Your partner has just commented on a few of his ex's photos, and his ex has commented back a few times. Are they flirting? You're bothered, but you also don't want your partner to know that you were checking on his profile since you don't want to appear jealous or insecure. It makes you more irritated and curt with your partner at dinner, but you don't mention it, hoping the problem will go away.
You’d think that living in a city with thousands of people in close proximity urbanites might spend less time on social networking sites. But, in fact, the opposite is true. City dwellers use Twitter more than people living in rural areas; New York one of the five most active cities on Twitter—Jakarta, Indonesia is number one. Cities around the world have among of the most connected users of social networking sites. It’s no wonder that Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, along with dating apps like Tinder, have become common sources of tension in relationships.
Social media use is known to play a role in romantic relationships. The top reasons people say they use Facebook are to keep in touch with people and monitor people, including their current partners. Up to a third of people say they use Facebook to find out information about their exes. This has been termed “interpersonal electronic surveillance” (IES) or "social surveillance" (Tokunaga 2011; Markwick 2012). The terms make looking at a partner's or ex-partner’s site sound pathological, but the majority of checking behavior of partners on social media do not rise to that level.
What if people are simply looking on social networking sites as a way to be closer and more involved with their partners?
Monitoring a partner could bring more reassurance or cause more distress, depending on what one discovers, how the information is interpreted, and whether partners feel that the emotional foundation is strong enough to discuss it together.
There is an active debate as to whether social media use and specifically surveillance damages relationships. Survey studies have found that more time on Facebook is associated with jealousy and monitoring of a partner’s profile online (Muise et al 2009). But it’s hard to know what is the chicken or the egg—or if it's a feedback loop. One recent study found that active Twitter use was associated with increased Twitter-related conflict, which in turn is associated with increased infidelity, breakup, and divorce. But it’s difficult to know whether people who are more likely to engage in Twitter fighting are simply exhibiting a conflict that already exists in their relationship (i.e., negative Twitter interactions as just another avenue for exposing underlying communication or relationship problems) or if the Twitter use itself damages the relationship—or both.
Who is more likely to engage in electronic surveillance in relationships? Researchers hypothesized that those with higher levels of relationship uncertainty, such as fears about the future of the relationship, would demonstrate increased surveillance of partners, but two studies of Facebook users did not find this (Muise et al., 2009, Fox, et al., 2014).
Researcher Tokunaga has identified four unique aspects of social networking sites that make them more prone to relationship surveillance:
- Information is easily accessible. Even if a profile isn’t public, it’s likely that it’s shared with a person’s partner or available via mutual friends.
- People post a wide variety of media, ranging from photos and videos to links. Photos can communicate a lot of information about location, behaviors, and social interactions.
- Social media profiles archive a significant amount of past information. How often do people delete old photos from their Instagram feed from two or three years ago? Probably not that often. Editing posts is tedious, and people would lose their posting history, making it even less likely that they will want to remove old data.
- Data can be gathered secretly. Most social networking sites do not give you reports on who is looking at your information or how often.
I suggest these additional factors that might make social media surveillance lead to tension in romantic relationships:
- Small gestures can take on a much bigger meaning—whether intentional or not. Gestures that take less than a second and a single click (e.g., “liking” a photo, accepting a friend request, tweeting an emoticon) can communicate a whole range of meaning whether the person meant it that way or not. Likewise, other people’s reactions (or lack of reaction) can also take on significance (e.g., whether or not people “like” or comment on a post or accept an event invite on Facebook).
- Appearance can feel like reality—the line between real and imagined scenarios becomes blurred. Online profiles allow for people to manipulate their online appearance, and onlookers tend to believe in the fantasy of this online life. You have only to look at the difference between how recipes look on Pinterest versus real life to recognize this perception problem. But it’s a lot harder to apply this logic to the feelings stemming from looking at a partner’s Facebook or Instagram profile.
- People have less control over information about themselves. Despite privacy settings and the ability to set limits on tagging functions, people might not be aware they are in a photo online or are commented about without their permission. This lack of control can also lead to moments being transmitted without context.
- It’s harder to raise issues directly with one’s partner because it can lead to questions like why one was looking, or feelings of guilt. Partners can be hesitant to discuss their feelings about social networking sites because it might reveal that they are looking. This hesitation can stymie further communication.
Checking up on romantic partners via social media, even when benign or mutual, can create a potential for conflict—just like any other form of communication can. Even though social media is different from email, texting, or other forms of interaction, how couples handle social media and monitoring should be similar to how they deal with any other type of communication issue.
How can you make social media work in your relationship?
- Talk to your partner openly about how you want to handle social media—from Twitter to Facebook to Instagram and other apps/sites. Let them know what is acceptable for you and listen to your partner’s thoughts on how they use or plan to use networking sites.
- Be honest if something you found online about your partner bothers you. For example, if you find that your partner—who has agreed to be exclusive—is still active on a dating app, talk to them directly and nonjudgmentally as soon as possible rather than letting it bother you over a long period of time. Whether you were the one who found the information or the person being monitored, an open and blameless discussion can help both sides better understand each other.
- Don’t judge or criticize yourself for your feelings. While one might feel guilty for checking their romantic partner's profile, or feeling upset that a partner looked, it’s actually very common behavior. Checking on a partner doesn’t necessarily suggest doubt or control. It could stem from a natural desire to be connected to and aware of a partner’s life. Either way, it’s important to try to have these conversations together without judgment or blame.
- Be aware that small gestures can take on unintentional or bigger meanings. What does it mean when you or your partner likes or comments on a photo or accepts a friend request? It’s important to acknowledge that small gestures can mean a wide range of intentions, and it’s helpful to clarify things early by having a direct conversation with your partner.
- Recognize the difference between your public and private lives—and that the two spheres can impact each other in both directions. Even though appearance is often different than reality, appearance can still impact a partner’s feelings and reactions in a very real way, so it's important not to minimize or downplay your partner's feelings or response.
- Question whether the conversation is really about social media or if it’s a deeper relationship or communication issue. If you find that your or your partner’s use of these sites makes either of you uncomfortable, it is important to recognize both partners' feelings and examine the potential reasons. There may be other underlying questions unrelated to social media—trust, commitment, amount of quality time spent together—that can be raised directly with your partner.
The use of social networking sites and the checking of partners' profiles is a common and everyday part of today’s modern romantic relationships that is most often not pathological. Handling these issues within a romantic relationship is similar to handling any other communication issue. Rather than avoiding social media, it’s important to focus on underlying feelings and communication. Partners can work together to examine how and why they use social networking sites in their relationships, be curious about how it makes them feel, and discuss how they want to handle it in their relationship in a way is respectful and honors each other’s feelings and point of view.
Copyright Marlynn H. Wei, MD, PLLC © 2015