Michael Duff ponders the negative affect that Facebook can have on marriages. Over a dozen users chime in about how Facebook has ruined or is ruining their marriages.

It’s tempting to dismiss this sort of thing under the banner of “If Facebook is ruining your marriage, it must have been weak to begin with.” It’s not unlike comments I’ve seen in the past that prostitution does not pose a threat to a good marriage. There is certainly an element of truth to that, but I think the natural rejoinder is that (a) some strong marriages have weak points and (b) weak marriages are often worth preserving.

The studies I’ve seen suggest that divorce does not make people happier than people that stay in unhappy marriages and that children of divorce tend to do better socially and perform better in school that do children of parents in unhappy marriages. Obviously, there are cases where this it is better for one party, the other, the children, or everybody involved. But I have yet to see a study suggesting that this is more true more often than it is false. So it’s far from clear that “she’s better off without him” (if he cheats due to Facebook) or “he’s better off without her” (if the same).

The Internet as a tool of divorce is certainly nothing new. My business law professor, who also handled divorces, talked about how the Internet was a marriage-killer because of a case he worked on where a woman left her husband for some guy on the Internet that she’d never even met (and who hadn’t met her and had not been informed that she had gained considerable weight since the time of the picture she provided). So is Facebook really all that different?

In a way, I think it might be. Not in the way that Duff suggests, though. I think the unique danger posed by Facebook is that it provides a socially acceptable way for people to contact and stay in contact with old flames and former lovers. And it provides a socially acceptable way for people to stay in contact with friends of the opposite sex, allowing things to inappropriately progress, that would otherwise raise flags or be harder to defend.

There’s nothing wrong with having friends of the opposite sex, of course. But ideally, when you do, there are some relatively firm parameters that if you feel the inclination to pass through that you should instead give pause. If there were a woman in my life that I would like to hang out with (platonically, I’d swear), but for some indescribable reason I would prefer Clancy not be present, that would be a signal to me that I should probably not be alone with this woman.

There is sort of a problem with this, which is that by coming out and saying that, we’re suggesting that we want to sleep with them or otherwise want to cheat on our spouse. If we don’t want to admit that there is a problem, we may set ourselves up for one just to prove that none exists. But even if there isn’t a problem, you don’t necessarily want her to be there if one should arise. I know far too many guys that have been burned with the belief that “Oh, I’m happy in my relationship” and “Oh, nothing is going to happen”. Of course, the vast majority of the time nothing does happen. But the consequences for the times when something does are devastating. As the saying goes, better safe than sorry. At the very least, you want to be asking yourself some tough questions about what she has to offer you that a same-gender friend does not.

The problem posed by Facebook is that it easily allows us to sidestep these questions. The mechanism for getting back in touch and staying in touch is already there. And it is gender neutral. “Hey, I’m looking up lots of people from high school. Why should my prom date be any different?” and then even if you get past that point you still have all the rationalizations to use from other scenarios mentioned in the previous paragraph.

For my part, I have a lot of female “friends” on Facebook, including one ex-girlfriend (Julie). I consider Julie to be safe because even in the Elseworlds event that I were unhappy with my marriage and did want to cheat, she is one of the last people that I would cheat with. If Clancy were to leave me or die, she is not among those I would consider dating. There are other cases where the circumstances are just a little more complicated than that. People that I will always view from a romantic standpoint and with whom every encounter I have ever had has involved things that would be inappropriate for a married man. I am relatively sure that I could, with enough effort, force a platonic friendship and excise all inappropriateness. But frankly, without the sexual or romantic carrot, there’s simply no reason to. They have nothing to offer me that I can’t get from a male friend. So from there I either make the decision not to friend them or if I do it’s only out of the curiosity of finding out what they’re up to and I make no effort to forge any sort of real friendship with them.

The older and more firmly married I get, the more I have come to appreciate boundaries. Some of the problems listed in Duff’s comment section are from people whose spouses refuse to cut off people when asked. That is definitely, in my view, indicative of a problem. My wife has absolutely nothing to fear from anybody on my friends list and really nothing to fear from the people that I intentionally left off. But if for any reason it makes her uncomfortable, that should be reason enough to take it out of the box of potential problems. Clancy is generally not the jealous sort. Julie was, though. And Julie was wrong and wrong over and over again about who did or did not constitute a threat to our relationship… until she was right.

I feel very fortunate that I am in a marriage where Facebook does not even remotely apply as any sort of threat. That’s not just a verdict on our marriage, but also on her unshakable integrity and my absolute determination not to enter the brotherhood of unfaithful husbands. Not everyone is as fortunate.

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8 Responses to Facebook: The Marriage Killerapp?

  1. Linus says:

    Excellent comments…pretty much exactly how I see it. The only way I see Facebook contributing to divorce is by making it easier to “slip up” – you can’t really keep track of who all sees what, especially since some status updates and comments can be read by friends of friends. So people who are already cheating are more likely to get caught than they might have been. Everything else is just temptation, which, as you point out, any good, faithful husband has learned to manage anyway.

  2. rob says:

    That was food for thought. I’m not in a relationship, but I wonder if should unfriend girls I had crushes on. Just as a moving-on mechanism. Too bad FB posts when you unfriend someone.

    I also have very few male friends. Maybe that’s a problem? Crap, come to think of it, almost all my friends are girls I was into. Goddamn I have almost no self-awareness, and getting some kinda sucks.

  3. trumwill says:

    Self-awareness can be a depressing thing.

    In the World According to William, it’s not generally a good idea to be friends with people that you are attracted to unless you have basically given up hope. Having them as a friend on Facebook isn’t the worst thing in the world, but following their Status updates? Not so good an idea.

  4. rob says:

    Faking being a friend because you have a crush but won’t ask her out: that is both immoral and bad you. Not that I haven’t done it. But it’s worse than wrong: it’s wrong and ineffective.

    But one in particular I’m very glad is a friend. We have enough in common to talk, but not so much that it’s boring. But I started from going on a date with her, not hanging out with her as a secret pretend girlfriend. Going from “I’d like to take you out” to “let’s be friends” is a way different (at least in Rob world) than trying to go from “Let’s be pals” to “Hey buddy, can I put my hand down your pants.” The second one is pretty much trying to trick someone into sex.

    I think it shows some emotional growth that I can be friends after a disapointment at all. Not to mention, pretty girls are social proof. At least people say. Hanging out with Redacted, I think girls do check me out. Though the looks might be “Is she brain damaged?” or “that guy is really looking at his sister weird” or possibly “She’s hot, and that’s the best she can do, what hope do I have?”

  5. rob says:

    Sorry for the afterthought post. What’s a status update, and how do you follow it? And Wll, hit me up facebook if you want. The email address should be searchable there.

  6. trumwill says:

    If you’re satisfied with the unrequited feelings, I say “power to you!” I’ve been there. Had someone that I wanted to be more than friends with, was shot down, and settled into being friendly. The fact that I had already gotten the “shot down” aspect out of the way actually took a lot of pressure off. I mean, I can’t say that I wouldn’t have jumped at an opportunity to partner up if one presented itself, I had cleanly accepted the fact that wasn’t going to happen. Since I was more able to enjoy my actual time with her (okay, now I’m thinking of someone in particular), it was not impossible to match up with one of her friends. It didn’t happen (I started dating Julie shortly thereafter), but it could have. Couldn’t have if I’d still been hung up on her.

    Status updates are posts to your wall. You know, where people say “Man, work sucked today” and stuff like that.

  7. rob says:

    Oh, why do that? Work always sucks. Maybe as will though, sort of a baby steps to socializing thing.

    It isn’t that I’m satisfied with unrequited feelings. It’s just that in this case the plusses of friendship outweigh them. Usually being friends isn’t worth the discomfort, but sometimes it is. I don’t expect it to turn romantic, and I’m not resentful, maybe because of having tried. Without feedback, it isn’t easy to tell friendly from interested. With luck, my interest would fade, but my emotions don’t have a rapid learning curve.

    Actually, I’m not so sure if I mostly became friends with girls I was interested in. Maybe more that I tend to crush on anyone who is hmm, not even nice to me or friendly, just not hostile. Indifference is good enough for me!

    The more I think about my past in light of knowing about ScPD, the more I think it caused the problems. If were less anhedonic, unmotivated, shy, and paranoid, I’d probably have asked out(and been rejected by, or not) enough people to have built some intuition about what actually signals interest. Or at least been hurt enough not to get interested for nothing easily. But hey, fantasy feels good now. Learning painful lessons by trial and error maybe pays of later. And of course, screening out people with serious mental issues is a feature of dating and courtship, not a bug.

    That mechanism (developing crushes over almost nothing,) if it’s common, may be a part of why single women aren’t even acquaintance-level sociable with undesirable men at work, school, and probably 3rd places. Married women, they always have the “I’m married” excuse. Single women need to avoid openings for interest. Which probably hurts women’s networking and such. The phenomena is likely the male equivalent of women who complain about becoming “invisible” at whatever age it is.

  8. cleared in hot says:

    I’ve been mulling over this post (and topic) for some time. Facebook scares the hell out of me.

    I think the potential for danger in marriages is targeted more at the female (wife) than the male. Maybe this is just my perspective as a man (and non-FB-user), but the way I see it is that it is a potential source for drama, and for inappropriate emotional relationships to form – even if that is not the original intent. Nothing ‘physical’ need happen to cause serious destruction to a relationship.

    I think we all have a kind of I wonder what John has been up to all these years curiosity, but I have to think that some doors are better left closed.

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