We had a couple of people reach out and mention how they got into emotional affairs on Facebook – and almost into physical affairs. They really freaked themselves out and it’s thrown a real wrench into their marriage but they’re working on things now. While we’re not anti-social media, it’s time to realize the huge impact it has on marriage.

Social media is quite a new thing. Given that we don’t have our parents to warn us about the dangers, we have to prepare ourselves for it and also figure out the healthy boundaries we want to put in place to make sure we don’t get caught up in something that we never intended or wanted to happen.

Remember, very few people wake up in the morning and think, “I’m going to go looking to have an affair today.” Rather, it’s something we slide or drift into most of the time and it’s even easier to do that online than it is in person.

Internet Use and Romance

Let’s look at this generally to start with and then focus in on distraction, jealousy, and infidelity.

A study in 2014 looked at the relationship between social media usage, marriage satisfaction, and divorce rates by looking at surveys of married individuals as well as state-level data from the United States. The study found that:

  1. The use of social media negatively correlated with marriage quality and happiness. (media use up, marriage down)
  2. Use of social media positively correlated with experiencing a troubled marriage and considering divorce. (both increased together)
  3. They continued to find these correlations even after taking into account various economic, demographic, and psychological variables that are known to be related to marriage well being. This suggests that social media plays a much larger role than we think in our marriages.[i]

Another study from the same year cited another interesting statistic: 1/3 of divorce cases mentioned Facebook. They also noted that the top Facebook concerns are inappropriate messages to individuals of the opposite sex.

That is a very specific use of social media which is detrimental to marriages, but what about social media use in general?

The Pew Research Center did a phone survey of couples on their social media usage and how it affected their relationship. Out of the individuals that they surveyed:

  • 71% of married couples use social networking sites
  • 10% of internet users who are married or partnered say that the internet has had a “major impact” on their relationship, 17% say that is has had a “minor impact” and 72% said that it has “no real impact at all”.
  • Of those who indicate that it did have an impact, 20% said that the impact was mostly negative, 74% said it was mostly positive, and 4% said it was both positive and negative.
  • 8% of internet users in a committed relationship have had an argument with their spouse or partner about the amount of time one of them was spending online.
  • 4% of internet users in a committed relationship have gotten upset at something that they found out their spouse or partner was doing online.
  • These numbers related more closely to relationship tension for younger adults between the ages of 18-29 due to larger consumption of social media.
    • 18% of online 18-29 year olds have argued with a partner about the amount of time one of them spent online (compared with 8% of all online couples)
    • 8% say that they have been upset by something their partner was doing online (compared with 4% of all online couples).[ii]

Now that we have an overview, we can get into some of the details, looking at three different areas in which social media negatively affects marriages. The point here is that you need to think about how and how often you’re using social media and make sure that you and your spouse are both good with this.

Distraction and Time

In 2007, Young looked at excessive internet use that qualifies as internet addiction. They define internet addiction as “any online-related compulsive behaviour which interferes with normal living and causes sever stress on family, friends, loved ones, and one’s work environment..”[iii]

One type of internet addiction is spending excessive time on various means of communication including chat rooms, email, and social media. As part of the study, they surveyed individuals with internet addiction and found that 85% said that they experienced relationship problems because of arguments with their spouse about the amount of time that they spent at their computer.

Excessive use of time on social media is often what leads to many of the other problems that can surface in couples’ relationships over the use of social media.

So, how do you know if you’re addicted? A couple of good indications are if you find it really hard to take a break or stop, or if it is interfering with normal living.

One problem that exacerbates this is compulsive smartphone use. There is a growing body of research documenting the fact that people actually experience anxiety when they’re away from their phone for more than 10 or 15 minutes.

We need to be intentional about being less distracted and more present in our marriages.

Jealousy and Monitoring of Partner’s Online Activities

Jealousy is another issue that social media brings into a marriage.

When one person uses social media excessively, this can lead to feelings of jealousy from their spouse – even if nothing inappropriate is actually going on. In turn, the jealousy can lead to monitoring of spouse’s online activities.

Elphinston & Noller (2011) studied Facebook intrusion and relationship satisfaction in college students in romantic relationships. Facebook intrusion is the “excessive attachment to Facebook to the point that it interferes with day-to-day activities and with relationship functioning.”

These researchers studied the links between Facebook intrusion, relationship satisfaction, jealousy, and surveillance (monitoring of partner’s Facebook use). They found that Facebook intrusion was linked to relationship dissatisfaction via jealousy and surveillance.[iv]

FB intrusion -> jealousy -> surveillance -> dissatisfaction

So, if your spouse is asking you to get off your phone, get off it! They may be making a bid for connection, and as we see in Episode 42: Distraction is Killing Your Marriage, it actually undermines your spouse’s sense of identity when we fail to pay attention to them.

When we get distracted by social media, we actually are completely disengaged from our spouse – which is precisely the opposite reason to why we got married. We wanted to feel a connection, to feel intimacy, to know and be known. But with social media at our fingertips and notifications always pinging on our phones all of a sudden all of our open moments when we’d normally turn to each other to fill in the blanks — those moments are going to social media.

Think about it. The last time you weren’t sure what to do with yourself, did you grab your spouse or your phone?

Infidelity and Inappropriate Relationships

Unfortunately, social media has an even dark side: affairs.

Perhaps the most-cited issue when it comes to relationship problems over the use of social media usage in inappropriate relationships and infidelity.

This seems obvious to us now, but even a few months ago, we weren’t aware of how easily this was happening until one of our listeners wrote us… then another… then another…

When we stopped to think about it, what a sad but perfect environment to start an affair. First, we all project this idealized version of ourselves onto social media so we look like an ideal potential partner, and then we also have this platform where we can stalk another attractive person, then make contact, then get to know each other – without ever saying a word out loud or without any risk of being seen around town with someone other than my spouse.

We need to educate ourselves about this, and then work on some healthy boundaries.

First the education part:

In 2010, researchers outlined what they call internet-related intimacy problems: “instances where technology (and the internet) can complicate a couple’s life together”. Complicate is a bit of an understatement!

Patrons of our show can download and print a worksheet to take them through the 7 A’s that could lead to an internet-based disaster for your marriage. Be intentional and process this now: an ounce of prevention is always worth a pound of cure.

They look at the specific internet-related intimacy problem of inappropriate relationships that happen online. They came up with the 7 “A’s” of Internet-related intimacy problems.[v]

  1. Anonymity: Individuals on the Internet can easily hide who they are to pursue a relationship. No surprises.
  2. Accessibility: Many individuals have access to the Internet 24/7 from any location. “Social networking sites such as Facebook, Myspace, and personal webpages accelerate the accessibility one has to other connections and, consequently, the opportunities for engaging in an Internet affair.” It’s just easy. You can flirt online at home, in the bathroom, in the study, at the office, at lunch, whatever. Recognizing this means that we need to build walls around our marriage…we’ll get to that shortly.
  3. Affordability: Having a relationship online can be more affordable than real life. No paying for dinner, movies, or outings. This can also decrease the likelihood of being discovered as there is less evidence that the relationship is happening. It’s not visible on bank statements or credit card bills. The affair may not affect the “bottom line” of the household, so it can go unnoticed.
  4. Approximation: “It refers to the quality of the Internet which approximates real-world situations. In other words, what can be viewed on the Internet is becoming more close to the physical world. One can engage in particular sexual acts without participating in them in the real world, thus blurring the line between fantasy and action.”[vi] Virtual adultery…honestly you can have the orgasm and relationship without actually having sex. It’s close enough to the real thing that it could be a huge draw.
  5. Ambiguity: The nature of online behavior is that it is ambiguous and the line between acceptable and problematic behavior becomes blurred. Each partner may have a different definition of what it means to be unfaithful in the relationship. “With no clear behavioral definition of what is or is not Internet infidelity, one may be more likely to “cross the line” online than in other situations.”
  6. Acceptability: Acceptability means that much of the behavior on the Internet that has been deemed inappropriate in society has found a way to be an accepted way of life on the Internet. King (1999) discussed this in regard to Internet pornography, but it also applied to other Internet-related intimacy problems. For example, at church, if a married man only talked to one other woman (not his wife) most of the time, that would not be acceptable. People would be like, what’s up with that? Why should I think that it’s OK to do that online? Some people do. It’s not acceptable online if it’s not acceptable offline.
  7. Accommodation: “Approximation refers to the specific qualities of the Internet which replicate/simulate the physical world; accommodation, however, refers to the qualities of the individual (specifically, the extent to which there is a discrepancy between one’s “real” and “ought” self) which contributes to their Internet usage…”

The Internet provides greater opportunity for one to act a certain way in “real time” but have a different persona when it comes to online behavior and activities, especially when there are no outward or obvious signs of this other, seemingly contradictory persona.” This is about real vs. projected. Again, the idea that we can put this very idealized image of ourselves out there and two people can fall in love with each other…but forget that it’s not really each other. It’s just a shiny, plastic version of who they really are.

There was this article on the Internet a few years ago that compared pictures of avatars of people on Second Life with real-life pictures of themselves. I just remember this grey haired guy with a mullet, maybe 60-80 lbs overweight and by the photo…lacking self-care in other ways. But his avatar is this wedge-shaped commando dude with no shirt, ammo strapped across his chest, dark, handsome features.

Remember, what you’re falling in love with on the internet is now real. And this person you’ve attracted isn’t actually attracted to you. He or she is attracted to the image of yourself that you’re presenting. That’s accommodation because it’s a gap that you’re bridging between your reality and what you wish you were like. 

If you invested as much time and energy into your personal growth, as you do into social media, you’d be a lot happier with yourself! Think about what you’d be bringing to the table for your marriage too!

Recommended Boundaries

This section is so important. I think the research shows pretty clearly that social media can have a huge detrimental effect on our marriages, so how can we stop or reverse that?

Here are a few tips:

  1. Let your spouse know if you’re communicating with someone of the opposite sex. Keep the communications to business, and if it gets too chatty, refer them to your spouse.
  2. Three-way the conversation right off the bat. This applies to text messaging too!
  3. Be careful with that “Like” button. It makes us nervous when a young female posts a selfie or portrait that is pretty clear them looking for approval and then a bunch of married guys jump on with the like button and comments. This can cause spousal jealousy too!
  4. Have the conversation with your spouse about what it means to be unfaithful in the relationship. Respect each other’s feelings here. This may need to be ongoing as new social media channels open up or you become involved in role-playing games and so on.
  5. Agree to call each other out on being real on social media.
  6. Talk about what it means to apply the principles of modesty to social media. Think about it – If you’re married, why are you posting images of yourself in a sexy outfit, or on the beach with your six pack – who are you wanting to attract? Why do you need that kind of attention? As Caleb says, he’d never pose in a friend’s home in a swimsuit, so why do that on FB?
  7. Praise and promote your spouse on social media. This is a huge barrier. I want people to want our marriage, not want one of us!

One last thing to touch on before we close: How should we use social media between us as a couple?

Communicating Through Social Media

Problems not only arise from communicating with other people on social media but also when couples are communicating with each other.

In 2014, some researchers surveyed couples and their use of technology to determine the advantages and disadvantages of technology to their relationships.

One of the top problems stated by couples was that the use of various forms of technology (including social media) led to distancing and a lack of clarity in their relationship.[vii]

Distancing: Some couples described how the only means in which they communicated with each other during the day was through various forms of technology. This would start to take the place of face to face communication leaving them feeling distanced from one another.

What is a little scary here is that you could be doing this sincerely in order to keep in touch but not realizing it was eroding your sense of closeness!

Lack of Clarity: A number of other couples described how communication with one another through various means of technology led to miscommunications because of an inability to see facial expressions and hear the tone of voice. When messages were not written clearly, this led to misinterpreting what was intended.

Social networking sites such as Facebook introduce a huge potential for this issue of misinterpreting a wide variety of messages on one another’s profiles, photographs, and through private messaging. We forget how much body language is a part of communicating!

Obviously, a conversation about this with your spouse at your next opportunity would be ideal! We know the hurt and jealousy some of you are feeling as you see your spouse interacting online. That is very real. Go through the 7 A’s with your spouse and use the discussion questions from the worksheet (see box below) to help you create a marriage that uses social media in a safe and healthy way.

[i] Sebastián Valenzuela, Daniel Halpern, and James E. Katz, “Social Network Sites, Marriage Well-Being and Divorce: Survey and State-Level Evidence from the United States,” Computers in Human Behavior 36 (July 2014): 94–101, doi:10.1016/j.chb.2014.03.034.

[ii] “Pew Research Center – Survey on Couples and Social Media,” n.d.

[iii] Kimberly S. Young, “Cognitive Behavior Therapy with Internet Addicts: Treatment Outcomes and Implications,” Cyberpsychology & Behavior: The Impact of the Internet, Multimedia and Virtual Reality on Behavior and Society 10, no. 5 (October 2007): 671–79, doi:10.1089/cpb.2007.9971.

[iv] Rachel A. Elphinston and Patricia Noller, “Time to Face It! Facebook Intrusion and the Implications for Romantic Jealousy and Relationship Satisfaction,” Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking 14, no. 11 (May 6, 2011): 631–35, doi:10.1089/cyber.2010.0318.

[v] “The Seven ‘As’ Contributing to Internet-Related Intimacy Problems: A Literature Review,” Text, accessed November 13, 2015, http://www.cyberpsychology.eu/view.php?cisloclanku=2010050202.

[vi] Michael W. Ross, “Typing, Doing, and Being: Sexuality and the Internet.,” Journal of Sex Research 42, no. 4 (November 2005): 342–52, doi:Article.

[vii] Katherine M Hertlein and Fred P Piercy, “Internet Infidelity: A Critical Review of the Literature,” The Family Journal 14, no. 4 (October 2006): 366–71.

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