Romantic partners who have something to hide may feel profound discomfort when asked this question. Sharing passwords can expose private or confidential communications, with grave consequences for some relationships.

Social media use has transformed personal relationships. What qualifies as a social interaction has also changed dramatically. Without putting any effort into organizing a legible message, people can now interact with a mere swipe, like, repost, or emoji. A digital record of these social media interactions may remain online indefinitely.

Some of those digital interactions could be perceived as disloyal to romantic partners.  Online flirtations can quickly transcend ethical limits and evolve into more intimate meetings. To gain sympathy and intimacy online, users may complain about their partner or relationship. When these betrayals occur in password-protected social media accounts, users may feel confident that they pose no threat to the relationship.  However, when a partner expects shared intimacy to include password sharing, it may be a harbinger of relationship conflicts.

My colleagues and I wondered how people's current relationships affected their attitudes toward sharing passwords with live-in partners. We surveyed 277 married or committed adults.  On average, our participants had been with their partner for 10 years and were 35 years old. We looked at several aspects of relationships that we thought might predict attitudes toward password sharing, including how satisfied people were with their current relationship, how committed they were to their partner, how appealing they found online romantic alternatives, and how engaged they were in online infidelity behaviors.

To measure infidelity, we asked participants how much they agreed with statements like, "Sometimes, instead of going to my spouse/partner, I share deep emotional or intimate information with others online," and "I sometimes like to chat or message old romantic partners online or on social networking sites."  Because these behaviors can represent relationship betrayals, we expected that people who agree with these items would be hesitant to share their social media passwords.

Overall, participants were satisfied with their relationships, and this was true of both men and women. Less than half of the participants in our study favored password sharing. Only 25% of them did not engage in any online infidelity. Interestingly, about 25% of the participants reported engaging in high levels of online infidelity behaviors. However, men reported more infidelity behaviors and a better quality of romantic alternatives than women in our study.

In our data, password-sharing attitudes were unrelated to relationship satisfaction, commitment, and quality of romantic alternatives. However, online infidelity was related to unfavorable attitudes toward password sharing. That is, partners who reported more infidelity behaviors were less favorable toward password sharing.

Thus, our expectation that people who "misbehave" online by having emotionally intimate interactions with others have negative attitudes toward password sharing was confirmed.  Because sharing passwords could uncover online infidelity, if it exists, it is unsurprising that people who engage in inappropriate behaviors dislike the idea of password sharing.

In sum, our research suggests that people's attitudes toward password sharing may serve as an indicator of their online fidelity (or infidelity). If you want a clue as to whether your partner is faithful online, you might suggest exchanging social media passwords. If your partner refuses to share passwords, you may have something to worry about.

For Further Reading

Abbasi, I. S., Buchanan, T., &Dibble, J. L. (2022). Attitudes Towards Passwords Sharing in Cohabiting Partners. The Social Science Journal. (Advance online publication).

Irum S. Abbasi is an independent post-doctoral researcher currently examining social media behaviors and attitudes toward password sharing in romantic relationships.