How to convince a partner or spouse to delete old emails

A reader writes in with a marital dispute that Mac 911 won't take sides on, but will provide a technical answer.

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Someone who I will call Monsieur Inconnu to prevent his being identified writes in with the sort of problem the Mac 911 column typically avoids: A dispute with one’s life partner related to data hygiene habits.

My wife refuses to delete any emails off her computers/phones/iPad. I’ve pleaded with her to go back and delete some emails but she swears she “needs them.”

The issue for M. Inconnu is not his wife’s pack-rat nature, which is common to digital foragers of enough vintage that we remember when storage was scarce and now hoard everything.

Rather, it’s that his wife has a large HDD for her desktop computer, but only a 128GB drive on her laptop. It’s almost full.

She has an old AOL account she doesn’t use anymore, plus an iCloud account and a Gmail account as well. Any ideas I can give her to try to decompress the email situation?

She may be between a Scylla of decreasing storage and a Charybdis of being unable to remove files—between a rock and a hard (drive) place. Something has to give; the center will not hold.

The easiest thing is to move messages to mailboxes stored on the desktop, but that aren’t synced to the laptop. This takes a few steps, but it’s a one-time “cost” for each mailbox you move. This assumes you’re using Apple Mail for iCloud and Gmail; AOL, I can’t help with unless it’s been synced or retrieved for local storage. If the AOL emails are only on AOL, you’re subject to the whims of AOL’s backup strategy and its future.

Mail lets you create mailboxes under the On My Mac category in the sidebar. On your wife’s desktop machine in Mail:

  1. Create one new mailbox for each set of email your wife wants to retain but no longer needs instant access to on both the desktop and laptop computers: Mailbox > New Mailbox and select from the Location menu On My Mac. (You can nest mailboxes, too.)
  2. For each folder or set of email stored on an email server that’s synced to both computers, select the messages and drag them to the On My Mac folder or use Message > Move To and select the destination folder from the list.
  3. Mail may take a few seconds to several minutes to do the record-keeping to copy messages from one temporary mail storage area to the permanent location on your computer, and then delete those messages off the email server.
  4. After completing these operations, be sure to perform a local or hosted computer backup right away so that you have another backup copy of those messages, as they are no longer stored on the email server.
  5. On the laptop computer, choose Mailbox > Synchronize All Accounts. This will delete any messages from the laptop that are no longer in email server-based storage.

This should do the trick. The laptop may now have gigabytes less email, but it’s entirely searchable from the desktop computer. And, via Spotlight, if you mount the desktop server’s drive over the network on the laptop computer, you can use a Finder window’s search field to select the mounted computer (in the “Search:” bar just below the search field) to find messages only stored on the desktop machine.

I hope this helps with storage and relationship strife.

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