Should you share your passwords with an intimate partner?

Jason Brien.

It seems common practice these days for people in relationships to share their passwords with each other under the guise of ‘transparency’, ‘honesty’ and ‘trust’. I’m a bit funny when it comes to this. Whilst I always inform my clients that each individual couple has the right to decide what does and does not occur within their relationship, I feel that social pressure can mislead people and couples into believing that sharing passwords is ‘normal’, ‘expected’ or even ‘warranted’. The aim of this article is not to ‘tell’ couples what they should or shouldn’t do but to inform people in general about the pros and cons of sharing passwords within intimate relationships.

The biggest concern I have with people wanting to share passwords to emails, social media accounts, private messages, etc from the very beginning of a relationship is that it sets the tone for the duration of the relationship. The tone of “You are guilty until you have proven that you are not guilty”. A relationship that exists with this tone/mindset in my opinion is NOT a trusting or healthy relationship. The second biggest concern I have is when people use the notion of ‘transparency’ to pressure the other partner into giving them access to their password protected accounts. I’m not a big fan of the way ‘transparency’ is used because it implies that people who are not 100% transparent are not trustworthy.

The very notion of trust itself is the ability to maintain faith that a person who is not 100% transparent is being honest nonetheless. This conceptualisation of trust is the basis of the notion ‘innocent until proven guilty’. Trust in this sense is a gamble. It’s a risk and it is this risk/gamble which makes some people feel very uncomfortable. There are always underlying beliefs and thoughts of “What if I have devoted 5 years to this relationship and then I discover that they were dishonest with me the whole time”? These high levels of betrayal can really crush people and can negatively affect their ability to trust whole heartedly in future relationships. These people may start believing that being proactive (by gaining passwords) is the best way that they can minimise the risk of them being betrayed again.

Whilst I certainly understand that some people have experienced disastrous relationships in the past which has negatively affected their ability to trust, I don’t believe that pressuring your current partner into revealing all of their passwords is the way to recover from said trust issues. I do however advocate that people discuss their trust and insecurity concerns with their partner. Open and honest communication is extremely important in all relationships. If you have a discussion with your partner about possibly sharing passwords, you have to enter the discussions with some idea of what you will do if your partner flat out refuses (which is their right and choice). If you feel that you cannot ‘survive’ in a relationship without access to passwords, you have the right to end the relationship and find a person who is willing to meet your needs.

If your partner is receptive to the idea of sharing passwords, what will be the rules and limitations? Does the implicit act of sharing a password grant the other partner full access to all of the information? Should you and your partner devise a set of ‘rules’ about access? If for example you share each other’s email passwords, which areas of the emails, if any, are off limits? Will you give each other permission to read work emails or do you set the condition that work emails are off limits and so only emails from friends and relatives are accessible? It is also important to discuss secondary consent. What I mean is, whilst a partner may have your password, you may require them to ask for consent each time they wish to access something private. A couple may also decide that passwords are only to be accessed in case of an emergency or only passwords to certain accounts will be shared.

If you and your partner have decided that sharing passwords is okay, what thoughts and discussions have you had regarding the privacy of third parties (the other people in the emails, messages, etc)? I have had many discussions with my current partner about how I am uncomfortable with her friends and family having access to our personal conversations (simply because they are using her phone to play games etc and so have access to my messages both in her inbox and at the top of the screen when I send them). I am not uncomfortable because I have something to hide, I am uncomfortable because I am having a private discussion with someone and I expect that privacy to be upheld. For me it’s a matter of respect and common courtesy. If I wanted someone else to be reading our private messages then I should at least have a say in it.

Overall, I’m not convinced that intimate partners having unrestricted access to all password protected accounts is a good thing. Everybody has the right to maintain privacy and I don’t believe that the notion of ‘transparency’ should force people to give up that privacy. I also think that people would act very differently in text/email exchanges if they knew that their partner might read the message/email later on. I think that people need to be aware that controlling and abusive people often request access to password protected accounts as a way of controlling, monitoring, stalking and harassing their victims. If sharing passwords becomes too common a practice, it will become much harder to identify those who don’t have ‘good’ intentions. At the end of the day though, it is up to you and your partner to decide the nature of your relationship.