One of the newest and most challenging issues in our work with couples is cell phones and related privacy. The issue of passwords, ‘friends’, texts, social media and privacy comes up frequently. Are you allowed to have your partner’s password? Should you be able to see their texts? Will playing on your phone during meals create a fight? How about during TV time? What if you don’t like one of their social media friends? What if it is an ex?! The list goes on. There are no hard and fast rules, each couple is different, but it needs to be examined and clarified.

One couple in their 30’s came to therapy arguing about their phones. They fought daily about the excessive time Kim spent on the phone and her unwillingness to let Sam touch it, let alone share her password. Sam felt excluded and mistrustful. He was convinced she was keeping secrets. Kim was adamant she had the right to have a private password on her phone. She believed if he looked through her phone he would find something to be angry about, even though she wasn’t doing anything wrong. They were at a standstill.

"I Love You, Honey, But Don’t Touch My Phone"

The underlying issue was trust and communication, not the phone. It was important to explore Sam’s fears, and why he believed Kim must be hiding something. For Kim, the issue was control and independence. She felt Sam was micromanaging her, and she was surprised by his insecurities and lack of confidence in their relationship. She didn’t realize many of her actions were red flags:  laughing while texting but not explaining why, taking the phone into the bathroom, changing the phone settings so texts were no longer popping up on her lock screen, and refusing to let him use her phone. Her motives were to avoid his worry and doubt, yet her behavior was escalating them. At the same time, Kim was showing resistance to the time and intimacy a committed relationship requires. She feared a loss of autonomy.

Therapy provided a safe space for them to identify their concerns and have an open dialogue. They learned to slow their conversations and truly listen to each other rather than prepare their response. They agreed to take a break when anger got too intense. They realized they had been focused on their own needs rather than the well-being of the relationship.

There are no generic rules for phone privacy. Each couple needs to develop their own guidelines and expectations around the phone. While some couples insist on swapping phones at any time, this isn’t right for every couple. Kim simply could not allow this level of transparency. She equated it to losing her individuality and being open to scrutiny. After understanding each other’s perspective, they developed the following guidelines:

  • Between 7 PM and 8 PM, it was phones down, ringer off, and time together.
  • When either felt threatened or insecure regarding the phone, they agreed to take a break and discuss it after they’d cooled off.
  • No phones when they are dining together.  Period.
  • Ditto on dates
  • If asked, share who they’re texting.
  • No phones after lights out in bed

This is clearly not an exhaustive list, but it worked for them. Not every couple is going to agree to total phone privacy. Again, there are no hard and fast rules. Couples need to develop their own guidelines based on the complexities of their history and relationship. As long as you can communicate, you can develop guidelines that will work, even if it takes a few conversations. If communication breaks down every time the discussion comes up, you may want to pursue professional help. Otherwise, allow for multiple conversations before guidelines are established. Remember, it’s not about the phone.


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