Should I let my partner read my emails?

Hello there,

I am new to the poly world and consider myself an enthusiast at this point.  Still doing a lot of research and soul searching.  I think I still have a lot of personal work to do before I can decide if the poly lifestyle suits me.  I have gotten as far as discussing it seriously with my partner and she is willing to explore it with me.  I am so happy at her acceptance and our bond has gotten so much stronger because of it.

But I wanted to get your veteran opinion on a particular issue.  What is the general policy about a partner reading email between me and someone else?  This is one of my personal issues to be worked out, but I am extraordinarily uncomfortable with this.  I am willing to discuss the content in a summarized way, but my back goes up when I think about her reading what I previously wrote to someone else in a private conversation.  If we agreed to read email going forward, I would certainly write in a different style.

Just a newbie’s issue.  Any help greatly appreciated.

Hello G,
In my opinion, this is by far the hardest question we’ve gotten on this blog so far because it deals with so many issues all at once – trust, insecurity, personal privacy and intimacy. So let’s try and break this down to see if we can get to a satisfactory answer.

As with most things poly, there is no “general policy” about how things are done. That’s what makes being poly difficult for a lot of people – you have to create your own rules, rather than rely on the ones that society expects and continuously reinforces. But of course there is a “general policy” for mail and email – you don’t read anyone’s mail but your own. So your partner is starting off the negotiations by asking to violate a standard policy (and a law, when it comes to mail) of our entire society, poly and non-poly.

If the idea of anyone reading your email makes you uncomfortable, I don’t blame you. And I’m guessing that your partner might be uncomfortable with being poly if she is not allowed to read your emails to and from a prospective new person in the relationship. So there is definitely room for negotiation.

First of all, I would establish the parameters of what she’s asking for. Is she asking for your password that would give her free access to your account to read and impersonate you as she wishes? Or is she asking to see only the emails pertaining to a specific person, trusting that you will show her all such emails? Do you get to be present when she reads them? And do you get the same privilege with her emails?

Once you firmly know what it is she’s asking, then share your feelings and concerns with her. Most importantly, let her know that your discomfort has nothing to do with exploring polyamory – it’s a basic privacy issue. It would be easy for this to become a lightning rod issue for your relationship, but the simple truth is that you would probably be uncomfortable with her reading your email whether you choose to be poly or not. It’s not because you are secretive or hiding anything. It’s a basic right to privacy that we as a society have placed a high value on (which is why the NSA surveillance/Wiki Leaks/Edward Snowden matter is such a huge deal).

So ask her what she expects to gain from reading your emails. If you are exploring polyamory together, you should already have set up some agreements and boundaries, so does she think monitoring and enforcing those agreements will make her feel safer and more secure in her relationship with you? If that’s so, what about other forms of communication – Skype calls, texts, IM chats? Will all those be monitored as well? You could rightly make the argument that she might be spending so much time looking at your relationship with the other person that she will scarcely have time to actually spend with YOU.

Basically, what I’m saying is, if your partner doesn’t trust you to show you or tell you about the communications with your new person, how can she trust you to even be monogamous with her? If she trusts you enough to be sexually exclusive with her, it seems she would be able to trust you enough to tell her whatever you two have agreed to tell each other about new people. And if she does trust you to keep open lines of communication, then your idea of providing a summary (or just keeping her in the loop in general) of your progress with someone else really should suffice.

Because if she insists on reading emails, how long will it be before you stop using email for your other person and switch to phone calls, texts and IMs? Then if she’s reading all those, will she ban you from leaving the house except for work? Will she put a tracking collar on your ankle? Can you see how trust has to start somewhere? That’s why breaking someone’s trust is so devastating to a relationship – it’s really hard to win it back if you lost it before.

There’s also the notion that new people in a relationship should be afforded the same respect as other partners in the relationship. So if you and your partner are reading each other’s emails, the third person should also be given that privilege. If they are not, it puts them in a subordinate position in the relationship that they might not tolerate.

Bottom line for me: if your partner trusts you enough to explore polyamory together, that trust has to extend to creating workable and open communications about potential new people that everyone can live with, not just your partner.

Leon, what do you think?

/pees for like, 2 minutes straight
My, that was a wonderful hibernation.  It’s great to be back!  And – oh, look, a question. Let’s see what it says.  Mmm hmm…

Ah, this is a great question, and an issue I’ve discussed just this week IRL with a friend of mine new to the poly scene. My advice is (predictably) somewhat different from Mischa’s, but it is a topic I feel strongly about – and a policy I follow in my own relationships.

All healthy relationships are based on mutual trust.  If you can’t trust your partner, you can’t have an emotionally significant relationship with a future.  I would like to know her motivation for wanting to read your otherwise personal conversations – is it curiosity, suspicion, or simply a desire to take the whole “open and honest” mindset to its logical extreme? Understanding your partner’s underlying mindset should help you feel better about the request.

Let me tell you about my friend’s situation.  She had been seeing this guy for half a year – both had other partners, more of a “New York Single” than a “polyamorous” situation.  Two months ago, they became more serious, and decided on mutual physical exclusivity except at play parties, where they agreed they could play with others together, or separately if the other didn’t veto it.  Nothing here surprising for newbies dipping their toes in the responsible nonmonogamy pool: negotiated agreements, mutual veto power, pre-event discussions, and limited autonomy outside the other’s presence in a play space. 

They had amazing sexual chemistry and were growing closer over the last month in particular, spending lots of time together and she was thoroughly enjoying herself.  But despite (or perhaps  because of) their growing bond, she told me, she didn’t fully trust him.  The main reason for her discomfort was his not-infrequent late-night calls from girls he let go to his voicemail, even after two+ months of their supposed physical exclusivity.  She told me he was offering farfetched but plausible excuses for these calls, like that he didn’t deal well with conflict and preferred to let these girls “get the idea” by not taking their calls, rather than tell them outright that he was in an exclusive relationship.  But it didn’t feel right, and she asked me what she could do to learn the truth.

My first instinct was to look at his phone messages – and that’s what I told her.  If she found damning evidence, then she’d know her suspicions were right. And if she found nothing out of the ordinary, she could refocus her energies on making the relationship work, and strengthening her own trust by believing him the next time something seemed amiss.  Long story short, she wound up checking his phone – and spent a good part of that next day chatting on the phone with his long-term GIRLFRIEND.

Why is dishonesty such a huge part of modern society?  I don’t know. But it’s an incredibly pervasive problem in most relationships, poly or otherwise. There are lots of reasons why we hide things from our partners – some altruistic, most not.  Personally, I am a strong believer that – barring specific messages involving either finances, work, or third-party secrets – EVERY EMAIL AND TEXT SHOULD BE FAIR GAME FOR YOUR OTHER PARTNER/S TO READ.  Unusual?  Yes.  It’s a sea-change from the traditional mindset to imagine that anything you write to anyone might wind up being read by a partner of yours, with your blessing.  But it makes perfect sense. What better way to reassure your partner they are a part of your life, and you are hiding nothing from them?  In fact, an optimal relationship involves trust to such a degree that the offer to read any and all communications is always on the table – and (almost) never taken up on.  As you and your partner are entering this new phase of your relationship, one of the most important things you must do is maintain and develop your underlying connection. And the best way to do this is to build mutual trust. If you’re hesitant to let your partner read your private messages, you’re not being fully open and honest – and perhaps not fully trustworthy.

A Dear Abby advice column I read as a child really stuck with me and helped shape my perception of behavior and openness.  The gist of it was, “always act as if everyone you’d ever met and cared about was watching.”  This was long before I’d ever heard of polyamory and its “open and honest” mantra, but it applies marvelously.  Once you wrap your head around a life without secrets, it makes all your connections and communications so much better.

If you’re looking to build something special with a person, I recommend being open and honest with them in ALL things.  That includes your communications with other people.  And if you’d change your writing style knowing someone else is going to read it, my question for you is – what are you hiding and why?  Is your discomfort from fear over how your current partner might react if she sees you flirting with someone else in private – maybe using some of the same terms of endearment, or revealing interests you haven’t shared with her?  Hopefully not revealing trysts you’ve had without her knowledge….?  Still, you said you’d change your writing STYLE rather than the content – which tells me perhaps you should work on overcoming your own fears, coming to terms with the fact you are sharing your life with someone special, and that means sharing your genuine thoughts and wishes, too – even ones that don’t involve her, or involve others with whom you share a connection.  If she sees some things that upset her, you should sit down together, compare your feelings and expectations, and develop your connection on a deeper level.  You described in your question how much closer you and your partner felt after discussing some potentially tricky issues in your relationship.  This is just more of the same.  When it gets to the point where you are both okay, even encouraging, with your partner reading your messages without censorship, you will likely find it both a relief and a way to bring you closer.  While most of us are taught that our private communications are meant to stay that way, an open and honest relationship isn’t one where you should be picking and choosing which doors to keep locked and which to crack open for peeks.  My advice is: open it up, all the way.  Deal with any consequences like an adult, and use this as an opportunity to develop a stronger, healthier primary relationship.  Like with so many other issues in our community, I bet the reality will be much less scary than you imagine.

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