For the first three months of my relationship, my now-spouse Sabrina and I refrained from “friending” each other on Facebook to avoid the inevitable compulsion to sleuth through each other’s old posts, photos, friends and lovers. The seminal stages of love are fragile — full of doubts, uncertainties and projections. Why rock that unsteady foundation, we agreed.
But, eventually, we took the plunge. The moment I clicked “connect,” I knew it could be the beginning of our demise. As a reporter with an insatiable curiosity (and to be honest, a bit of a masochistic streak), I couldn’t help but hunt for things that would hurt me. And I found plenty of them: Cute exchanges and pictures between her and her adorable ex-girlfriends, random girls (and boys!) she’d hooked up with in the past. Even reading about the celebrities she found attractive stung.
My madness back then reminds me of a quote by poet Maya Angelou, who captured the full face of relationship jealousy in these wise words: “In romance [it] is like salt in food. A little can enhance the savor, but too much can spoil the pleasure and, under certain circumstances, can be life-threatening.” I was feasting entirely on salt — and it needed to stop. So after a series of my interrogations into her past, Sabrina took a drastic measure: she got off Facebook altogether, and in solidarity, I did too.
Licenced psychotherapist Vanessa Marin, who specializes in couples counseling and sex therapy, doesn’t believe a full social media purge like ours is a realistic solution for most couples. (And full disclosure: With the confidence of ten years together, Sabrina just signed up for Instagram to showcase photos and videos of our three-year-old daughter Marty to friends and family.)
But Marin is noticing a surge in the number of clients fighting and/or breaking up over social media.
It’s likely that as many romances as social media has spawned, it has destroyed. A study conducted by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers as far back as 2010 found that a staggering 81 percent of top divorce lawyers saw a spike in the number of cases, over a five-year-period, that relied on evidence from social media in divorce court proceedings. More recently, a 2014 Pew Research Center report found that 20 percent of couples said social media had a mostly negative impact on their relationship. James Sexton, author of the new book, If You’re In My Office, It’s Too Late: A Divorce Lawyer’s Guide to Staying Together, says that of the five divorce cases his law firm takes on every month, at least three result from infidelity facilitated by social media. “It’s a preposterous situation,” he says, “where it’s not only easier to start an affair, but it’s easy to maintain. It’s like ‘What are you doing honey?’ ‘Oh, I’m playing Candy Crush.’ No, you’re talking to your girlfriend.”
“A number of clients have called me because their partner started an affair with a lover from the past or a high school sweetheart due to Facebook,” says relationship expert and author of Allowing Magnificence, Susan Winter.
Experts agree, however, that full-blown physical affairs are much rarer than rifts between couples over micro-cheating (ie. forms of online flirting, such as Liking a connection’s provocative photo on Instagram or writing flattering comments on a friend’s Facebook post). Sexton calls it “Facebook foreplay.”
Because confronting your spouse or partner about their social media behavior can be awkward, people often turn to furtive tactics to keep tabs. Jennifer Lynn, a 29-year-old media professional, who has been dating her boyfriend for just over a year, recently noticed that he’s been Liking his ex’s Instagram posts. It irks her because she suspects his ex wants to reignite their romance. “I’ve never brought it up with him, but it bothers me. It sends the wrong message and makes her think she has a chance.” While it may be unhealthy to let her feelings fester in silence, Lynn is loath to discuss it with her boyfriend because she thinks it implies a lack of trust on her part, or worse, it exposes her snooping. (She doesn’t have an Instagram account so she’s been stealthily stalking and will continue to do so until the situation comes to a head.)
Caroline, a 42-year-old artist who asked us to use a pseudonym to protect her identity, calls LinkedIn “the perfect alibi” for men to meet pretty women. She isn’t proud of her undercover tactics to prevent her husband from connecting with attractive would-be contacts: Caroline rejects requests from pretty women on his LinkedIn page and “unfollows” ones she deems too good looking. But she doesn’t plan to stop. LinkedIn is “networking for sexual opportunities,” she cracks.
Snooping isn’t a healthy solution, and neither is suffering in silence. So what is? To better navigate tricky social media terrain in relationships, try these expert tactics:
1. Ask Each Other These Questions
Marin believes that every couple should have a discussion about social media. But because it’s not realistic to attempt to anticipate every conceivable scenario in advance, she recommends partners ask themselves specific questions, like: “What do you think qualifies as ‘inappropriate behavior’ when it comes to social media? Are there any guidelines you already have in mind? Have you ever had any problems with social media in your past relationships?” Winter recommends writing down your answers and reviewing your rules “every year or so, like a lease,” because, she points out, people’s desires and needs change as they grow and evolve.
2. Get On the Same Page About Past Loves
While Marin believes having good relationships with your exes is healthy, that doesn’t mean secret contact is kosher. “Be open and upfront with your partner about the conversations you have with your exes,” she says, even if they’re benign and innocent. “Hiding things tends to make you seem guilty.” But not every relationship can withstand the heat of a former flame: “If the ex is problematic for your partner,” says Winter, “you may want to reconsider why you need to have him or her in your newsfeed.”
3. “Like” Like the World is Watching
Marin and Winter agree that it’s best to comport yourself on social media as if the whole world is watching because, well, it is. “Pretend that you are having your online interactions right in front of your partner,” Marin says. “It’s a great way to ensure that you don’t do anything hurtful.”
4. That Said, Allow Each Other Privacy (And Don’t Snoop!)
There’s a long-enduring notion that true intimacy means sharing absolutely every thought, feeling and action with your partner. But that’s a toxic belief, one that risks forcing your relationship into a perpetual state of surveillance. Our partners are separate entities from us and are entitled to spaces in their minds and lives that belong to them alone. As Esther Perel, renowned relationship expert and author of Mating in Captivity, writes: “Fire needs air … so does a relationship for it to breathe and thrive. We all need experiences of our own, unique to ourselves.” She argues that the unknowable aspects of our partners are what keep the thrill alive. So temper the urge to spy.
5. Consider a Social Media Fast
Sexton concedes that most marriages reach a kind of stasis where things aren’t as “exciting.” As soon as you feel the itch to stray or escape into online possibilities, that’s the time to log off what he calls “the opiate for the masses,” and assess what’s lacking in your relationship. “It’s like when you think you really need a drink,” he says, “that’s the worst time to have one.” So unplug and reconnect with the one you love when the fire starts to flicker.
Or, ditch certain social media outlets altogether….it could be the secret to my and Sabrina’s decade-long union.