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How Social Media Differences Can Warp Relationships

The subtle influence is stronger than you might think.

The limited research on the effects of excessive social media use on close relationship has revealed inconsistent findings. This is at odds with the plethora of anecdotal complaints about it ruining relationships.

The disconnect between what people say, particularly in clinical settings, and what objective research shows may be due to the difficulty in operationalizing subtle effects.

The most frequent complaints of my own clients and those of my colleagues are not about the distraction of social media so much as the polarization it engenders, particularly about political and policy issues.

On the face of it, this seems paradoxical, as people tend to be attracted to potential partners who share their opinions, or at least don't contradict them. But the paradox falls away when we consider that people are more attracted to different temperaments and seek out partners who provide qualities they lack. (If you’re detail-oriented and high energy, you’re probably partnered with a more mellow, big-picture sort of person.) We’re also a lot more tolerant and less egotistical when falling in love.

The conflicts fostered by social media are more temperamental than factual. In our age of entitlement, people want more than factual agreement; they insist on having their feelings validated. When feelings are not validated, they feel rejected or betrayed, regardless of the factual content of their concern. Partners who disagree don’t just seem wrong; they seem untrustworthy.

This is an understandable result when we consider the nature of social media. Policy and political issues on social media platforms seem more personal because they’re mixed with personal messages and highly personal information.

Assumption and Bias Gaps

When partners have separate social media accounts, they will likely consume different information, which is automatically fed to them by algorithms organized by their different social media clicks. Even when the information is factually the same, it’s typically based on assumptions embedded with different biases, which can cause radically different interpretations of facts, making it hard to understand each other:

“How can he think that; doesn’t he get the headlines?”

“Why would she say that; doesn’t she know the facts?”

They grow more extreme in reaction to each other, focusing more on differences than similarities. Because negative feelings get priority processing in the brain — they’re more associated with immediate survival — partners tend to focus on what they’re against more than what they’re for. Being against something produces anger and resentment. Being for something produces passion and conviction.

When relationships become dominated by negative opinions and biases — what you’re against, rather than what you’re for — they grow superficial, devoid of emotional connection and fulfillment.

For many hapless couples, media shapes their relationships by validating their negative biases and assumptions, thus amplifying differences and making them seem more personally threatening.

The Way Out

Focus less on opinions and more on deeper values. Partners tend to agree about values like freedom, fairness, compassion, and human dignity, even when they disagree about policy specifics. Shared values connect us.

Think of what you’ll regret in 10 or 20 or 30 years. On their death beds, people don’t regret political or social disagreements. They regret not being as compassionate and kind to loved ones as they could have been.

Understand that your conflicts are about thoughts, not behavior. Your partner isn’t hurting anyone; they simply have different abstract ideas about policy.

Recognize that it’s nearly impossible to feel lovable when we’re resentful or to feel worthy of respect when we’re disrespectful.

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