Text Messages and Divorce: Lessons From Former Alabama Governor Robert Bentley

  •   |   Meghan Freed

Depending on your settings, notifications for text messages or iMessages can pop up even on a locked cell phone. This means, for example, that if you leave your phone face-up on a table, anyone within eyeshot of your phone may be able to view the content of your messages.

More, through things like Apple ID/iCloud which are designed to make our lives more convenient and technologically seamless, text messages can also show up on iPads and computers.

This can have unintended consequences, which were on full display this week as Alabama Governor Robert Bentley resigned on Monday after an ethics report concluded he used state resources to conceal an affair with his adviser, Rebekah Caldwell Mason.

Much of the evidence upon which the Alabama House Ethics Committee relied came via his wife, Dianne Bentley.

According to the impeachment report, Mrs. Bentley first sensed something was going on between her husband and Ms. Mason in September 2013. Mrs. Bentley noticed that Ms. Mason was texting the governor on off-hours and non-gubernatorial business. By 2014, the Governor made “a few unambiguous fumbles” that blew his cover.

First, he wrote “I love you Rebekah” in a text message to Mrs. Bentley. Then, he gave his wife a state-issued iPad, apparently unaware that it was synced with his state-issued iPhone and that any texts he might send from that phone would be accessible on the iPad.

Mrs. Bentley saw messages where her husband called Ms. Mason “sweetheart” and said “You are wonderful my sweet love.” They discussed the Governor’s “Private Rebekah phone,” and making an escape together. Ms. Mason called Governor Bentley a “handsome wonderful amazing funny sweet man.”

Mrs. Bentley took screenshots of the text messages between her husband and Rebekah Mason. She filed for divorce in 2015, and turned her evidence to the ethics committee in 2016.

Most of us, of course, aren’t governors in the middle of a public scandal, and most of us are not engaged in extramarital affairs. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t learn from Governor and Mrs. Bentley, because this technology can impact our lives with serious consequences, too. Setting aside both impeachment and the myriad of issues associated with extramarital affairs, you can imagine that even appropriate communications might have terrible impacts if they don’t remain private.

For example — as opposed to Governor Bentley’s no-context-required tête-à-tête with his paramour — what if what was intended to be a private heart-to-heart with a close friend showed up without context on a spouse’s iPad? Much worse, imagine if two spouses’ adult exchange about issues in their marriage was seen by a child using the family computer.

Before “shooting off a text,” pause and be mindful of the potential impact of our (over) wired world on marriages and families.


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