How Social Media Affects Our Relationships

by Alyssa Siegel

communication skillsWe are still, as a culture, relative infants when it comes to our use of technology and our understanding of its long-term impacts.  There is no doubt that the widespread availability and use of technology in all its manifestations has changed our world and the way we relate in faster and more dramatic ways than other inventions in the past.  As a 40-year-old, I find myself to be in the in-between generation; that which remembers life before smartphones and Facebook but simultaneously cannot imagine current life without them.  At times a wonderful source of connection, an important tool for learning, and a fun avenue of exploration and creativity, my personal use of technology can also feel problematic, taking up far more of my time and attention than I would prefer.  In my clients, I see a similar struggle to find balance in use and influence. In this column, I set out to describe and explore the many ways as a therapist I see technology and particularly social media impacting the lives and particularly the relationships of my clients.

I have joked that I sometimes feel like I ought to reserve a chair for cell phones in my office as a result of the frequency in which they are brought out during sessions and the feeling that they are almost another client in the room.  Most often, it is to read me a text or email. Gone indeed are the days in which individuals would rely on memory to tell me about a message or couples could remain convinced of their version of what was said.  Now communication is stored exactly as originally stated and accessible to review at all days and hours.  In many ways, this can be quite helpful.  Certainly writing down your thoughts requires a certain amount of intention and deliberation.  It can be very cathartic to write as a means to better understand and clarify your feelings and it can be welcome as a recipient to have time to process them before responding.   But in others, it can cause problems.  The documentation and storing of feelings and interactions creates a permanence to them when in so many ways communication is fluid.  Historically, of course, we have always used writing as a means of communication but now it is, in many relationships, the primary modality, even when in close proximity to friends, family, and partners.  To understand why this is complex, we must consider several factors.

  1. You cannot read tone or body language through the written word.
  2. We often say things in writing that we would not say in person.
  3. Because you can now reach out and be reached 24/7, we are much more likely to write impulsively and based on emotions which may be temporary.

Perhaps you are having a hard time sleeping and can’t get something out of your mind; something that might not feel quite so important in the morning.  Something that you could in fact process on your own without reaching out to and potentially upsetting another person or escalating an issue.  Resisting the temptation though to reach out, believing that we may relieve our own anxiety by doing so is very, very hard. In a culture that is increasingly used to immediate gratification, many of us simply do not possess that willpower or strength.  What we have access to we generally use or take.  So you write, and what you write makes a lot of sense and feels very justified at the time.  It is often only after our message has landed with its recipient and we being to process their own potentially impulsive or strong response do you begin to see how what you wrote could be interpreted in a variety of ways.  Or do you wish you had softened things a bit?  And so begins the potential for misunderstanding and regret, producing feelings within us quite the opposite of what we had originally hoped to achieve.  Though of course not all written communication proceeds as such and many are productive and paced, the responsibility does lie with the writer in a heavier kind of way to make them so.  A practice that I utilize myself and regularly advise my clients to use as well is to write; to write and write and write because writing can be profoundly cathartic and healing and then to WAIT.  Writing is one thing, sending another entirely.  Wait a day.  Wait several.  Sleep on it.  Think about it. Revise it.  And then, if it still feels good, go ahead and send.  But try to release yourself from an attachment to the outcome, knowing that what matters is that you said what you needed to whatever the response may be.  In this way we are at the very least acting from a calm, grounded place, minimizing the potential for the regret that can come when we reach out from a place of temporary emotional intensity.

Embedded into my exploration of the written word through modern technology but also extending far beyond it is the impact of broader social media.  Facebook has become for many, especially those under 50, a dominant form of relationship maintenance; i.e. a means by which we know about what is happening to those in our social circles on a daily and sometimes hourly basis.  Liking a photo or adding a quick comment to posts is now considered an acknowledgment or a show of support, replacing a phone call or time spent together in all but the most serious of events. Conversely, the lack of a virtual response can also feel significant. Positive responses will give the poster an (albeit brief) feeling of not being so alone, the idea that what they have to say or what they have experienced, no matter how small, matters.  Never before have our comings and goings been so public and yet so tailored, the micro-moments of our everyday life shared to elicit whatever response is craved at the time. Our lives are now documented. We can scroll back over days, weeks, and years and feel sharply our own chronology in a way that even the most devoted of journal keepers often can’t because we see not only our own thoughts conversations, photographs, and the reactions of those who were in our lives at the times.  Does it make us all a little more egocentric?  Probably.  But does it also make us all a little more reflective, even introspective, yes? We share what we love, what we are passionate about, what angers or devastates us.  And in doing so, many are breaking open the door to a part of us that previously had no or very limited access.  The part of us that was privately processing things on our own.  The results of this are that we are, I believe, moving to a place of globally greater influence.  We seek their guidance, opinions, ideas and make a little less time and space for sitting with our own thoughts and feelings. And we compare ourselves to what we believe is an accurate representation of what others are doing, how they look, feel, what they have accomplished.

The inherent loss of privacy, even when chosen, is something clients are actively working to manage now.  There are countless ways that a Facebook profile or an Instagram or Tumblr page can give the viewer more information than just what the owner of the profile has posted from others tagging them in photos to out their whereabouts to who their friends are, when they were last online, if they read a message we sent them.  Couples too, struggle to navigate what is appropriate to share when it concerns their partner and each person has different boundaries around what, how, and to whom information about them is shared.  Though a profile may be set to private, the likelihood of personal information reaching a wider audience is high.  Most of my clients know quite a bit about not just their immediate friends via Facebook but about friends and partners and family members of friends.  Conversations not had in person because they feel awkward, uncomfortable, or too personal are shared on this platform regularly. At times that can provide a welcome opportunity to address more directly such difficult subjects but frequently I see clients simply continuing on with this knowledge without it ever translating into conversation.

Sometimes information that is shared can leave the reader feeling quite shocked.  Indeed, even from our close friends, we often find out personal information we would prefer having learned of a different way.  Death now is broadcast frequently on Facebook and clients often find themselves feeling unprepared to receive such information in an impersonal way.  It is common then to immediately rely on the built-in net of the comfort and consolation that can come with processing such news publicly with others who are also experiencing it in real time. But not all information garnered through social media can provide this.  For example, if you feel pain around something others see as wonderful such as an ex-partner getting married, there is no public space to talk about your feelings around that.  So we have an inherently biased system, one that leaves little space for some of the harder things to process.

There’s no question that something that occurs regularly on Facebook and other social media sites is to spark new or rekindle old romantic relationships and to check in on those that occupied those roles for us in the past.  The past is no longer the past in the way it was previously, our ex-lovers, partners, and friends remaining an active part of our present lives.  Personally, I have reconnected with many old friends and partners through social media and in some cases, gave or received some understanding and closure to feelings that may have been left otherwise unresolved.  There’s something nice about this in that our lives are not quite as compartmentalized as they used to be.  We are forced in many ways to remain integrated, to remember that the lives of those we have connected with continue on despite our immediate involvement.  Simultaneously it can be confusing because it gives us a sense of closeness that may not actually be there or wanted.  It can also it slows the process of separating and redefining who we are outside of that relationship, an important part of differentiation and autonomy.

Affairs start on social media sites quite frequently.  What begins as a friendly conversation can take on flirtatious tones.  Most people do not seek out this kind of interaction and it often takes clients by surprise when conversations started on social media sites progress into territory they had never imagined they would go.   The reason?  It’s easy.  Accessibility is often a significant factor in the initial start of affairs.  And because of the internet, access to countless others is available to us as at all times.  Add to that the fact that most people post the most flattering photos and positively represented versions of themselves to such sites, fueling the viewers fantasy of who they are.  And just as those we may chat with doing so, we too can become inspired and inflated by the version of ourselves we know others are seeing.  In this way, we believe, momentarily, that we can start fresh.  That we can be our best selves.  That we, perhaps have found someone that is a better fit for this new us.  This is the appeal of most affairs but technology gives us the often false impression that we know someone because of the snapshot we get into their lives and all the we project upon it.

Online dating websites and Tinder throw more at us to process when it comes to love. I’ve always been a fan of online dating if for no other reason than that it leaves just a little bit less up to pure chance.  It allows you to put out into the world what you are looking for and if people are being honest, find someone who is looking for the same thing.  Online dating allows you to meet others that you most likely never would have otherwise.  And depending on how you use it, makes you think a bit about what you really want.  When it comes to dating and sex, technology allows people to find one another when we believe that who we are or what we like is unusual or uncommon. Those with sexual fetishes are suddenly now able to access large communities of others who will not be shocked to learn about their desires or shame them for who they are.  This, in my opinion, is wonderful and profoundly important, taking sexuality out of the shadows in a very new way.

Many of my clients have met their partners online.  Having seen so many of them use this means of modern day mating, I feel like I can safely say that most people go through a somewhat predictable process with it.  First comes the hesitation because of the perception of it still being embarrassing or shameful to actually be proactive about looking for love and not having been able to find it thus far without assistance. Then comes the nervous thrill of taking the plunge which is followed quickly by the very consuming awareness that there are so many people in the world that you could potentially date and practice of searching for them. After a bit, this luster wears off and people tend to get a little discouraged and disenfranchised by it all and either reject it completely or learn how to use it in moderation, to  as one of many means to meet potential partners.  Tinder is particularly interesting in that it requires less thought and information and in many ways lends itself to an even greater degree to the notion of people and relationships being expendable, one other manifestation of our consumer culture.  There is always someone else that’s next in line, one swipe away. Maybe they will be more attractive, more interesting.  This crisis of choice or too much choice really, can leave us all devaluing real people, real interactions.  And I believe that this feeds significantly into what so many young people experience today; the belief that there is always something else out there that we should be looking for.  That what we have is never quite good enough.

For those already in relationships, social media is a regular source of tension, disagreement, and disengagement.  I could not possible recall the number of times a partner has complained to the other about their attachment to their phones or iPad’s or the feeling that they are not really paying attention, are distracted and caught up in them.  Or that time that may have in the past been spent talking or engaging in an active activity like playing a game or a passive but shared activity like watching a show or reading in bed next to one another is now spent divided, with each partner lost in their own world of screen stimulation.  While autonomy and independence are certainly important in relationships, what I see happening pervasively right now is an unintentional and largely unaware expenditure of time and focus on social media and a lack of effort and energy put into relationship maintenance.  Accordingly couples are feeling disconnected, bored, and dissatisfied with their partnerships without really knowing why.  So while I do think the use of social media has some important and wonderful benefits, I highly recommend that clients look closely at their use of it and consider how it could be impacting you and your relationship and even consider a break or black-out period away from screen use in order to get a better understanding this.  It’s very easy to underestimate the amount of time actually spent on an activity that is highly stimulating and because of technology’s addictive nature, other activities can feel less and less compelling, including those that you may have enjoyed in the past and those which brought you closer to, rather than further away from your partner.

All of these examples and many more are the ways in which technology is changing and shaping our relationships.  What I find most intriguing perhaps is the question of whether this new broadening of our world and connection to others on a global level at all hours of the day and night makes us less lonely or more so as clients gravitate more towards online relationships than live ones.  In the absence of the internet would we all be a little more likely to invest in time spent in person with those we care about?  Does not doing so change our relationship to them? It’s complex without a doubt but it is our new reality.  In my professional experience, I see no reason that virtual relationships are in some way less real or meaningful that those that exist in physical reality. Some online relationships indeed never do come off the screen and remain a source of deep meaning for clients. For those that do, they advance (or don’t) in the same way that any relationship would.  Knowing about what a person feels and how they think and write is part of knowing them.  Observing their actions and interacting with them, navigating decisions and expectations, feeling physical chemistry or the lack thereof, are other ways of knowing a person and developing a relationship. Because of social media, there are many ways of knowing someone now and as a result of that, we can no longer make assumptions about what a relationship will look like.  Once that is understood, I believe that my clients are empowered in a new kind of way to make their own maps and create new paths to others, defining for themselves the meaning of each relationship in their lives.[ ATTRIBUTE: Please check: http://www.flickr.com/photos/36742159@N02/16634793070 to find out how to attribute this image ]

Alyssa Siegel

Alyssa Siegel is a Licensed Professional Counselor in Portland, Oregon. She earned her MS in Counseling and her BA in Psychology and is a member of The Oregon Board of Licensed Professional Counselors, The American Counseling Association, The National Board of Certified Counselors, The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, and The Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality. She works with individuals and couples and specializes in relationships, sexuality, and women's identity development. Alyssa is a contributing author to the book "Your Brain On Sex, How Smarter Sex Can Change Your Life". For more information please visit PortlandSexandRelationshipTherapy.com.

About Alyssa Siegel 29 Articles
Alyssa Siegel is a Licensed Professional Counselor in Portland, Oregon. She earned her MS in Counseling and her BA in Psychology and is a member of The Oregon Board of Licensed Professional Counselors, The American Counseling Association, The National Board of Certified Counselors, The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, and The Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality. She works with individuals and couples and specializes in relationships, sexuality, and women's identity development. Alyssa is a contributing author to the book "Your Brain On Sex, How Smarter Sex Can Change Your Life". For more information please visit PortlandSexandRelationshipTherapy.com.
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