The Impact of Social Media on Relationships and Marriages

Posted by: Dr. Justin D'Arienzo, Psy.D., ABPP

The Impact of Social Media on Relationships and Marriages

This article answers the following questions:
1. Am I vulnerable to an online affair?
2. How do I know if I have a problem with an online relationship?
3. If an online relationship becomes a problem, what can I do to end it?

The Impact of Social Media on Relationships and Marriages
As a licensed psychologist specializing in couples counseling and couples therapy, I understand the obvious and more subtle dangers of social media to intimate relationships. We have all heard stories about this, and some of us may have personally experienced long lost lovers or potential new suitors’ attempts to infiltrate our marriages or other committed relationships. These infiltrations are often unsolicited and random but commonly follow our submitting a recent update or new pictures of the day’s events. Unfortunately, these apparently innocent online contacts sometimes lead to extramarital affairs and infidelity.
Sixty-five percent of adults who go online also use social media. Social media has many great benefits to business and in maintaining new and old friendships. Despite its benefits, again, it clearly is a threat to marriages and relationships and it is here to stay. A recent survey by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers found that eight out of 10 lawyers reported that there has been an increase in social medial mentioned in divorce filings. Further, a recent survey conducted by the Atlanta Business Journal found that more than one in three divorce filings included the word Facebook in 2011.
As a marriage therapist conducting couples therapy, I am often asked what makes one vulnerable to having an online affair or an affair that begins online. It has been my experience as a couples counselor that about half of couples presenting for therapy for infidelity problems had problems of infidelity that began with social media. The other half had infidelity related to a co-worker and to someone they shared a great deal of time with during the day.

One may ask, why the vulnerability? The answer is layered. When we receive a quick online response from someone, it instantly impacts the reward centers of the brain, driving more of the behavior. That, coupled with the fact that we have instant access to past lovers and an infinite supply of new ones, and the fact that we are less inhibited in communications due to the perceived privacy and anonymity, is the right recipe for people to live out fantasies despite being married or falsely believe that they can continue a relationship that ended ten years ago.

You may be initiating or reinforcing a potential problematic Facebook, LinkedIn or online relationship if you take the following steps: You hesitate before friending or responding to a friend request. You become more interested in checking your inbox rather than spending time with your spouse and children, you share more about your life with your online friend than your spouse, you don’t share your smart phone and computer passwords with your partner, you begin planning or fantasizing about meeting your online friend in person, your curiosity about what your friend is doing becomes your primary interest, and/or you utter or mention the words to your friend, “We need to slow down.”

If an online relationship has become a problem, you can fix the potential problem before your marital or committed relationship unravels. The first thing to do is to cut off the online relationship immediately. If your primary relationship is of most importance, the feelings of your new friend should be your last priority. Next, seek marital counseling, couples therapy, or individual psychotherapy to determine what made you or your relationship vulnerable in the first place. I suggest that you tell your mate and take full responsibility of your behavior. After you terminate the online relationship, it is possible that your former online friend may seek retaliation and contact your spouse or partner. It is better if this information comes from you rather than from another. Establish and enforce clear boundaries with yourself that you will only communicate with others with whom you would feel comfortable with your partner watching you communicate. And finally, work on your marriage and use social media to heighten your experience with your spouse or partner. Use it as a vehicle to create stimulating communication as well as a venue to celebrate your relationship.

If you feel that your online relationship, whether emotional or physical, is out of control, you would benefit from consulting with a professional qualified licensed mental health provider such as a licensed psychologist, marital therapist, or couples counselor for help. A therapist will assist you in finding a soft landing and minimizing the damage that has been done as a result of your online affair.

D’Arienzo Psychological Group offers marital therapy and couples counseling in Jacksonville, Florida