As a person in a committed relationship, you may share your car, home and the stuff that fills it with your partner. But does that also mean you share access to your online world? The trite, private Facebook rants about child-rearing? The innocent, occasional Google chat with a former flame? The password to your work computer?

Many couples do. For them, swapping PINs and passwords is simply a part of marriage in the digital age. Others prefer privacy. They have nothing to hide, they say, and expect their partners to trust them. But, as people spend more and more time online, relationship experts say it is the willingness to offer your spouse an open view of your online activity that helps to foster a healthy relationship. So does a little digital autonomy.

Julie Archibald and Alan McAllister practice that balancing act with great success. The Berkeley couple have no qualms about sharing their digital selves. They've memorized each other's ATM PINs and laptop passwords, which makes everything, including the quick premovie cash withdrawal, much easier, they say.

But, when it comes to email, they use different providers -- she's Yahoo, he's a Gmail guy -- and have no need to file through pages of each other's messages, they say. They also see no reason for digital snooping.

"It's all part of trust and sharing your life together with the right guy," says Archibald, 38, of Berkeley. "In my last relationship, he (Archibald's ex-boyfriend) was more private about his life, and that made everything a lot harder. I never felt close to him."


Advertisement

Ellyn Bader of the Couples Institute in Menlo Park says there can be valid reasons why a person may not want to reveal their online information. Perhaps they are private by nature or grew up with an intrusive parent.

"Most people don't like having someone looking over their shoulder," says Bader, a clinical psychologist and marriage and family therapist. "People don't want to feel like their partners are parents to them."

(Illustration by Dave Johnson)
(Illustration by Dave Johnson)

However, when trust has already been violated or there is a reason to be suspicious -- for instance, your spouse shuts her computer the minute you enter the room -- fear in the partner is activated and so is the desire to know everything happening online, Bader says.

"We find that when someone has already had an affair, tends to chat online with people of the opposite sex, or perhaps has hidden money and is caught, offering to share passwords is a tool that can be used to regain trust," Bader says. "They'll say, 'I don't have anything to hide anymore,' or 'I don't care if you go on my Facebook.' "

In general, however, the couples who seem to be the happiest are the ones who have some digital autonomy in addition to connection. "It's like having separate spending money that you don't have to answer for," she explains.

But Jaime LeMaire, of Oakland, says she would feel uneasy if her husband were hesitant to share information with her. "It's part of a healthy, trusting marriage," she says. LeMaire and her husband, Dan Hruby, share passwords and PINs because "it helps to facilitate daily errands and finances," the Oakland couple says.

"I'm working on memorizing his Social Security number," says LeMaire, 35. "I think it's especially important in an emergency."

Los Angeles-based dating and relationship expert Julie Spira echoes LeMaire's points. "God forbid, if something happens to you, someone should have access to your phone and files," says Spira, who blogs at Cyberdatingexpert.com. "Honestly, if you're unwilling to share at least some of these things with the person you sleep with every night, then you probably shouldn't be in the relationship."

Still, there are exceptions. Mike Senga, of Fremont, and his ex-wife never revealed the passwords that unlocked their email accounts or iPhones (the issue had nothing to do with the divorce). They considered it the same as opening each other's snail mail.

"It's a violation of your privacy," Senga says. "My personal space was mine, and hers was hers. We never disagreed about that."

Honoring those agreements is important to keeping the digital peace. If you are suspicious about your spouse's behavior, try talking it out with him or her instead of cyber-snooping, Spira says.

"Everyone has a personal life and identity that is their own," she says. "You wouldn't follow them to poker or girls night out, would you?"

Five reasons to reveal passwords

Safety: In an accident or other emergency, you have access to your spouse's phone, email and personal files. In a tragic situation, you can shut down a Facebook account or reach out to friends of his you didn't know.
Convenience: Forgot your debit card and running to the ATM while your spouse finds parking? You can use his and avoid going into the bank.
Romance: It's sweet to know that your husband's password is the date you met, became an official couple, or celebrated your fifth wedding anniversary.
Transparency: In a healthy relationship, there is a natural openness and willingness to share information. If you are concerned that something you post or send can be misconstrued by your spouse, don't do it.

The Golden Rule: If you share with your spouse, it is only fair that he or she shares with you.

Sources include dating and relationship expert Julie Spira and couples interviewed for this story.