Social media can be clearly seen woven into the fabric of our culture on many different levels. No one can deny the influence it has had and the direction it has taken our society. Arguments can be made that social media as a whole has contributed to a societal deterioration and breakdown, yet also has helped our culture grow and develop into more connected communities.
According to a recent study by USA Today, more than a third of marriages began as online relationships, illustrating how much technology has affected our lives.
Gina Nicola is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) in Pismo Beach, California. In the course of her practice, she has seen first hand the effects social media has had on marriages and relationships and has agreed to shed some light about her experiences.
Thank you for taking the time to address this topic. What kind of therapy do you specialize in?
My practice primarily consists of two groups of people: individuals dealing with trauma and marriage & couples counseling. I also provide premarital counseling to couples and teach Marriage Builder classes that focus on communication and conflict resolution.
How big an issue is social media in the couples you counsel?
It ranges from couple to couple. I find that it can be a minor issue or it can be such a large issue that it’s what brings couples into counseling. I rarely see it be non existent in marriages. It seems to have some impact whether great or small.
What types of issues do couples struggle with regarding the use of social media?
Many couples complain that one person in the relationship is more interested in other people than in their own relationship. I hear individuals say that their whole lives seem to be “out there” for people to see. The concern is that nothing is sacred, private or considered special between the couple. There are also issues with trust, emotional affairs, comparing marriages, comparing kids, taking on other peoples problems and being “friends” with people that the spouse/partner doesn’t know. This creates a sense that the individual is being left out of an important aspect of their loved one’s life.
What ways have you seen social media negatively impact families and relationships?
What stands out the most is trust. I have worked with couples who are hurt and feel betrayed because a spouse is spending more time with someone on social media than with them. When exploring this issue and getting to the truth of what is going on, I find that the original problem is usually a communication breakdown between the couple – and the choice was to use social media to cope with it. Social media is a way to reach out to others and stay connected. However, I see it being used to deal with problems, avoid issues and as a means to seek comfort from anyone who will listen.
An example of this happened with a couple I worked with a few years ago. They had been experiencing a great deal of stress and were unable to talk to each other about it. When they tried to have hard conversations or communicate how they were feeling, they would each feel unheard or unvalidated in the conversation. This lead to distance in the relationship and the beginning of separate lives. The wife found social media was a good distraction for the tension in the home and he sought distraction through television. Though she was just playing games and surfing around the internet, she stumbled upon a chat room in a game and started chatting with another man in a different part of the country. At first it seemed innocent but it quickly escalated into much more when they both started sharing feelings and frustrations in their marriages. She started looking forward to getting on the computer and spending time with him – and becoming emotionally attached in the process.
The situation grew to include feelings of betrayal, anger, secrecy, rejection and the false sense of acceptance and love. I call it a false sense because even though her feelings were being validated and she felt loved, the online relationship did not translate into doing life together. There is a false that she “knows” him but in actuality she only knows what he has chosen to disclose. People can be anyone they want to be online.
When I work with couples where this is an issue, I always ask “What do you think God thinks of this situation?” I believe some people forget that God knows about their online activity and relationships. I really don’t think that social media was the way we are supposed to deal with our couple relationships.
It’s troubling when one spouse publicizes and posts their marriage problems online. What other warning signs should people look out for in their relationship regarding social media?
Choosing to post relationship details (regardless if the other person knows) is definitely not a good sign. It causes embarrassment and frustration when one person in the relationship is “airing the couples laundry” without asking.
Anytime someone is spending more time escaping issues in a relationship, that is also a signal that something might be out of balance. If a spouse would rather spend all their time on the computer or phone rather than engaging with their partner right in front of them, that is probably a time to talk about what is going on.
When the motivation to post or publicize something about a relationship is done out of hurt or selfishness, it has destructive potential. No one is perfect and it is hard work being in relationship. Sometimes I think people need to focus more on what is going right than what is going wrong. There are many ways couples can get help; putting it on social media is not the answer.
How can social media be used constructively to grow and build a healthy marriage relationship?
Social media is a great way to generally stay connected with friends and family but as it relates to a relationship, I encourage people to ask themselves, “What is your motivation for posting comments and pictures or connecting with individuals?” “What are you hoping to accomplish?” “What message are you trying to send and is there a better way?”
A lot of times I ask “what are you growing?” Are couples growing respect and intimacy using social media as a tool or is it causing a larger gap in communication and connectedness in their relationship? We grow what we invest in. Relationships take a lot of investment in order to grow them in a healthy way. I firmly believe God created marriages to be very personal and intimate relationship. Marriage is meant to be lived with another person and challenges us to do life together, with the goal of glorifying Him and having a special and unique relationship with another. If couples find a way to use social media to accomplish this than keep doing what works.
What are some positive tips you offer couples regarding social media that can help improve their marriage?
Most of my tips have to do with trust and compromise. My goal is to try and help couples find a balance between the online world and the one they actually live in. One tip that has had good results is to discuss information (topics, pics, etc.) beforehand that both parties agree can be shared on social media. This helps to create a boundary of sharing that both people in the relationship can deal with and if in doubt, simply communicate and ask before posting. Not doing so can not only affect each person in the relationship but also extended family members.
Another tip is discussing the people you are friends with online with your spouse. Many people forget to step back and consider how their online relationships will affect relationships within their homes. I have spoken with many couples who view social media in relationships in completely opposite ways. One might think having an old boyfriend from high school as an online friend is no big deal, but the spouse could be uncomfortable with it and see it as a threat – or even inappropriate. If couples would remember to ask how their spouse would feel first, they might avoid hurtful feelings or misunderstandings about online relationships later.
I think individuals can take the time and ask how they are representing themselves and what/who are they glorifying. It is not my job to deem what is appropriate or not but it is my job to help people decide what is growing their most important relationship, and that is with God.
Gina Nicola serves as the Director of Care & Counseling Ministries at New Life Community Church in Pismo Beach, California. Her passion is to create a safe environment for people to be honest and open about the difficulties of life and relationships. She strongly believes that everyone can find healing and hope through embracing the love and understanding of a relationship with Jesus.