Is Facebook Causing Us To Cheat?

Is Facebook Causing Us To Cheat?
Love, Self

Since starting a psychotherapy practice 15 years ago, I've witnessed three basic waves of technology-based infidelity.

Back in the '90s, my clients generally discovered infidelity when opening their partner's cell phone bill. The story was pretty much the same for all of these clients: they would see countless calls to the same number, dial it up and find themselves speaking with the object of their partner's indiscretions. Then came email, the second wave of technology-assisted infidelity. These stories began to emerge in the late '90s. Suspicious partners would log in to their partner's email account and find plentiful evidence of extra-relational activities, if not outright proof of cheating. Watch: Do you snoop on his email?

The third wave began to break in late 2007, when Facebook expanded beyond its origins on college campuses. Facebook infidelity is insidious, and it differs from other technology-facilitated cheating 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 the relationship that it enables, take too much of someone's emotional energy. Facebook Causes Romantic Jealousy

Recently, one of my clients, a 31-year-old mother of two, complained, "My husband is on Facebook all day! He has more than 500 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 bald, alien-head profile image. One gets hooked; the other doesn't. Watch: Facebook Manners And You

Facebook relationship troubles 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.

What makes Facebook appealing is also what makes it dangerous from an infidelity standpoint: it connects you to those you otherwise wouldn't meet or renew friendships with, it involves a degree of distance and it's easy. Chatting via Facebook is so much more innocent than, say, calling up the cute new guy at the office or, for that matter, an ex-lover—two of the most common cheating partners. Innocent interaction can quickly evolve into a state of emotional distraction (i.e., simply too much time and energy going to someone outside of your romantic relationship) or into near-infidelity, such as full-on flirtations or emotional affairs. Is Our Facebook Romance Real?

How much emotional energy is going into our cyber relationships? One of my clients—a recently single entrepreneur and 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 100 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!"

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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. Without being able to delve into the nuance of each couple here, some basic parameters I offer to Facebook Widows may suffice:

What To Do If You Or Your Partner Feels Like A Facebook Widow(er)

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. 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. 

During this weekend, if you are the Facebook widow-maker, try reorienting 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 give your partner a status update—in real life. 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.

If you are the Facebook widow(er), during this weekend, be sure to be encouraging, available and engaged with your partner's 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. 3 Things You Can Do Right Now to Reconnect

After The Facebook-Free Weekend

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As the Facebook widowmaker, make an effort have a healthier balance between your cyber-life and your real life. Cut back on your Facebook time and expand your relationship face-time. Continue to use the same strategies you used over the weekend by setting parameters around how much time you spend Facebooking, and how much energy you give to your partner. Continue to give your partner status updates through good old-fashioned verbal communication. And invite your partner into your Facebook time by poking them, sending them private messages off-wall, or mentioning them in your on-wall commentary. Fun And Free: A Couples Blog

What Not To Do

Many frustrated non-Facebookers take the approach, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." They try to "friend" their way to revenge. It's no surprise that they do not tend to enjoy Facebook at all, as they are simply doing it to prove a point. Also, spiteful Facebooking typically results in a relationship with two partners over-emphasizing their cyber life instead of their real one. Instead, continue to be positive and supportive of your partner's efforts to set parameters around Facebook time. Also, please consider that some Facebooking, in moderation, can actually be an enjoyable way to communicate, both with your friends and your lover. 

It is likely that both partners will find satisfaction through these joint efforts to be more connected. 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 have in common with the recovering Facebook junkie quoted above. And if your partner is unable to stick with the parameters above, you may want to re-evaluate your current relationship. 

Elisabeth Joy LaMotte LICSW is a social worker and psychotherapist in private practice in Washington, D.C. Her book, Overcoming Your Parents' Divorce, was a finalist in the 2008 National Best Book Awards in the relationship category. Read more about her on www.elisabethlamotte.com.

Read our Q&A with Elisabeth about breaking up with parental baggage.

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