How Social Networks Can Inflame Jealousy

Research shows that evidence of past happiness can threaten new partners.

Posted Jun 20, 2014

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

Our memories, of course, can change when the relationship status changes. Michael Ross and his colleagues have documented these changes: When you change your view of your previous partner, you rewrite the past to reflect your new understanding of him or her. When you were in the relationship, all 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 now 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 one's current relationship. In contrast, memories of previous relationships seem to eventually settle into a final story—one that matches your current understanding of yourself, the previous partner, your relationship, and how it fell apart. Memories change, and become the stories we tell—of relationships that grew and those that ended.

But still, Facebook holds everything in an unchanging past. All those happy pictures. All that togetherness. 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 reside in the network's 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 review that past and long for those halcyon days? Do you lurk on the internet and Facebook-stalk your previous partner? Or do you end the Facebook friendship and try to 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 (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 history of activity on the site. When you friend someone new, such as a new romantic interest, you can see their pictures with their old flame(s) and the comments they shared. You can also see if your new partner is still friends with his or her old partner(s). Does they continue to interact?

Seeing those old pictures—and old and new comments—may fan the flame of jealousy. No matter how your new partner describes the old relationship, no matter how he or she has reconstructed their memories in their own minds, the old photos always tell a different story, if you let them. 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—documented memories, stored forever.

And, of course, Facebook also shows you current activities—your partner with his or her friends, or pictures where he or she is tagged, possibly at events you missed with people you don’t know.

What is the impact of all this information?

Ute and Beukeboom surveyed individuals in relationships about their use of social network sites, relationship satisfaction, and jealousy. First the good news: They Beukeboom found that most people reported more relationship happiness than jealousy. But they also found fairly high levels of Facebook monitoring—checking a partner’s profile, monitoring his or her activities, and adding his or her friends to one’s own network. And the more monitoring people admitted doing, the more jealousy they reported feeling: The ability to access a partner’s social network may not improve the quality of one’s relationship.

What does this mean for the modern relationship? How can one survive in the real world and the social network? It’s complicated. My students who live in both the real world and on the Internet monitor and check up on partners online, and yes, this monitoring affects how they feel about their relationships. If a partner’s Facebook profile matches what they see in the real world, it's a positive. But when things don’t match, it's a different story.

So what should they do when a relationship ends? Internally, like the rest of us, they will rewrite their memories. But should they also rewrite Facebook, deleting friends, photos, and comments? I’m not sure. Fully erasing one’s past isn’t appealing but neither is having a photographic record that doesn’t match your current feelings. To make things worse, though, leaving that photographic record up may impact one's next relationship.