Carolyn Hax: A couple’s online passwords are a matter of trust

Carolyn Hax
Columnist June 14, 2012

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

How much privacy should a married couple, of 20-plus years, have from each other? Do you believe a spouse should have private passwords to computer, e-mail, phone, Facebook, etc., and private conversations on the phone?

This is a very big bone of contention between my spouse and me, and I would really like your unbiased opinion.

Privacy

I think the details of passwords, etc., matter less than what you do with them and how trustworthy each of you thinks the other is. Four examples:

1. Couples can have private conversations and passwords they don’t share, just because they believe in privacy and individuality, even if they have nothing to hide.

2. Couples can also have open-book approaches and know all of each other’s passwords, just because they trust each other not to use them just to peer into each other’s accounts. Instead, they give each other access for situations like, “Hey, would you please sign on to my e-mail and find me X’s address?”

3. Couples also can have private conversations and passwords they don’t share because they’re hiding things from each other — either to allow their own sneaking around or to prevent abuse by the other.

4. Couples also can share everything not because they trust each other, but because they don’t, and use the passwords to monitor everything — or just be able to on a whim.

So, which do you have — trust (1 or 2) or no trust (3 or 4)? That matters.

Re: Privacy:

Or Option 5: You have shared all your passwords but your spouse never remembers them, so you can access all his stuff (but don’t, as a matter of course), but he really can’t access any of yours.

Anonymous

Funny, thanks.

Re: Privacy:

Please add that there should be a way for the passwords to be available after death. My husband died with his private passwords. It caused no end of trouble.

Anonymous 2

Yes, this is huge, and I’m sorry you found out the way you did. Anyone worried about writing down passwords can develop a code that both partners understand.

Re: Privacy:

And 5. You have passwords to “everything” except the accounts they don’t tell you about. You either trust your partner or you don’t, and if there’s a “bone of contention,” then it sounds like one of you doesn’t.

Anonymous 3

Well, 6. But, yes to the rest, thanks.

Re: Privacy:

I dunno. I used to have a lot of trust issues. The fact that my then-boyfriend, and now-husband, trusted me with all of his passwords (and I trusted him with mine) made me feel better. Now, six years later, I can never remember his or he mine. But it also made me realize he could be trusted.

Anonymous 4

Thanks. I do think this has to be in the reinforcement category and not a key element to building that trust.

In other words, work on your trust issues on your own, and ice the cake with a partner who doesn’t shy away from password-sharing. Expecting the passwords to do the work of establishing trustworthiness not only defeats the purpose, but also plays into the hands of someone who insists on control.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Subscribe at www.facebook.com/carolynhax.

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