Is Facebook wrecking homes?
Local marriage therapists discuss social media’s potential to drive couples apart
Much has been written about how the Internet has changed the way people meet potential partners, and deservedly so. Last June, a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that 35 percent of U.S. couples who got married between 2005 and 2012 met online.
On the flipside of that coin, recent research also suggests the unprecedented level of interconnection provided by the Internet—and more specifically, social media—may also have the potential to drive couples apart. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Missouri, also released in June, titled “Cheating, Breakup and Divorce: Is Facebook to Blame?,” concluded that “excessive” Facebook use—characterized by the researchers as checking the website more than once an hour—can be damaging to romantic relationships.
Russell Clayton, a doctoral student at the Missouri School of Journalism and the study’s lead author, said in a university press release that “individuals who use Facebook excessively are far more likely to experience Facebook-related conflict with their romantic partners, which then may cause negative relationship outcomes including emotional and physical cheating, breakup and divorce.
“Facebook-induced jealousy may lead to arguments concerning past partners,” Clayton continued. “Also, our study found that excessive Facebook users are more likely to connect or reconnect with other Facebook users, including previous partners, which may lead to emotional and physical cheating.”
The findings held true only for couples who had been together for less than three years, which Clayton said could indicate “that Facebook may be a threat to relationships that are not fully matured. On the other hand, participants who have been in relationships for longer than three years may not use Facebook as often.”
While one could argue that jealously monitoring a lover’s social-media activity is simply a modern twist on age-old human behavior, it’s undeniable that at no point in human history has it been easier to look up an ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend.
Joe Taylor, a licensed marriage and family therapist with Chico Creek Counseling, said during a recent interview that Clayton’s conclusion was “right on,” estimating that social media is a problem for 15 percent to 20 percent of the couples he meets. He can recall a handful of couples who broke up specifically “over a spouse reconnecting with an old flame over Facebook.”
Taylor added that technology in general has changed the way someone might act on feelings of jealousy or suspicions of infidelity. Not so long ago, he said, the possibility of checking emails, text messages or online phone records simply didn’t exist. Fellow local psychotherapist Kimberley Covington agreed, adding that technology has made the way a suspicious lover snoops much more complex.
“With the sophistication of how you can be secretive and all those different layers to social networks, it’s just a different beast,” she said during a recent phone interview.
“The other component is that the social-network sites create instant gratification. Fifty years ago, if you thought your partner was cheating on you and you were upset, you had to leave a message on their answering machine and then wait for them to call you back,” she said. “Now, you can get on some social network and just blast them. People don’t learn any self-soothing skills; they just go directly to venting. They need to be satisfied right now.”
Covington pointed to another potential source of unhappiness for couples who are deeply plugged in to social networks: the inevitable comparison-making that comes with receiving constant updates from friends, family and, in many cases, distant acquaintances.
“Some people come in and feel like they’re ‘less-than’ because they’re looking at what everybody else is doing online and how wonderful their relationships are,” she said.
“They feel badly because they don’t match up.”
So, how should couples avoid the pitfalls of excessive social-media use? In the conclusion of Clayton’s study, he offered a fairly obvious solution: Stop using Facebook so much.
“Although Facebook is a great way to learn about someone, excessive Facebook use may be damaging to newer romantic relationships,” Clayton said. “Cutting back to moderate, healthy levels of Facebook usage could help reduce conflict, particularly for newer couples who are still learning about each other.”
When a couple comes to Covington with relationship problems rooted in social-media use, she applies the same process she would in counseling someone addicted to drugs or alcohol. As denial can be a factor, it’s important to get a realistic idea of how much time is spent online.
“Usually, I start out with asking them both to increase their own awareness of how much time they engage in the behavior, so they both have a baseline,” she said. “It would be too hard [to help] an alcoholic if they have no idea how much they drink.”
Taylor said that though technology has made some aspects of counseling couples more complex, most couples’ problems are still rooted in the basics.
“I talk about a trusting relationship and how you can build that, [and] what’s not working in your relationship,” he said. “You still have to approach it from that standpoint.”
As a husband of more than 30 years, Taylor should know.
“I haven’t connected with any of my old high-school girlfriends,” Taylor said with a chuckle. “I don’t think that would be a very good idea—I’d want to check with my wife before I did.”