Since starting out as a psychotherapist over fifteen years ago, I’ve witnessed three basic waves in the technology of infidelity.
Back in the nineties, my clients generally discovered their partner's infidelity when they opened a bill for their partner's cell phone. The story was pretty much the same for all of these clients: they would find countless calls to the same number, they would dial it up, and find themselves speaking with (or listening to the outgoing message of the object of their partner’s indiscretions.
(In the pre-historic pre-cell phone universe of the 1970s, "call forwarding" was the technological vehicle of choice when it came to infidelity. Cheaters would say they were working late and then forward their office calls to their lover’s home. This obviously backfired from time to time, and many a cheater eventually got caught when they forgot to un-forward. But that was before my time.)
Then came email, the second wave of technology-assisted infidelity. These stories began to emerge in the late nineties. Suspicious partners would log on to their partner's email account and find plentiful evidence of extra-relational relations. These relations typically involved some form of physical infidelity.
The third wave began to break in late 2007/ early 2008, when Facebook broke out beyond its origins on college campuses. Facebook as a technology to facilitate infidelity shares some of the same characteristics as its predecessors. For example, it is new, fun, easy, and exists as a social corridor of peoples’ lives that is meant to be private. However, with all of these technologies, this intended “privacy” is easily disrupted if someone sharing close quarters becomes suspicious.
Yet in many ways Facebook's profile is entirely different. Why? Facebook infidelity is insidious, because it begins in apparent innocence. Indeed, Facebook serves as a platform for communication that can lead, almost accidentally, to infidelity. For the most part, Facebook relationship rifts are NOT about clear-cut physical affairs. Instead, they are about lingering on fidelity’s edge. Facebook infidelity begins when the technology, and a relationship that it enables, take too much of someone’s emotional energy.
Recently, one of my clients complained,
“My husband is on Facebook all day! He has more than five hundred friends! Who are these people anyway? At this point it's official, I'm a full-fledged Facebook Widow. Help!”
I have heard this term now -- “Facebook Widow” (or, less frequently “Facebook Widower”) -- more times than I can count. In fact, it is fast becoming one of the most common issues to surface among my therapy clients.
In most relationships, it seems that one partner Facebooks and the other doesn't. Or, if both partners are on Facebook, one has hundreds of friends and spends a good deal of time Facebooking, while the other never gets around to changing their blue-background, bald and masculine, alien-head photo and simply does not understand what the Facebook rage is all about.
Facebook relationship troubles tend to start out innocently. The Facebooker may join for professional reasons, or because they have received numerous invitations from friends. Before long, however, couples are fighting about who has more ex-lovers as friends, who friended whom ("I forget" being the most common answer to this all-important question), and why people mention certain tidbits on their status updates that they don't bother to mention to their partner.
Facebook obviously has endless appeal to young adults and those in middle-aged relationships. It helps them keep in touch with old friends and lets them connect with new friends. It also helps users feel in the technological loop by allowing them to scale back their email and communicate in a fashion that resembles those cool, tech-savvy college students. And who doesn't get an ego boost by having an impressive roster of friends?
The same thing that makes Facebook appealing is also what makes it dangerous from an infidelity standpoint: it is easy, AND it involves a degree of distance. Chatting via Facebook is so much more innocent than, say, calling up the cute new guy at the office or, for that matter, your ex. As a result, it seems that Facebook is causing conflict for many adult couples.
The most common Facebooking infidelity phenomenon involves the escalation of communication with either professional colleagues of the opposite sex or with an ex-lover. This usually starts out innocently enough, but quickly evolves into situations ranging from simply too much time and energy going to someone outside of the romantic relationship or into full-on flirtations or emotional affairs.
How much emotional energy is going into our cyber relationships? One of my clients – a self-proclaimed “recovering Facebook junkie” – said it best:
"Facebooking is great for those who are never, ever, under any circumstances, going to cheat on their partner. It's also great for cheaters who are going to cheat either way -- Facebook just makes it easier. Facebook represents a serious problem for folks like me-- the teeterers. By that I mean those of us who are not one hundred percent likely to cheat, but who might, unintentionally, teeter on fidelity's edge. Facebook is to teeterers what a bar is to recovering alcoholics. Don't go there!"
In short, Facebook seems to be opening all kinds of doors that can compromise a relationship’s intimacy.
If Facebook frustrations bring a client into therapy, my job is to help them figure out why they are a “teeterer” or why it is so hard to tear themselves away from their iphone and connect with their partner. Therapists tend to delve deep. But for those who are simply concerned about potential Facebook widowhood issues, some basic parameters may suffice.
What do you do when you are in a relationship where one person feels like a Facebook widow (widower)?
My best advice to both partners is to agree to try logging off for a whole weekend. Even if you are NOT the one incessantly Facebooking, you need to log off and convince your partner to do the same. No Facebook AND NO email! If you must email for work, set specific times that you will do so (no more than two times per day) and stick to those parameters.
What do you do if you are the Facebook widowmaker?
Try reallocating your Facebook time toward your partner. Every time you have the urge to update your status or check your homepage, try asking your partner a question. OR giving your partner a status update. Try putting the same effort, flair and energy into your real life relationship as you do with your cyber ones. In all likelihood, this will not be easy and will take a little getting used to over the course of the weekend, but stick with it and a happier, more connected relationship can be the result.
What do you do if you are the Facebook widow[er]?
You may, understandably, want to either throw your computer out the window OR, alternately, log onto your partner’s wall. However, neither approach is productive:
a) your computer is expensive and you probably need it; and
b) logging onto your partner’s wall keeps your connections in the cyber arena which will not generate the level of intimacy that will fix the problem.
So many frustrated non-Facebookers take the approach “if you can’t beat em, join em”. They join up and try to friend their way to revenge. In is not surprising that they do not tend to enjoy Facebook at all, as they are simply doing it out of spite. Also, spiteful Facebooking typically results in a relationship with two partners over-emphasizing their cyber life instead of one.
Instead, convince your partner to follow the parameters above for one weekend. During the weekend, be sure to be encouraging, available and engaged with your partners’ efforts to reconnect. Be positive and be sure to ask your partner just as many questions as they are asking you. If you are enjoying your technology-free weekend, be sure to say so! A little positive reinforcement can go a long way.
It is likely that both partners can find great satisfaction from making the joint effort to go of-line. If so, seriously consider cutting back on Facebook time and expanding real-life relationship face time.
If you don't feel satisfied by taking this advice -- OR if you find yourself unable to tear yourself away from Facebook, even for one weekend, you may want to ask yourself how much you may have in common with the recovering Facebook junkie quoted above. If your partner is unable to stick with the parameters above, you may want to re-evaluate your current relationship.