Why It’s So Important That Breakups Include a Digital Break by Wendy L. Patrick J.D. Ph.D

Why It's So Important That Breakups Include a Digital Break by Wendy L. Patrick J.D. Ph.D

After a breakup, the property is often reclaimed, retrieved, or redistributed. But not always. Sometimes, custody is shared: of children, pets—and digital subscriptions. But should online access survive offline romance?

Abusive partners may abuse shared passwords.
  • Sharing online passwords is viewed by some couples as a meaningful step in a growing romance.
  • Because not all separations are cordial, there may be important reasons to sever the digital cord.
  • Password sharing can compromise digital privacy and creates a risk of profile “hacking.”

Shared Logins Reflect Shared Lives

Assuming password-sharing complies with subscription terms of service, sharing login credentials signifies sharing life. Viewed as a sign of trust and affection, it can be a meaningful step in a growing romantic relationship. Having access to what your partner is watching when you are apart creates transparency and trust.

But what about after the breakup? The day your login credentials no longer work, the bloom is officially off the rose. Locked out of the entertainment viewing life of your ex, you can perhaps safely assume the relationship is over. Yet many couples don’t change passwords and continue to share subscriptions—years after the breakup.

True, a decision to remain digitally connected depends on the reason for the dissolution. Complicated love triangles can become uncomfortable password triangles when everyone is using the same account. And a vindictive ex-partner can manipulate algorithms to impact advertising selections and suggested viewing, and even alter user profiles.

But even absent an acrimonious separation, as a practical matter, you probably would rather not see the history in the queue of love stories you imagine your ex and new flame are watching together. Nor do you want to risk your own digital privacy or profile “hacking” that could flow from someone new having access to the account.

Barring a nasty separation, are there other reasons to sever the digital cord? Research and practical experience shed some light on how to handle shared subscriptions.

Why It’s So Important That Breakups Include a Digital Break by Wendy L. Patrick J.D. Ph.D
Source: Image by OmarMedinaFilms on Pixabay

From Subscription Sharing to Digital Divorce

As discussed in an AP News article by Leanne Italie entitled “Love and Logins: Who Gets Custody of Passwords in a Breakup?” [i] not everyone pulls the “password plug.” Some couples sever the relationship, but not the subscriptions.

Italie gives one example of a couple who owned very little else, so specified in a divorce proceeding which party would continue to pay for the (shared) Hulu and Netflix subscriptions. But because not all separations are cordial, there are important reasons couples should consider severing the digital cord.

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Jennifer L. Bevan (2018) recognized social network password sharing and monitoring of online accounts as a form of online surveillance. [ii] Conducting an online survey of 474 people who were in current and former romantic relationships, she defines password sharing and online surveillance as “operationally discrete.” She notes that while password sharing involves seeking a partner’s passwords, account monitoring involves requesting a partner’s passwords and/or accessing a partner’s account to view the content.

Alexandra Maftei and Oana Dănilă revealed some darker aspects of technology in a piece aptly entitled “Give Me Your Password! What Are You Hiding?” (2021). [iii] Although the study explored a variety of factors associated with intimate partner violence through technological abuse, they recognized that foundationally, technology plays a significant role in the modern formation of intimate partnerships.

Regarding the dark side, they point out that digital technologies can prompt stalking and surveillance behaviors by abusive partners. This can include using services that tag digital location, as well as digital monitoring of social networking and emails through stolen passwords, remote microphones, and cameras, spyware, or simply forcing a partner to “share” their account against their will.

In the balance, many ex-partners perceive more reasons to pull the password plug than maintain digital custody over entertainment. So when a subscription-involved relationship is ending, the two guiding principles appear to be: part amicably and watch responsibly.



[i] https://apnews.com/article/technology-lifestyle-philanthropy-0237c5054c…

[ii] Bevan, Jennifer L. 2018. “Social Networking Site Password Sharing and Account Monitoring as Online Surveillance.” Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking 21 (12): 797–802. doi:10.1089/cyber.2018.0359.

[iii] Maftei, Alexandra, and Oana Dănilă. 2021. “Give Me Your Password! What Are You Hiding? Associated Factors of Intimate Partner Violence through Technological Abuse.” Current Psychology: A Journal for Diverse Perspectives on Diverse Psychological Issues, August. doi:10.1007/s12144-021-02197-2.



Wendy L. Patrick, J.D., Ph.D. is a career trial attorney, author, and media commentator

This article originally ran on Psychology Today.


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