The Couples Code

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My husband and I know each other’s phone and computer pass codes, although neither of us makes much use of them. There was no big talk about it, no ceremonial demanding of the digits. I’m sure long ago one of us needed to access something — a text, a photo — and asked for the code, and it was given. Myopically, I sort of thought most people were like us.

(If you’re picturing this as an indication that we’re one of those couples who share ev-er-y-thing, think again — for one thing, we don’t even have joint checking, and it took me at least five years of arguing to get my husband to agree to a shared Google Calendar.)

In the third episode of the Sex and the City reboot, And Just Like That …, a grieving Carrie Preston (née Bradshaw) couldn’t help but wonder … what the hell was Mr. Big’s computer password?! She tried over and over, unsuccessfully, hoping to discover any secrets he had been keeping. Watching that scene, I (sorry) couldn’t help but wonder, Don’t most couples know each other’s passwords? Why didn’t Carrie have access to his stuff?

I posted about this idea on Facebook a while ago and was shocked by the flood of replies — both in sheer volume and in variety. (I’m talking 600 individual comments. In one day.) Apparently, the whole password-sharing issue is not without some dissension and even drama. For every partner who swears it’s a vital sign of trust, there’s another who feels strongly that if you truly have confidence in your spouse, you don’t need that combo of letters, numbers, and special characters to back it up.

“I am strongly Team Yes to sharing,” says Sarah, who is in her 40s and lives in Buffalo with her husband of almost five years. “We had a scare when my daughter was born, and my husband had to make some fast decisions while I was under anesthesia. He had to reach some of my contacts to let them know there was an emergency.”

On the other hand, Julie, who is in her late 20s and lives in Illinois with her partner of ten years, gives password-sharing a hard pass: “I don’t want him looking at my stuff, and I don’t want to look at his. We have been together since we were teenagers, and I need at least one or two things to be separate.”

“Oh, I never will,” says a California-based women’s empowerment coach whom I’m calling Serena to protect her privacy. “People’s phones are basically their diaries.”

While Anna, 40, a content strategist who has been in a committed relationship for seven years, knows the passwords for the accounts she and her partner share (e.g., power, internet), she can’t think of anything she’d want to access on his phone or computer and is “surprised that people seem to do this. It would 100 percent be a red flag for me if my partner wanted me to share that info — I would see it as a sign of a jealousy issue.”

But don’t just take my little informal survey’s word for it. According to a 2014 Pew Research report, a small majority of people do share some passwords, with 67 percent of internet users in a marriage or committed relationship saying they’ve shared the password to one or more of their online accounts with their partner. It’s worth noting that this study didn’t ask about screen-lock codes, the open sesame to text messages, emails, and notes apps.

In a 1,000-person survey by consumer cybersecurity company Comparitech in January 2019, 47 percent of respondents said they shared their passwords to Instagram, Facebook, and other social media with their partners, though that number went up to 53 percent for married folks versus those who were in non-married relationships. The most common reason: People felt “they had nothing to hide.” (Not for nothing, the most commonly shared account passwords were for streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. Not that big of a deal to find out your spouse is secretly binge-watching Emily in Paris.)

All this data raises the question: Is password-sharing a 21st-century litmus test for couples? It shouldn’t be, but “when you’ve built trust and a foundation with someone, and the sharing of passwords and access codes arises naturally and organically, it’s a very positive sign for a relationship,” says Dr. Marni Feuerman, a Florida-based licensed psychotherapist and the author of Ghosted and Breadcrumbed: Stop Falling for Unavailable Men and Get Smart About Healthy Relationships. “For example, say you left your phone at home and your partner is there and calls home to get something off of it, and hence you without hesitation share the password. This would be a good sign for you both. That would speak to the strength of the relationship.”

But what if a partner just doesn’t want to share their code — is that automatically a red flag? Don’t people deserve some measure of privacy? Feuerman thinks we need to parse out privacy and secrecy here. “We’re all entitled to privacy, and I think passwords are part of it. It would only be a red flag if there was a natural circumstance or need to obtain a password, and you’re both in a committed relationship, and then a partner refused — then I do think this would be rather suspect. And if trust has been broken, that’s a different story, too. The right to privacy would have to be earned back again to build back trust in the relationship.”

Secrecy will get you in trouble, says Feuerman. “As a general rule, if you’re doing something that your partner could witness and be upset about, you probably shouldn’t be doing it. If you’re frequently texting negative things to others about your partner, you likely have a relationship problem that’s going unresolved. If you’re hiding important information about joint finances or carrying on extramarital activities that are concealed within your tech, then your relationship is likely in trouble.”

If your partner calls you out on being cagey, then you should be able to easily prove things are aboveboard. On the other hand, if you deny it and say, “Oh, that’s private,” you’re basically gaslighting, says Feuerman.

And if you’re really doing none of the above but your partner demands all your passwords, well … then you have a controlling partner, which is also problematic, she says. “The bottom line is that it’s all contextual.”

Janet, a writer in her 40s who lives in Northern California with her second husband and their blended family, has thought about this a lot. Her husband’s first wife was heavily into surveillance — lots of tracking apps, constantly checking his phone — and in the end, he did have an affair, so she feels it’s hardly something that prevents that sort of thing. And while it might seem surprising, Janet has decided not to get her husband’s passwords, though he has said he’s happy to give her them if she wants them. “I know I have his trust and he has mine,” she says. “It’s sort of the reverse of a nuclear standoff in a way.”

But beyond her own life, Janet thinks people should consider what sort of behavior is incentivized by surveillance: “Are you encouraging people to be open with you or hide things?” That’s also part of why she says she doesn’t check her kids’ phones — to engender trust. “To be more than illusory, trust and trustworthiness have to be given not demanded.”

Putting all the trust issues aside, practical considerations are what drive lots of people — to at least have the vital deets tucked away in a drawer somewhere in the event of a Big-like tragedy. Benita, a 30-something editor in Michigan who has been married for five years, says that worst-case scenarios are the deciding factor for her: “For the same reason everyone should have wills, if something happens to your significant other — i.e., they die or are in a coma — and you can’t access their phone, it’s a huge issue. My husband and I talked about this specifically because it was a problem for his mom when his dad died. She didn’t even know the cable password or Wi-Fi info, and it was hard for her. My husband and I also have each other’s fingerprints saved on our phones. That said, I have never gone into his phone. But I can, and that’s what matters.”

It’s worth noting that about half of the people I spoke with for this story who have their partner’s passwords had actually completely forgotten them. “After reminding my then-boyfriend a few times of my passcode, I was a little annoyed,” says Abby of Overland, Kansas, who got married last year. “We lived together and were really starting to meld our lives together, and I wanted him to be able to access information in my phone if he needed me in a pinch or, worse yet, an emergency. But I was also touched that he trusted me enough that he didn’t feel a need to access my phone without me around.”

A sign of our collective digital overwhelm, maybe. But a generous interpretation would be that these partners feel confident enough in their significant other’s behavior not to need the access even if they have it. Knowing it’s there is enough.

Either way, if you’re waiting for a hard-and-fast rule as to whether or not you should share passwords with your partner, sorry: It doesn’t exist (no matter what the surveys or commenters tell you). Think of it as less as a relationship litmus test and more like a Rorschach test — we see in it what we want, what our past has taught us to see, and ultimately, what we hope to be true.

The Couples Code