Social Networking, CyberSpace and Couples – What Mark Zuckerberg Wrought

FayPsych Staff Fayetteville Psychotherapy Associates, PLC

In the black-and-white, cut-and-dried days of Leave it to Beaver, Ward and June Cleaver had a pretty good idea of what one another were up to most of the time. June, dutifully dressed in her pearls and heels was usually at home tending to the household chores; or, as was the case with any respectable married woman of the day, she frequented predictable places such as the market, her sons’ schools, or “safe” places such her friends’ homes. In turn, Ward haunted appropriate man-spots such as his office, the hardware store, the bank, and other locales where similarly-situated men would gather.

Likewise, they both had a pretty clear idea of to whom their spouse spoke on a regular basis. Telephone calls were limited to those made from the telephone in the house, the occasional pay phone, or Ward’s office phone. Other communication took place by way of mail service, telegrams, or face-to-face meetings with people. Clandestine communication took more than just a little work in those days (which is not to say that it wasn’t done). Meeting new people or reconnecting with people from their pasts’ would have taken significant effort for the Cleavers. Even Eddie Haskell had a hard time pulling off much subterfuge.

Generations later, a young man in a dorm room at Harvard, invented what would eventually become Facebook. This tool, along with a litany of other social networking tools and new technologies, now allow us to communicate with one another with a speed and ease that would have amazed Ward and June.

Using tools like Facebook allows us to quickly connect and reconnect with old friends and even old lovers that might have been lost to the past were it not for this amazing technology. With these tools we are also able to communicate out of earshot and out of sight of our spouses (and families) with great ease. We can share our most intimate thoughts, upload photos and even send private messages with just a few mouse clicks. With a smart phone, the technology is completely portable.

For all their benefits, these social networking platforms and new technologies raise unique challenges for couples that the Cleavers never could have envisioned. More and more couples come to our practice having been damaged in some way or another by one partner’s use of a social networking tool. That is not to say that Mr. Zuckerberg invented a marriage killer in that dorm room not so long ago. Individuals that use these tools to “hook up” with old flames, or to seek out new lovers already know, if not consciously, that they are not completely happy in their current relationships when they hit the “SEND” button. As marital therapists, we find this trend extremely disheartening. The energy that is redirected to the high school sweetheart that has been rediscovered online, or to the cute redhead from the accounting department who shares flirtations over Twitter, could be used to work on restoring a flagging marriage instead. It often seems easier though, and certainly much more exciting, to embark on a new relationship rather than face the reality of working to restore a current relationship that is not living up to one’s expectations. That is is the allure of the cyber-world – instant gratification with little effort in 32-bit high-definition color.

We regularly see social networking and Internet technology affecting couples in a number of ways:

Internet Affairs

The most obvious misuse of social networking tools that brings people to therapy is the use of these platforms as a launching point for online affairs. These online affairs often morph into more “traditional” sexual affairs over time. Most of us probably know personally, or know indirectly of a couple that fell apart over one partner’s online infidelity– it has become that common. Whether the partner reconnects with an old flame or meets someone new online, the results are similarly devastating.

A twist to this issue that often finds its way to our office is the online “emotional affair.” These Internet affairs never lead to any physical or sexual interaction between the affairees, but the emotional resources that are drained from the primary relationship can eventually starve it completely. Persons involved in this type of affair will often rationalize their behavior by saying things like “We’re not having sex,” or “We’re just talking.” Be assured though, that this type of affair can be devastating to a relationship and certainly to one’s partner and/or family when the affair is discovered.

Collateral Damage

Social networking and online technology do not erode relationships strictly through Internet affairs. For couples who do not experience infidelity issues surrounding a social networking or Internet site, some are negatively impacted by the amount of time one or more of the partners in the relationship devotes to a site or sites on the Internet. This alone can have an extremely negative impact on the couple’s relationship. Partners may complain that they “lose” their significant other for hours at a time to a particular site or an online game. Their partner has, in effect, taken a lover by way of their physical and emotional absence from the relationship while they are online. It’s a hell of thing to lose your partner to an online world of farming games, old friends and instant messages when you are sitting just two rooms away from him or her.

Throwin’ His Clothes Out On The Lawn

Another complaint we hear about social networking sites as they relate to couples is how they are sometimes used to air a couple’s dirty laundry in a very public fashion. A marital spat or a general complaint about a partner or relationship can quickly turn into a full-out Internet sensation. Soon, dozens, if not hundreds of people are weighing in with their opinions as to who was in the right and who was in the wrong. This online sharing of marital woes not only violates the sanctity of the marital relationship, but opens up one’s partner to external criticism. For couples with children, these public revelations can be damaging to the children as well. Posting details about the private aspects of a couple’s life online is a significant betrayal, and some couples find it very difficult to recover from the fallout. Although sometimes a “wronged” partner (a partner who has been cheated on for example) may feel righteous in posting the news of their betrayal online, it leaves little room for reconciliation, or for that matter, dignity, down the road.

Technology and the Modern Couple

So how do couples safely deal with social networking technologies with in the context of their relationship? First, we recommend that couples establish clear ground rules for the use of social networking sites that they both agree to adhere to– period. Begin by having a conversation about what each partner’s expectations are up front, before an issue has arisen.

Typically, one partner will be more cautious about what is acceptable online behavior and negotiations will begin from this framework. Remember, the goal is to have a successful relationship and access to social networking. It is important to balance each partner’s needs for privacy and autonomy with the needs of maintaining a healthy relationship.

Here are some things to consider including in your discussion:

  • Is it acceptable for either partner to participate in a social networking site at all?
  • Are some sites off limits?
  • Is it acceptable to “friend” members of the opposite sex?
  • If I’m contacted by an old girlfriend/boyfriend online, how will I handle it?
  • If I’m contacted by an old girlfriend/boyfriend online, how how does my partner want me to handle it?
  • If I located my high school sweetheart online is it okay to contact him/her?
  • Is it acceptable to send private or off-line messages to members of the opposite sex?
  • Is it okay to send pictures of myself to members of the opposite sex?
  • Will my partner have access to my account?
  • How much time is acceptable to spend online each day?
  • How will it be handled if a posting or message makes my partner feel uncomfortable?
  • What, if any aspects of our private life as a couple are okay to discuss online?
  • If I received a message from an “old flame” that makes me feel uncomfortable, will I be able to safely approach my partner about it?

Note: Generally, the more open you are about your activities online, the more comfortable your partner will feel AND the less likely you will be to engage in risky behavior.

Once you’ve established your guidelines, stick to them. If after a period of weeks or months, the rules appear to be out of synch with the reality of your relationship, or the reality of your online experience, sit down again and have another discussion. Remember– having a Facebook account is not going to end your marriage. Having a vulnerable marriage and being reckless on Facebook or elsewhere on the Internet may end your marriage.

If you you are unable to work through these issues yourselves, we strongly encourage you to seek the advice of a qualified couples’ therapist for assistance. Even Ward and June might need a little help keeping up with the digital age.

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