Should you share passcodes? Four rules of phone use for couples

<span>Composite: The Guardian/Getty Images/Ed Steed</span>
Composite: The Guardian/Getty Images/Ed Steed

I’ve only looked through a boyfriend’s phone twice in my dating lifetime. Both times, I found exactly what I was looking for. And both times, I was the recipient of what I now know is The Fool’s Victory™ – the perfect tragicomedy of finding precisely what you’re looking for, to your very own horror and devastation.

Legal proceedings these are not, which is why confronting a partner in this situation robs you of whatever righteousness there is to be had at uncovering such deceit. It becomes a whole big thing, a losing battle between the “I can’t believe you went through my phone” defendant and the “I can’t believe you’ve been hiding a secret relationship with a 19-year-old for several months” plaintiff.


There really is no “winning” in this situation. It’s embarrassing for everyone.

Everyone knows that our phones are a chronicle of our deepest secrets, embarrassing habits and addictive impulses. They’re a portal into the most vulnerable and damning accounts of our interior worlds – which is what makes looking through your partner’s phone so very compelling.

Unsurprisingly, this is the first thing people mentioned when I asked them about phone etiquette in their relationship. Googling the subject reveals a staggering hierarchy of frequently searched questions, such as:

Is it healthy for couples to go through each other’s phones?

Why does my husband keep checking my phone?

Should phones be private in a relationship?

Is it OK for my wife to go through my phone?

Should you have the password to your spouse’s phone?

Everyone I spoke to about the roles their phones play in their relationships revealed a lot more about their own attachments and sense of emotional security than their actual phone habits (technology is a mirror for human behavior, after all). And of course, respecting privacy and boundaries is required to maintain a harmonious relationship in this modern era of casual surveillance, but as it turns out, lots of people have different ideas of what boundaries are necessary. Which leads me to the overwhelmingly popular sentiment of:

Sharing passcodes (and locations) is for emergencies only

… as well as changing the music in the car, looking up something on a web browser, or maybe shooting off a text message (with consent) when your partner has their hands full of a steering wheel, or your baby, or your dinner.

The majority of people in long-term relationships share their passcodes with their partner for these reasons, with full confidence that they will not go through their messages or social media. “I have nothing to hide,” they say. “We don’t keep secrets from one another. It’s a gesture of trust.”

I get it, it’s a nice thought. But I also don’t think anyone should underestimate the Evil Kermit over our shoulder, goading: “If they have nothing to hide, why not take a look around?” Which is, I already told you, a really bad idea.

Tara, a 36-year-old imaging manager from Brooklyn, agrees. “I think FULL access to each other’s phones can be dangerous in the sense that things could get misinterpreted, and you could go down a rabbit hole (not good for mental health). It seems very extra to me, even as someone who caught a guy cheating on me this way via his laptop.”

That college boyfriend whose privacy I had violated knew right away that I’d checked his phone. It was a flip phone with no password (it was also 2007). “Read anything interesting?” he asked me point blank. I lied through my snooping little teeth despite the fact that I’d clearly just been made. He never pressed it, which meant that I had to swallow the guilt and the juicy lead I’d seen between him and a girl I was insecure about to fester in my already deteriorating brain.

You may discover all kinds of things on your partner’s phone, but peace will never be one. Tame Impala was right: the less I know, the better.

Don’t let your phone interfere with quality time together

Unfettered phone use can degrade connection in relationships when one person prefers the sinking thrill of doomscrolling to spending quality face time with their partner. Internet vocabulary calls this phubbing. Psychotherapist Esther Perel has referred to this circumstance as a form of ambiguous loss; the contradiction of being physically present but mentally or emotionally absent can cause us to feel lonely with the one person who we expect to shield us from the reach of loneliness. Everyone else who has experienced it has called it all kinds of things, from mildly vexing to absolutely infuriating.

Morgan, 33, from Nova Scotia, takes it a step further: “My husband and I are new parents and we try not to use our phones around our baby! Especially not while eating dinner together – hard habits to break.”

Everyone’s idea of quality time is different, but if it’s enough for you or your partner to say something about it, then it’s enough to talk about and form boundaries around. I understand the allure – here’s a palm-sized device with literally all the information in the world at your fingertips, and there is your long-suffering partner beside you who has just made you a lovely meal and wants to know about your day. Dinner gets cold – the world, as far as we can tell, will not. The world can wait.

Phones (probably) don’t belong in the bedroom

As mentioned, “quality time” is a precious commodity – and that includes tech in the bedroom. Add a phone to those twilight hours, and sleep will become all that much more elusive when one partner is subject to the revenge bedtime procrastination well into the early hours.

The same goes for those who use their phones as an alarm clock. There’s a statute of limitations on how many times you can tap snooze when your partner’s REM cycles are accosted by Apple’s Presto alarm ringtone (arguably the most irritating one) every nine minutes. “I’m so bad with that,” Darren, 33, a DJ from Brooklyn shared with me, adding that their partner “is an angel about it, but I do that … a lot”.

And even for those who don’t share an address, if you’re sharing a bed, it’s worthwhile to be mindful of phones and their adjacent tech between the sheets. “Current phone etiquette with my BF is that we usually put our phones on [do not disturb] on dates,” said Astrid, 31, from Los Angeles, before adding: “And the Apple Watch comes off before sex.”

Get on the same page about social media expectations and etiquette

There seems to be a generational divide when it comes to determining what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior: if you’re in a relationship, can you engage with people whom you could be sexually attracted to via social media? I’ve seen countless TikToks of young people explaining the “common sense” of why liking other girls’ posts on Instagram is inherently bad behavior.

Couples content – see soft launches, hard launches, engagement posts and “spontaneous” romantic moments scored with Taylor Swift audio clips – has become a genre all its own, with the production value of early Lana Del Rey music videos. Personally, I think mystery is very underrated, and performing your relationship online can have unexpected consequences, like inviting all manner of public accounts to comment on it. But I understand that folks want to show off their romantic bliss.

You shouldn’t underestimate social media, but you also probably shouldn’t overthink it

Keaton, a 31-year-old marketing director from LA, found herself on the opposite side of this dynamic when a member of her running club asked her to refrain from posting photos of them together on her Instagram story because the optics made him uncomfortable: he wished to be respectful and honor his relationship with his girlfriend. “It was ONE photo that I reposted from my BOYFRIEND who took the pic,” she explained, still feeling incensed. “That he also posted on his story.” As you can see, there is no limit to what can be misconstrued, no matter how innocuous-seeming.

Ultimately, there are no hard and fast, rigid rules for navigating social media as a couple. You shouldn’t underestimate social media, but you also probably shouldn’t overthink it. No matter how trivial it might sound, it can and does have many effects on relationships. You and your partner have to talk it through to create (and recreate) boundaries and express your expectations for what will help everyone feel cared for and valued. (Also, you should absolutely ask for permission before posting anything about your partner. It will save you from having to immediately delete it at their behest, trust me.)

Lastly, if you or your partner is totally engrossed reading this article on their phone while you’re meant to be having some intentional one-on-one time, Esther Perel has some great advice: text them.