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Social media impacts real relationships

Published: Wednesday, March 27 2013 5:15 p.m. MDT

Many couples have met through social media, which can be a great way to meet friends. There can be a downside, though, since chatting with friends on social media can pose risks to marriages and other relationships.

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It was like any other night when Alicia Padilla opened her Mac while lounging on her bed, logged into her Facebook account, and saw a friend request under her notifications. She clicked on the link to James Taverner's profile, and vaguely recognized the name and face from middle school.

As she cruised through pictures, she suddenly remembered the bright blue eyes he was best known for. And she added him.

Soon Alicia and James were Facebook chatting throughout each day, Alicia with her computer at home and James with a friend's borrowed computer while managing his family's pizza place. Even after their first date, which was the first time they had seen each other in about 13 years, the two chatted every day with the help of Facebook. After eight months, on New Year's Eve, he proposed. They were married the next summer.

"I just thought, 'Wow, I can't believe I would find this person,' I never thought I would have a connection with this person," Alicia said.

They are just one couple in millions in the U.S. who are connecting through social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Out of 50 couples married in the U.S. in 2011, at least one met through a social networking site, according to The Wedding Report. Social media sites are diversified in their functions, and starting intimate connections, whether marital or not, is just one of them. However, four of five U.S. divorce attorneys say they have seen a rise in cases with social networking involved, according to the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.

Relationships with social media and people

"Don't leave! I have to meet you!"

This tweet from her future husband changed MoniQue Shaldjian's life. Shaldjian, a culinary nutrition specialist in Phoenix, thrives on social media, especially Twitter, for personal and business reasons. However, finding her spouse was the last thing she expected to come from her attendance at a tweet-up — "a meeting or other gathering organized by means of posts on the social networking service Twitter."

Though they weren't following one another when they first met, Twitter is a now commonly used tool for communication in the Shaldjians' relationship.

"We have this long desk in our home, we call it the command center, and both of our computers sit on the end next to each other," Shaldjian said. "We will tweet each other while sitting side by side. There's sometimes a flirtiness to it."

The couple even has a brand they share on Twitter — she is @lafingal, he is @lafinguy, and their dogs are @lafindogs — and they are often invited to events because people know they will tweet-out about them. Twitter is a huge part of their lives and is always leading to new connections and networking opportunities.

"As far as friendship goes, a lot of people don't put out their real selves (on Twitter), and sometimes when you meet with them, you kind of wish you didn't," Shaldjian said. "People aren't honest on social media. With some of these people we've made the connection … they've become your family; you meet them and once you meet them and you don't really like them, how do you undo that?"

Shaldjian has learned that in today's world of connection through social media, it is difficult to follow or unfollow people freely.

"It really changes the dynamic of any kind of relationship, love or friendship," she said.

Jonah Berger, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts, believes there are a few reasons why people share information, which he discusses in his new book "Contagious: Why Things Catch On."

"Connecting with others is rewarding; it makes us feel like we're not alone in the world," Berger said. "And people do like to tell other people about themselves. Research shows talking about ourselves is rewarding; sharing things can be rewarding for the brain."

However, there are dangers in sharing information online and trying to connect with people.

"Because there's not a particular person in front of us, you don't always think of the consequences of sharing things," he said. "When there is someone standing next to us, we realize the consequences. It's a little harder to see the consequences of our actions."

One consequence is the danger some relationships end up in due to networking on social media sites. The word Facebook was included in more than a third of divorce filings last year, according to a survey done by Divorce Online and reported on by the Wall Street Journal.

"When we look at social media, I see it as changing relationships in a couple of key ways," said Rachna Jain, a psychologist by training with clinical specialization in couple and marital therapy. "It is definitely another distraction from primary relationships. You see that when people are talking on Facebook, not to their partner, with them right there in the room. There is the possibility to go back in time. Facebook makes that really easy."

Core relationships now have a lot more threats because people have an easier way to get in touch with people from their past, according to Jain.

"It's just a medium for connections," Jain said. "The idea needs to be that whatever rules or guidelines you have for connections, if you wouldn't leave your husband or wife for somebody for a drink, you have to think, 'Should I be on Facebook corresponding with a bunch of people at home, with them here?’ ”

This line of thinking can work as a barometer for acceptable behavior and make it easier to focus on how the use of social media can build a relationship instead of break it.

The dangers of anonymous intimacy

One problem presented by the use of social media in relationships is forming a false sense of anonymous intimacy with those one is connecting with online.

When people spend a lot of time on social networking sites, they begin to feel as if they really know and are friends with the people they are communicating with, even though they may really not be, according to Jain.

"You need to have a plan for proximity — either they live where you are, or you plan to be in close proximity outside of social media," Jain said. "When we look at what makes an intimate relationship, it relies on shared experiences, shared time together — like doing things together — and it relies on a shared history."

Because so many put details on Facebook, people have a view into others' lives that creates a shared history. But there is still a digital divide, Jain said.

"It feels very intimate, but if you've never actually met the person it's not as fully intimate," she added.

To Jain, there are two different lines of thinking with sharing information online — either people are sharing intimate details because they are looking for support, or they are looking for attention. With the first line of thinking, it is often difficult to coordinate meeting up in person, and social media becomes an easier, shorthand way to create those connections.

The second comes closer to the concept of the current age of narcissism, Jain believes. Becoming popular on social media sites can often make one feel like a celebrity, of sorts.

Relationships of all kinds

For Ciara Vesey, a recently graduated law student from Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, social networking began as it does for many. When Facebook became popular, she joined. When everyone started tweeting, she got a Twitter account. But after a year or so, everyone was starting to use social media for everything, at every moment of the day.

"Everybody is tweeting, always telling people what they're doing, when they are doing it, and who they are with," Vesey said. "Everyone wants to know what you're doing and who you are doing with and if anything you say is contradictory to what you are really doing, it's a problem."

Vesey lost a relationship with a good friend due to misunderstandings through social media, and understands the negative effects online interaction can have.

Though Vesey lost one connection through the use of social media, she has had enough positive experiences to make up for it.

"I mentor other law students. … Social media helps because I can immediately help them," Vesey said. "My relationships with my mentees are very strong because of social media. With them it's been a really great tool to build confidence and trust in me and my advice."

People can become reckless when using social media, she believes, especially when it comes to real-time relationships.

"You don't want to completely detour from who you are; you need to be responsible when you log out of those networks," she said.

However, expanding her professional network has been made possible through networking sites online and has allowed Vesey to make connections all over.

"It was amazing to branch out to people that saw my tweets and wanted to know more about me and the things I do," Vesey said. "I can't give enough props and thanks to the people who created Twitter."

Mandy Morgan is an enterprise intern for the Deseret News, reporting on values in the media. She is a true-blue Aggie, studying journalism and political science at Utah State University, and hails from Highland, Utah.

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