying and mostly unconscious belief that it was an immature fallacy to trust a partner.
One in five British adults admit to having an affair while in a long-term relationship, according to YouGov. And over half of the single population engage in “mate poaching” – attempting to break up an existing, committed relationship. (I’ve done this.) How can you ever be sure, I think, that suspicions you have about your partner are real or delusional? Without constant monitoring, 24 hours a day, it’s impossible to be certain.
I entered my first significant romantic relationship when I was 17, and tethered to me in this partnership was a third intruder, my inner spy. This time she was more sneaky than before. My partner was a kind and caring and seriously attractive aspiring architect, and he added a blissful excitement to my university years. But I was always on guard. Whenever I felt myself falling into the dizzy cosmos of love, my inner sleuth woke up and warned me to not fully let go, for fear (unproven) that I might have entered into a relationship with some kind of liar.
Soon, I got to spying. I remember there being a student on his course who always seemed to be close by. One afternoon while he was showering, his phone pinged and I couldn’t help myself. I read the incoming message; it was her, flirting. Immediately I found myself repeating old activities: asking him loaded questions, reading more texts, holding information that wasn’t mine to hold. It became addictive. Instead of opening myself up to him and voicing my doubts, I resorted to the lonely act of sleuthing. If I’d just revealed my worries – if I hadn’t been too scared to bring up my insecurities with him – we might have found a way to work through it, to find clarity. Instead, I kept quiet and kept investigating. And so when he eventually moved abroad for his studies, we both knew we were already emotionally miles apart. I still mourn for that relationship, which was ripped apart by my fearful, internal private eye.
Infidelity is a minefield. What accounts for betrayal these days? Intercourse, sure. Kissing, yes. Sexting? What about slipping into someone’s DMs? Emotional intimacy? And that’s without even considering ever-changing relationship dynamics. And if, like me, you’re prone to these analytical, information-hungry tendencies – and a smartphone – you’re in danger of metamorphosing into a paranoid, jealous mess.
Jealousy is a dirty, shameful emotion. You’re not allowed to be jealous because you’re not supposed to be possessive. But it’s a human emotion, and it’s part of the drama of love. In the 12th century, the medieval cleric Andreas Capellanus compiled 31 rules of courtly love. The second of these is: “He who is not jealous cannot love.” Jealousy and love are inextricably entangled. But there’s a fine line between intimacy and intrusiveness. The relationship expert Esther Perel poses the question: “Is jealousy an expression of love, or a sign of insecurity?” She’s never seemed to have been able to answer the question, and neither have I. What I do know is that this base feeling of distrust was preventing me from letting anyone in.
After the break-up of my relationship, I spent a number of years alone. Once, having just watched my sister float gleefully down the aisle, I sat down with my wonderful mother.
‘‘I’m worried I’ll never be able to trust someone romantically,” I told her.
She replied, “Why?”
“I’m scared they might lie to me.”
“And what would that mean?”
My mother should have trained as a therapist.
“It would undo everything,” I said.
“Because the only person I would ever be able to trust then is myself.”
“And what would that mean?”
“It would mean I’m alone.”
In The Incurable Romantic, the author and clinical psychologist Frank Tallis describes this fear of betrayal as tapping into the inner child’s “terror of abandonment”, a primal fear amplified by early learning experiences. When I read that, I also worried that if I was betrayed, I would be left vulnerable “in the middle of an ancestral wilderness of lengthening shadows and predatory darkness”.
I’ve read the endless pop-psychology Instagram stories teaching me to “love my inner child” and then asking me to spend £30 on a book written by an influencer. The concept of the inner child has been devalued. But I soon realised that the feelings I experienced when I read my boyfriend’s messages – a bodily reaction, a heightened dissociation, the feeling of not being able to breathe – was close to identical to the emotional response I had when I cracked into my mother’s diary.
I thought back to that bespectacled child. As well as being an obsessive investigator, I had other obsessive-compulsive tendencies. I would dedicate a lengthy period before bed to ensure my room was perfectly tidy. Cupboards were never ajar, clothes were perfectly folded, I always made sure I checked under the bed before I went to sleep. Those habits were so time-consuming that eventually my mother decided I needed a scary dose of exposure therapy. She forced me to sleep one evening with all my cupboard doors wide open. I tried to resist, the fear was overwhelming. But she wouldn’t let me control the situation. She stood like a sheriff in the darkness waiting for me to fall asleep. My rituals vanished from my brain overnight. Sometimes I mourn for my tidy younger self. The intrusive thoughts about infidelity have a similar self-encroaching feel to those of my more physical OCD years. The urge of “checking” is hard to resist.
Years passed. And then I met someone who made me laugh and turned me on in equal measure. They felt off-limits. The relationship was lustful and adrenalising and they were so wrapped up in their own chaos, it took a while to even consider trying to trust them. Until eventually they softened and I softened, and they still made me laugh. They unintentionally presented me with an opportunity for exposure therapy. Instead of curing obsessive tidiness with open cupboards, we were now dealing with infidelity anxiety and ethical non-monogamy. They wanted to explore the potential of an open relationship.
My therapist warned me I was throwing myself into an emotional cesspit. But I wanted to try, I wanted to seize the opportunity to better understand these exposed feelings. Or perhaps more truthfully, I didn’t want to let this special person pass me by. If we operated on a tell-all policy, then maybe I’d learn to let go of my inner detective. It felt painful, allowing my partner to have sex with someone else. It was the very thing my spy was afraid of. This time though, I did my best to stay calm, and tried to greet feelings of jealousy with curiosity.
I told my frightened inner Sherlock that it was OK, it was allowed, it wasn’t a secret. The concept of fidelity was redefined, at least for a little while. I found the exposure slightly too extreme, so we’ve pulled back for now. The problem is, a remoulded relationship dynamic with different boundaries doesn’t make any difference to the deeper issue of trust and fear of betrayal. As Perel notes: “Trust is crucial in any relationship, and this is no different for those who invite the third into their intimate space. Infidelity lies in breaches of the agreement, in violations of trust. Even though the rules themselves may look very different, they are breakable and breaking them has equally painful consequences.”
The key lies in the agreement.
As a kid, I pried into a matrimonial relationship that was not my own. I had no input into their contract. Psychotherapist Susie Orbach reminded me, “Their relationship began before it was the norm to discuss agreements; it was preordained.” Now, as an adult, I am able to openly discuss the boundaries within my relationship and openly greet the potential of others. I now acknowledge that the sexuality of whoever I am with does not belong to me. And nor do I want it to. All I can do is breathe into the freedom of desire, express what makes me feel safe and secure and then leave the rest to the terrifying beauty of trust that trust researcher Rachel Botsman defines as “a confident engagement with the unknown”.
I went back to my mother.
“How did you learn to trust Dad again?” I asked.
She took a moment. “We realised we wanted to keep taking the risk with each other.”
I frowned and she leant forward.
“Daniella, you can’t ever promise to never hurt each other. I don’t think that’s what you’re trusting. We trust that if we do hurt each other again, we will have each other’s backs, we will be kind, and we will do our utmost to respect each other”.
I reflected on my years as a fearful teen detective. I truly believed that by becoming a master in the intricacies of my parents’ marriage, I’d reach a place of safety and certainty. What an illusion. I abandoned myself in the pursuit of the investigation. Trying to force entry in a bid to control the uncontrollable in the early stages of my life led to pain and missed opportunities. So now, I lean into the uncertainty because, really, that’s all we’ve got.
Marcel Proust wrote: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new sights, but in looking with new eyes.” I don’t want to sacrifice the chance for deep intimacy by seeing it through the lens of my fearful childhood experience. As a child, my safety and wellbeing was dependent on my parents; as an adult, I am able to stand alone. Perel reminds me: “When private space is denied, fusion replaces intimacy and possession co-opts love.” Instead of spending time infiltrating the interior lives of others, I’ve come to realise time is better spent nurturing my own…
I’m in the process of developing a television show inspired by my teenage “diary-reading-detective” days. I write it as I sit in the person I am currently dating’s kitchen. They are in their bedroom. A collection of Rilke sits open on the table… I pry: “Once the realisation is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue, a wonderful living side by side can grow, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole against the sky.”
My partner’s journal rests underneath Rilke’s collection. Nancy, Poirot, Sherlock and the rest of the gang wake up within me and pull the trigger: “Read it,” I think. I get hot. I breathe. I get up and leave the room and close the door behind me. It’s not my information to hold. All I can do now is embrace the mystery.