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A customer inspects the new iPhone at the Wangfujing flagship store on September 20, 2013 in Beijing, China. (Lintao Zhang/Getty)

Private Caller

Should Partners Share Cellphones?

Apple’s new iPhone features a fingerprint sensor that can recognize up to five prints. Will your partner’s be one of them?

When Amanda thought about whether or not she wanted to progress to the “next step” with Hal, the debate wasn’t over meeting each other’s parents, or even exchanging apartment keys. “I wondered,” she told me, “was I ready for him to be a fingerprint in my new iPhone?” A very modern quandary to be sure but, then, the cellphone has become an undeniable symbol of trust—or distrust—in relationships, and not just among the young.

Many people struggle with how much information they should share—or should want to share—with their partner, and in our techno-savvy times, letting a boyfriend or girlfriend scroll through your phone is something of a relationship milestone. It implies trust and may symbolize intimacy and connection as well. Handing over your phone to allow your partner to look through your photos, text messages, and call history may show him or her you have nothing to hide; that there are no secrets between you.

At the same time, if partners trust one another, is there any reason to look through each other’s personal correspondence?

Gina was suspicious of her new boyfriend, Brian. He would get multiple texts at strange hours, like after dinner or when the couple was watching television or lying in bed. When Gina would ask who had sent the text, he’d reply, “No one,” angry at her for even asking. His job in pharmaceutical sales meant he was almost always on call, which is what he told her, but she was still left wondering: Was “no one” another woman? Or was “no one” some work correspondence he just didn’t want to bore her with? And did Brian have a right to get angry or should he want to be reassuring instead?

She desperately wanted to have a look through his cellphone. If he was cheating, at least she’d know. But if he wasn’t cheating, she worried she’d have broken an important trust between them, even if he never found out she’d snooped. “It would mean admitting to myself that I really didn’t trust him,” she said. “And I also knew that once I started looking, I’d never be able to stop.”

Phone and email privacy issues among couples have given rise to the wildly debated “do you or don’t you snoop?” question running rampant on relationship blogs. Many couples, it seems, who don’t have free access to the other’s phone or email do: A new study out of the UK found that 34 percent of women, and 62 percent of men, in relationships admitted to snooping through a partner’s phone. And 89 percent who admitted to the snooping said they did it to determine whether a partner was cheating—and in nearly half of those cases, the partner was.

But the takeaway isn’t that phone access signifies a healthy, monogamous relationship. Nor is it that any partner without something to hide should be willing to hand over his or her phone. There is a place for privacy in loving, trusting relationships, and it’s important to remember that a person’s need for privacy doesn’t mean he’s up to no good. Similarly, naming your significant other to your shortlist of those with access does not necessarily mean you have intimacy or connection. While the phone can be an extension of trust or distrust in a relationship, it doesn’t create trust or connection when it’s not really there. In the end, the phone is just a symbol of something much larger.

It was unclear why Brian was so unwilling to be frank about the nature of his many incoming texts, but it wasn’t his insistence on privacy that caused problems between them. It was his lack of clarity and openness. Ultimately, she decided that she wouldn’t snoop—but that she couldn’t be in a relationship with Brian, either. “I knew that wanting to check his phone meant I was already suspicious, and that I expected to catch him at something,” she said. “Whether he was up to something or not, what really mattered was that I just couldn’t trust him. And that’s not a relationship I wanted to be in.”

The key is not sacrificing openness for privacy. If your partner wants the password to your e-mail account, she should be able to have it, and vice versa. At the same time, you might have a conversation about why there’s no need to go poking around. A decent policy may be the one Amanda and her boyfriend eventually landed on. After talking about whether or not to “fingerprint” one another’s phones, they decided they’d rather live their lives together offline—and vowed never to exchange passwords, or fingerprints, or otherwise access one another’s emails, texts, or photos. In cases where either felt like he or she wanted to have that access, they’d agree to talk about the underlying issue instead. Jealousy is normal; feeling left out of the other person’s life is, too. But reading through messages—authorized or not—won’t make you feel any more connected, just as having access won’t prevent infidelity. What might? Trust and respect.

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