The XX Factor

Is Sharing Passwords With a Partner Ever a Good Idea?

The New York Times published an article yesterday on how social media complicate relationships when a couple shares passwords. To share or not to share has been a point of contention in relationships at least since the ‘90s , when Seinfeld ‘s George Costanza is bullied into giving up his ATM password to a girlfriend (it’s Bosco). Now that everyone needs a password for her phone, her e-mail, her Netflix account, her Facebook, and her Twitter, the pressure to share passwords is even more intense. How do we redefine dating etiquette in the digital era? DoubleX contributors debate:

Jessica Grose : My fiance knows my various passwords and I know his. I would never, ever, ever, even if I suspected he was cheating, go into his e-mail, search his chats, read his facebook messages, etc., and I know that he would give me the same courtesy. I would not share such things with someone I wasn’t getting married to, but I have no desire to know what he says about me to his friends, even if it’s complimentary. It’s like reading someone’s diary-always better not to. I wouldn’t even want to know what my exes said about me to friends! It’s so masochistic.

Ellen Tarlin : I wouldn’t go so far as to say sharing passwords is laziness for my husband and me-not that we are not the laziest people on the planet-but it is expeditious. Like if I get something in my e-mail that he needs to access for whatever reason (and I neglected to send it to him for whatever reason), or he needs me to look something up for him in his while he’s at work, or I order from his Amazon account because he has free shipping or whatever, or we are doing something together but only one of us is sitting at the keyboard. It was not a decision for us. It just happened. Fortunately, I don’t think our dog knows any of our passwords.

Dahlia Lithwick: My husband and I know each others’ passwords. More worrisome, I think our son knows all our passwords, too.

Victoria Bosch : When I was a ‘tween in the pre-Facebook days of yore, my “two best friends” and I knew each other’s passwords and sometimes snuck a peek at the others’ e-mail. It actually caused drama once when I logged into the girl’s account and found out she was “secretly dating” someone and mentioned not telling me. I’ve never looked at anyone’s e-mail since. I learned my lesson as a 14-year-old!

Ellen Tarlin : I read my sister’s diary once when I was a teen or preteen. It said there were four kinds of kisses: corn, wheat, sprouts, alfalfa. It took me decades to figure out what the hell that meant. It plagued me! So, really, don’t do it!

Claire Gordon : My friend shared her Netflix account with a long-distance boyfriend and started to reconsider the relationship (and her boyfriend as a human being) when she saw that his most recently watched films had some recurring, unsavory themes. Even in the most innocuous examples of online intimacy, there can be inadvertant over-sharing … but maybe that was definitely for the best.

Vanessa Gezari : I think the context makes a difference. In the NYT story, the anecdote is about a woman who had a relationship (doesn’t say how serious) in which she and her boyfriend not only shared their passwords, but she had no problem going breezily into his e-mail account one day and reading a message he’d sent to his mom about why he was no longer in love with his girlfriend (the very woman who now found herself “stung” by his e-mail). The next graf says:

A new dating order has emerged in the era of social media. Couples who used to see each other’s friends only at parties now enjoy 24-hour access to their beloved’s confidants thanks to Facebook. Sharing passwords to e-mail accounts, bank accounts and photo-sharing sites is the new currency of intimacy .” (Italics are mine.)

WTF??? The “new currency of intimacy”? I hope not. Maybe this is what I’m reacting to more than the bare fact of sharing passwords. What this means to me is that if I really like someone I’ve been dating for a few months, and I want to show that, I’m going to share my passwords with him. Not so. So not so. I think that reading other people’s mail is a bad idea under any circumstances. I’d hit the roof if someone-even the person closest to me-read mine without permission. One thing I wonder is: Although it’s great when you’re with someone or married and things are going well and you need to check their Hulu account, what happens if you break up and it’s ugly? Well, I guess you can change your passwords then. In the end, I guess what bothers me most is the breeziness with which some people apparently go from dating to oversharing to reading other people’s mail, which may have more to do with my sense of privacy than with living at the apex of the Internet age.

Jessica Lambertson : What interested me so much (as someone who has been on both sides of the inappropriate e-mail sharing) is that it’s not so easy to break as you would think. When my long-term boyfriend and I broke it off a few years ago, I used to sign into his e-mail account obsessively. It was sort of my way of hanging on while also trying to rationalize it was over (reading hurtful Gchat convos about all my faults as well as convos with his new lady).

On the other side of the coin, I found out my current boyfriend used to check my Gmail and was FURIOUS. It’s hard to separate yourself from what you do that is a breach of privacy and what you expect for yourself. When you share passwords (which always inevitably happens to me), you share a new piece of information that didn’t exist before. It means new problems!

Photograph of couple at laptop by Jack Hollingsworth/Photodisc/Getty Images.