Mental Mishaps

Errors in perceiving, remembering, and thinking.

Facebook Jealousy

How Facebook impacts relationships

When a relationship ends, our memories gradually change. We rewrite our memories to reflect our current emotions. But the internet doesn’t change. People update their relationship status–changing from “in a relationship” to “single” or “it’s complicated.” But Facebook accumulated and maintains detailed photographic evidence of a wonderful relationship past. Should we edit Facebook to match our reconstructed memories?

Modern relationships happen in the real world and are built in the internet ether. For some millennials, the relationship isn’t official until it is a Facebook relationship. Couples post joint pictures, are tagged at the same event, like each other’s photos, and comment on each other’s status updates. The relationship history exists in memory and on Facebook. And that Facebook history is always visible and is stored forever. Once it is a relationship on the internet, it’s always on the internet.

Unlike Facebook, our memories change when the relationship status changes. Michael Ross and his colleagues have documented these memory changes. When you change your view of your previous partner, you memories change too. You rewrite the past to reflect your new understanding of your former partner. When you were in the relationship, everything was glorious, you remembered perfect events, and your partner was wonderful (no matter what your friends thought of the person). But when the relationship is over, the memories change–you see the odd moments in the perfect events and the problems in that wonderful partner. Your memories are reconstructed to match your current attitudes.

My colleague Sarah Drivdahl and I have similarly found that memories continue to change as long as someone is actively engaged in the relationship. In contrast, memories of previous relationships seem to eventually settle into a final story–a story that matches your current understanding of yourself, that previous partner, that relationship, and how things fell apart. Memories change. Memories become the stories we tell–of relationships that grew and of relationships that ended.

But Facebook holds everything in an unchanging past. All those happy pictures. All those posts about your joy together. Not only does Facebook hold everything, but the version Facebook retains is the idealized version of that old relationship and the glorified impossible version of your previous partner. Only the good times, pretty pictures, and joyful comments reside in Facebook’s internet memory–most people rarely post anything else.

I’ve been curious about the impact of that un-reconstructed past. What do you do when the relationship ends? Do you keep that Facebook history when your relationship status switches from “in a relationship” to “it’s complicated?” Do you lurk on the internet and Facebook-stalk your previous partner? Do you review that past and long for those halcyon days? Or do you end the Facebook friendship and delete the photographic evidence?

I’m not at all sure what the best approach is. But I have seen an interesting recent study on jealousy, happiness, and social networks like Facebook (by Ute and Beukeboom, 2011). Here’s the cool and risky part–Facebook allows us to see not only someone’s current posts but also that person’s entire Facebook history. When you friend someone new, such as a new romantic interest, you can see the pictures with their old flame and the comments shared. You can also see if your new partner is still friends with his or her old partner. Does your new flame continue to interact with that old flame?

Seeing those old pictures, old comments, and new comments may fan the flame of jealousy. No matter how your new partner describes the old relationship, no matter how your partner has reconstructed memories, the old photos tell a different story. There may be a substantial mismatch between what your partner tells you and what you see on Facebook. Social networks introduce a type of information previously unavailable, or at least not easily available. At one time all we had were memories; your partner’s memories and other people’s memories. But now we have the documentation that Facebook stores forever.

Facebook also shows you current activities. The posts on which your partner comments. Your partner’s new friends. Pictures in which your partner is tagged, possibly at events you missed with people you don’t know.

What is the impact of all the information that Facebook shares with you?

Ute and Beukeboom surveyed individuals in relationships about their use of social network sites, relationship satisfaction, and jealousy. First the good news. Ute and Beukeboom found that most people reported more relationship happiness than jealousy, and that’s nice. They also found fairly high levels of Facebook monitoring–that is checking a partner’s profile, monitoring a partner’s activities, and adding a partner’s friends to one’s own network of friends. The more monitoring people reported, the more jealousy they also reported. Having the ability to constantly access a person’s social network may not improve the quality of one’s relationship.

What does this mean for the modern relationship? How can a relationship survive in the real world and the social network? Well, it’s complicated. My students who live in the real world and on the internet have tried to help me understand how all this information influences them. Yes, they monitor. They check on their romantic partners on Facebook. And yes, this monitoring affects how they feel about their relationships. If their partner’s Facebook profile matches what they see in the real world, then this is a positive. But when things don’t match, it is a different story.

So what’s a millennial to do when a relationship ends? Like the rest of us, they will rewrite their memories. Should they also rewrite Facebook? Should they delete friends, pictures, and comments? I’m not sure and neither are my students. Erasing one’s past isn’t appealing but neither is having a photographic record that doesn’t match the way you feel now. Worse for the millennial is that leaving that photographic record may impact the next relationship.

Ira E. Hyman, Jr., Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at Western Washington University.


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