Studies analyzing the internet behavior of people who are married or in a committed relationship have mainly shown that 47% or more have shared their login credentials for various accounts with their significant other. Since I advocate assertiveness and implicitly, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral independence, I find these results rather worrying.
Even though many couples seem to link this type of decision to reasons related to mutual trust, convenience, and expressions of affection, my opinion is that sharing passwords with your partner is, most of the time, a really bad idea that not only hides the actual relational issues but which can also cause unnecessary and irremediable damage to both individuals and romantic connections. Here are the main reasons why.
- In a loving, mature, and respectful relationship, you shouldn’t have to (constantly) prove your trustworthiness or innocence. The request to allow full access to one’s personal online accounts comes with an implicit accusation, that that the person may act in disloyal ways and verification of online activity would be the only/best way to expose that behavior. That’s treating your partner as a suspect all the time. They would have the ‘chance’ to prove their innocence and good behavior mainly through what’s stored on their accounts. Why would you be in a relationship with a person you don’t trust in the first place? And why would they want to continue a relationship with you when that’s the treatment they get?
- Romantic relationships shouldn’t come with a “share everything about you or else” clause. Many times, our romantic partner is the person in whom we confide the most. We can entrust them with a wide range of personal information about ourselves and feel comfortable that there is someone with whom we can discuss openly about the good and the bad in our lives. But the key to intimacy and effective communication in these contexts can be linked to the idea that all of these disclosures are volunteered disclosures – we freely give this information to the other one based on the way we feel about them, our level of trust and the fact that we allow ourselves to be vulnerable in their presence. These disclosures lose their constructive powers when they come as a result of manipulation. There is a time and a place for each of them and forcing someone to reveal more than they would naturally want to reveal at any given stage of a relationship would rather transform the context in an uncomfortable one. People may choose to disclose certain information about themselves, their past, or their aspirations, later in a relationship, or never at all. Which brings me to the next point…
- Partners have the right to keep certain things to themselves. The right to privacy is not suspended when one’s relationship status changes from “single” to “into a relationship” or “married”. I see many couples declaring “We share everything, we hold no secrets from each other” as a huge moral and relational victory. It is also a lie. One you sometimes tell to the world, but mostly to yourself. There’s a huge difference between openly discussing everything that concerns the couple and discussing everything that concerns each of the individuals. We are not entitled to the inner world of the other person, nor are we entitled to knowing everything about what they do. The type of information one decides to hold private can vary from tiny elements – they had an extra chocolate bar while on a diet both of you decided to undertake, to significant things such as events from their past or information about their family. Also, keep in mind that secrets don’t necessarily have bad content. Yes, you can request information that is important to you and which could help you decide about your own involvement in the relationship, but it doesn’t mean that the other one is under any obligation to give that information to you. Make your choice according to your own needs, but don’t hold against your partner the fact that they simply choose to exercise their right to privacy… even when it comes to you.
- Partners should respect each other’s privacy. When it comes to the right to keep things to yourself, even when in a committed relationship, accepting the idea that your partner may choose to not share everything with you is not enough, you also need to act in a way that reflects your acceptance and understanding. Setting boundaries is healthy. Respecting them is healthier. If your partner expressed their choice of not disclosing a certain type of information, let the subject rest. If lack of disclosure is a deal-breaker for you on that specific topic, you can convey that and even end the relationship since you do not have enough data to make your own informed decisions about staying, but keep everything in self-disclosure mode – talk about yourself, your needs and your thought process, without giving ultimatums or blaming the other one for the result. Adults make their own choices – Your partner may choose to keep things to themselves even if that means the end of a relationship, you may choose to leave a relationship when information you consider significant is not available to you. No one is at fault.
- Password-sharing behaviors can be controlling. You don’t own your partner. You don’t have the right to know each and every aspect of their life and you do not have the right to monitor everything they do. This kind of behavior is highly abusive and usually a sign that things can escalate into various types of conflict. Aggressive partners tend to want to exercise various types of control over the person they are dating and things can range from telling the other one how to dress, who their friends should or shouldn’t be, to what they are allowed to do and how they should do everyday things. Aggressive individuals will create an environment where the other one feels they should get the approval of this partner before doing pretty much anything. Password-sharing enables this type of control and abuse and provides many elements that can trigger or maintain conflict.
- Password-sharing behaviors can keep you in a passive stance in your relationship. If you are not the one who initiates this ‘contract’ in your relationship, then you may simply agree to what’s being proposed by your partner. This in itself is passive behavior, and even though sometimes it can be benign, at other times it can be the doorway to keeping you in a passive mindset throughout the relationship. Once your partner has all your login credentials – including your email, your bank account, etc – they can easily offer to “help you” with a bunch of things. Under the mask of helpful intentions, a controlling or aggressive partner may start taking over responsibilities you have while moving you from the driver’s seat in your own life. “I’ll send that email for you, it’s OK”, “I’ll make those payments on your behalf”, “I’ll tell Jen we’ll see her and Tim for dinner on Thursday” – even though Jen is your best friend, etc. Our sense of purpose and feelings of self-confidence and self-worth derive from all the things we do for ourselves, the way we work toward and accomplish our goals, even the tiny ones. Someone who is taking over that part in your life may stall your opportunities to grow as a person and may keep you in a passive stance to their own benefit. They get to be in full control of everything – not only the relationship but you. [Note: These may at times be genuine, helpful, and loving behaviors, the problem arises when this is the predominant way of interaction in a relationship.]
- Password-sharing is not a foolproof monitoring strategy anyway. If you’re thinking that having access to all of your partner’s online accounts will definitely give you all the answers you need, especially for what seems to be the main question of those who want this kind of access – ‘Is he/she cheating on me?”, there’s a huge flaw in your plan. The accounts you were so generously granted access to may not be the only ones you partner created. There can be a second phone, a third email address, a seventh social media account, etc… You have no knowledge of them and obviously, no access. Not to mention that an affair can develop exclusively offline and there wouldn’t be any trace of it on the internet anyway. That’s not an effective approach to dealing with relationship problems.
- You don’t share just your present activity, but your past one as well. Unless you’ve deleted all of your online activity that preceded the relationship in which you decided to swap passwords with your partner, you’re giving the new person in your life access to a huge part of your past – previous relationships and private interactions. That’s rarely a good idea. Also, context-free elements can trigger many unnecessary discussions and even arguments.
- You may be analyzing – and reacting to – false data. Who we appear to be online may not always match who we are in the in-person interactions we have with our loved ones. Online, or to strangers, a person may portray themselves very different from the person they actually are. Things can be better or worse than the real-life version, but nonetheless, analyzing online content may turn out to be analyzing and reacting to fiction.
- You expose other people’s private information. While you may be having what you consider to be a fully transparent connection with your partner, you may actually endanger all the other relationships in your life. When you give someone access to your private communication especially – phone messages, direct messages on social media, email accounts, etc, you allow them access not only to information about you but also to information about all of your contacts. And that, at least to me, seems to be one of the worst things ever. Not protecting your contacts from having their personal or professional issues accessed by a third party without their knowledge and explicit consent is really damaging and irresponsible behavior, and risking to lose those connections, a really high price to pay to keep your relationship afloat and a controlling partner happy. It doesn’t matter that “the stuff we talk about is really not that personal and important”, that your partner “wouldn’t use that information in any way’, that “you are sure” your contacts “would very likely be OK sharing this kind of information with your partner”, or that “nothing on the internet is private anyway”, you should be responsible and worthy of the trust the other people granted you when they decided to share things with you. Ask them or notify them first, share later, if you really decide that.
- Consequences can be severe if you share your passwords with the wrong person. It takes time to get to know someone to a satisfactory level. People also change over time. And then there are the bad breakups. Any of these contexts can lead to really bad outcomes if the person who is really hurt and impulsive, or whom you shouldn’t have trusted with anything personal to begin with, also has access to your accounts. From relatively simple things, such as deleting your account or locking you out of your phone, to really nasty actions such as sending inappropriate messages to your contacts or post private content publicly, things can go really bad. It can be really difficult to recover from something like this. Why would you put yourself in that situation? [Note: I know, “My partner would never…”. You. don’t. know.]
- You may not be sharing your private information with your partner only, but their social contacts as well. You don’t know how your partner is going to guard your login credentials. Whether out of negligence or with intent, your personal data may end up being accessed by people you don’t know or trust. If you were to ask me, I don’t think someone who is so relaxed about their own private data should be trusted with mine.
Because of the main reasons I listed above, I do not consider password-sharing a desirable practice when it comes to romantic relationships. At the same time, couples can decide what rules and guidelines would best fit their goals and interaction, what is acceptable and what is a deal-breaker, what they are willing to offer or renounce, etc. So, in the end, your love life is what you make of it. May take a few tries to get all the ingredients right and you may try the new recipe in the same kitchen or in a different one, but I think the main goal here is to keep improving that dish you’re making.
Is it ever OK to share passwords with your partner?
Even though I strongly advise against password-sharing, I do recognize that there are certain contexts in which this decision may integrate in a healthy, non-problematic, even supportive way with a committed couple’s life. Among them, the following:
- When it makes no sense to have different accounts for a certain goal, such as watching movies on streaming platforms. Unless partners have a reason to keep separate accounts and viewing histories, I consider it perfectly fine to share a Netflix account and similars with your significant other.
- Temporarily, if you cannot access the account and need to perform a task from inside that account – such as having to send an important email with a very short deadline and you only have the email address of the person you need to write to in that address book.
- Emergency situations. Obviously, emergencies require special consideration. If someone needs to make an emergency call from your phone then yes, the fact that they may also see the photo of your kids on your screen and that you call your husband “McSteamy” become secondary.
Several recommendations in case you decide to share some or all of your passwords with your partner:
- Establish in which situation they can access the different accounts. “All the time”, “only if”…
- Set boundaries about how the accounts can be used. “Only to check whether I got new emails”, “To reply to our common friends”, “only to read”, “only these folders”, “don’t change my bio”, etc.
- If granting access is temporary, convey that and also the fact that you are going to change the password afterward. And yes, change your password afterward.
- Establish how you will deal with issues that may arise from unauthorized use of the accounts, what are your deal breakers and what they mean to you. “Even if you would mean it as a joke, I would be really upset if you would post funny cat videos on my account since I use it for business purposes as well”. Well, maybe not that, but you get the idea.
- Be aware that this context is a “No guarantee” one. Anything can happen once you’ve revealed your login credentials to another person and you may even be considered responsible for the activity related to your accounts, even though you didn’t perform the actions yourself.
I believe that anyone who is considering the possibility of password-sharing with their partner, or with anyone else, as a matter of fact, should, first of all, analyze the reasons behind their initiative or choice to do so. Just like many other specific elements of our lives, password-sharing isn’t about password-sharing. It’s a trivial topic that covers the significant subjects related to personal and/or social dynamics.
The careful analysis of what hides behind this behavior may reveal issues such as aggressive mindsets, immature emotional management, personal insecurities and fears, and many more things that will not get resolved by password-swapping, but which can be addressed through other strategies. Among them, self- and couple-analysis and effective communication.
My final recommendation would be that instead of trying to know your partner via their accounts, you may want to try to get to know them and spend as much quality time as you can with this person offline. In the end, even though someone’s online activity may offer clues about who they are, the offline version is who you chose to spend your life – or at least part of it – with.
And when the two of you have problems, I believe the answers won’t be found inside any of your phones, but in your everyday interactions. I would focus on those.
P.S. I have no idea why I used that cooking metaphor.
BISCHOFF, P. (2019, March 21). Should Partners Be Privy to Passwords? Retrieved from https://www.comparitech.com/blog/vpn-privacy/partners-and-passwords/
Lenhart, A., Duggan, M., Lenhart, A., & Duggan, M. (2014, April 07). Couples, the Internet, and Social Media. Retrieved from https://www.pewinternet.org/2014/02/11/couples-the-internet-and-social-media/