Kanai hated her last name, and as soon as she got married, she changed it — a normal rite of passage for some women. But she also changed something I never expected: her e-mail address. Not just her username and handle — she changed to a shared account with her husband, Ash.
“Don’t e-mail me at my old address — I’m not checking it anymore,” she wrote to me in her last e-mail as a single woman. Then she gave me address — a bizarre hybrid of their names that sounded vaguely Central Asia-meets-Scandinavia, full of too many consonants and odd vowel combinations. I wasn’t the only one that couldn’t remember.
Our circle of girlfriends discussed it over drinks on night, and we all agreed it was a bit odd. Changing last names, depending on where you stand on the feminist spectrum, is understandable, and for spouses, deciding between shared and separate bank accounts is often a minefield — there are pros and cons to each. But giving up your e-mail when your digital footprint is so important? We all feared her identity would recede.
“How am I going to include her in group e-mails?” Charlotte, a mutual friend, said. Charlotte — not her real name, she’d kill me if I used it — loved to e-mail us the play-by-play of her first dates, then she’d ask us to analyze and interpret key ambiguous incidents. I can’t imagine Ash would have much fun reading them, and Charlotte probably wouldn’t want his advice, either. Suddenly, we realized Kanai would miss out on those e-mails, and we sat there, a bit glum over our cocktails, feeling the weight of her exile into the strange world of matrimony.
Kanai tied the knot a decade ago, so we’d put the shared e-mail down as an isolated incident, but strangely enough, more couples I know are sharing accounts. It’s not yet mainstream, but it’s happening often enough to make me wonder if this is a slow-burning trend. I’ve heard of weddings where, as part of the ceremonies or festivities, the couple signs on Facebook to change their statuses to “married” — but they still have separate accounts.
Is sharing an e-mail the new unity candle for newlyweds?
As it turns out, evangelical Christians recommend the idea of shared e-mails. According to USA Today, in 2003, conservative group “Focus on the Family” urged husbands and wives to share one e-mail address, one of many suggestions to prevent infidelity. Since then, Christian blogs and clergy often extol the idea as a way to promote openness, and not to keep tabs on a spouse.
“You get to the point where openness and daylight in a union becomes more critical than having your corner of privacy,” Monica Mowdy, a reverend in Tennessee, told Fox News. “Whenever you have a place where you can keep secrets, the tendency is to keep secrets.”
The God-fearing have a point. Over the last two decades, the Internet has changed the way affairs often begin. Simply put, most people go online to find extramarital bedfellows, and having phones and tablets on us all day makes it even easier to cheat.
Infidelity is as old as campfires. These days we don’t knock someone on the head and drag them to a cave — we just need to take out our phone, exchange a few flirty emoticons over e-mail or text, then let the anarchy of nature take its course. But opening up electronic channels to both partners in a marriage can be a strong deterrent to curb cheating in a mobile world.
Kanai is a leftist community and political organizer, and her husband is a Zoroastrian computer programmer, so it’s a bit odd to think of them taking after evangelical Christians. But after all these years, I flagged her down to ask, “What’s up with the shared e-mail address?”
“It was just easier. During the lead up to the wedding, we realized how annoying it was to forward stuff to each other,” she told me. “The reasons were logistics at first — sharing bills, travel information, all of that — it just makes it easier to share information and keep it in one place.”
But after a while, they discovered an unexpected benefit beyond trust.
“I liked that there seemed to be less of that ‘silly’ e-mail you can get, like forwards. There was less e-mail to deal with and organize,” she added. “People don’t e-mail you indiscriminately when they realize someone else could be reading it — especially your mother-in-law.”
Kanai and Ash actually planned to delete the shared e-mail after the wedding, but instead kept it once they saw its convenience. The joint account has a filtering effect, too. They’re more careful about signing up to newsletters, so it protects her from the digital maelstrom that can often drive us crazy. She said she’s less stressed by e-mail as well, adding that she also appreciates the impact it’s had on the quality of their conversation.
“We don’t spend much time catching each other up on what the contractor is up to, when the dog walker is coming by or where to drop off the dry cleaning,” she told me. “It’s all there in the e-mail.”
Instead, she said they use the time to talk about more important things.
“When you listen to married couples, they often sound more like co-workers in a nursery than two people married to each other. We can skip a lot of that and talk about what we think or feel, or about our shared interests,” she added. “I think it makes us more interesting people, and more interesting husbands and wives to each other.”
But what about intangible effects, like maintaining friendships outside the marriage?
She said the friendships simply shifted to other channels. “Maybe that would’ve been an issue a few years ago, but most of my friends chat with me on the phone or over text. E-mail is mostly logistics and work now, I think for nearly everybody.”
Most importantly, I asked her questions about identity, but she professed indifference.
“In the eyes of the government and anyone we owe money to, we’re definitely a unit, I guess, and our e-mail reflects that,” she said. “But I’d hope that my personal identity extends beyond my e-mail.”
Since they switched to a shared account, she said, they’ve never once fought over the contents of an e-mail. “Most of the friction was at the beginning over how to manage the inbox, deleting stuff before I’d seen it, that kind of thing,” she said. “We figured that out, though. But we’ve never argued over who sent a message, what something or someone said. It’s been an overall positive experience for us.”
And how does Ash feel?
“I’m cool with it,” he said.
Outsiders won’t really know what goes on in the marriage — it’s a strange country where only two people have the passports to get in. But in an era where college football players correspond with fake girlfriends, politicians tweet pictures of their nether parts and four-in-five divorce cases include evidence gathered on Facebook, digital transparency is a powerful tonic against the deception and isolation of the Internet. But opening up is just a means. You still need a strong foundation of love, communication, honesty and integrity, and there’s no shortcut to that in any strong relationship.
Still, there are islands of privacy, even in the cozy enclave of Kanai’s marriage. They have separate work e-mails, and their company policies state they can’t share accounts or even share passwords. Kanai does have Ash’s Facebook password — he was stranded without Internet access once and asked her to grab some information — but he doesn’t have hers… yet.
I asked if she’d share the account with him. “I don’t think Facebook will even let you do that,” she said, sidestepping the question. Some things, I guess, remain sacred, even in this strange country called modern marriage. ♦