Is Social Networking Destroying Marriages? 5 Tips to Protect Your Partnership

by Tina Ray

Does the use of social media weaken marriages?

Divorce attorneys regularly mine Facebook for dirt, including evidence of infidelity, spending money, and assets. In fact, in a recent American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers study, 66% of divorce attorneys surveyed said Facebook was their primary online resource for case evidence. And 81% “have seen an increase in the number of cases using social networking evidence during the past five years.”

A United Kingdom-based divorce service found references to Facebook in 20% of its divorce petitions, according to the Telegraph. This is in spite of the fact that the divorce rate has been slowly creeping downward (16.9 divorces per 1,000 women age 15+ in 2008, slowly decreasing from a high of 22.6 in 1980).

Online anecdotes blaming social media for failed marriages and relationships are easy to find:

  • One website is devoted entirely to woeful stories of marriages and relationships broken by social networking connections.
  • Online dating forums and social networks exist for married people who are looking for new partners, including online dating agencies whose business strategies are to lure married women to infidelity.

Meanwhile, 43% of U.S. Internet users check in with social networking sites daily and countless others use social networks on an irregular basis.

So, are social networks causing divorce?

Mark Gaither, founder of Redemptive Heart Ministries and author of Redemptive Divorce, says “If social media—e-mail, dating sites, etc.—does anything to contribute to the divorce rate, it makes illicit behavior more convenient. Few people would leave a spouse at home to troll nightclubs for affairs because the exposure is too great. Too many excuses to make. Too high a risk of being seen. Too much effort to expend.

“The Internet, however, offers anonymity and a concentrated pool of potential cheating partners, especially if the philanderer knows where to look,” Gaither says. “The Internet offers a less risky entrance to the world of cheating for someone who would otherwise choose a more constructive path.”

Gaither argues that social networking isn’t the problem.

“I receive a lot of mail from men and women dealing with a wayward spouse, and they frequently mention dating sites, virtual sex, and hidden e-mail accounts in the context of cheating, but none see the Internet as the core problem,” Gaither says. “Most recognize that the problem exists within their cheating spouse, and the Internet is merely a means to a premeditated end. In other words, they recognize that if the Internet and social media didn’t exist, the wayward mate would have found other ways to cheat.”

How do these problems start?

Steven Kimmons, Ph.D., of Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, Ill., describes one way such extramarital relationships start.

“One spouse connects online with someone they knew from high school. The person is emotionally available and they start communicating through Facebook,” Kimmons explains. “Within a short amount of time, the sharing of personal stories can lead to a deepened sense of intimacy, which in turn can point the couple in the direction of physical contact.”

An errant spouse may not set out to do wrong. The person may simply be curious about what an old friend or an old flame is doing and decide to say “hello” online, Kimmons says. If the errant spouse ends up talking to the old friend more often than their own spouse, “you don’t need a fancy psychological study to conclude that I’m more likely to fall in love with the person I talk to five times a week because I have more contact with that person,” he says.

The beginning of such a relationship may be innocent, but its continuation is not.

Gaither puts it this way: “In general, cheating is the wayward partner’s attempt to get needs met outside the marriage. That’s not to say the cheater’s spouse is necessarily neglectful or blameworthy. Every married individual has faults or flaws.”

He describes this kind of behavior as “a symptom of the wayward spouse’s choice to misbehave rather than address issues in the marriage or face deep, personal issues.”

“Social networking and online dating sites make this option easier,” says Gaither. “Even if a cyber-relationship doesn’t result in physical contact, a dissatisfied partner can undermine the marriage by engaging in an emotional affair instead of working through issues in the marriage.”

5 Tips to Guard Your Marriage

1. Perform a marriage check-up

Gaither focuses on two areas, expectation management and conflict resolution, which reflect the state of the couple’s intimacy and communication.

“When intimacy and communication are good, the couple works as a team to see that their individual expectations are honored,” he says. “They also view issues causing conflict as a common enemy. When intimacy and communication fail, the individuals become self-seeking in the marriage, trying to extract what they desire from one another instead of serving one another.”

His marriage check-up includes the following questions:

  • “Do you express your desires to your partner without demands, or do you simply expect him or her to know what you want?”
  • “Do you know what makes your partner feel loved, and, if so, what is your response to that knowledge?”
  • “Do you and your partner discuss expectations and then negotiate, or does someone bear the blame when one or the other is disappointed?”
  • “In a conflict with your partner, do you use words for any reason other than to be understood?”
  • “In a conflict, is your first priority to understand your partner or to be understood?”
  • “Do you and your partner view issues causing conflict as the enemy, or do you turn on one another?”

Kimmons’ experience suggests another question: “Do I talk to someone outside my marriage more than I talk to my spouse?”

After answering these questions, a person should ask for their spouse’s opinion on how well they are doing in these areas. Comparing notes with compassion and sensitivity can lead to new growth.

2. Create complete openness

Couples should create a safe space to discuss anything without being ashamed. It’s important to talk about relationship temptations, as well as other things that might be tempting to keep secret—purchases that aren’t in the budget, explosions with the kids, failures at work, etc.

Openness can provide emotional support as well as accountability and unity.

3. Create openness with someone outside the marriage

A trusted and experienced mentor can help a couple through hard and even embarrassing issues—providing good advice and not just reaffirming words. Whether it’s a mentor couple, people from one’s church, or even a professional counselor, a third party can help a couple see issues in a new light. Just be careful to avoid overexposure to members of the opposite sex.

Gaither strongly emphasizes the value of professional counseling to resolve ongoing issues of communication or intimacy.

“In ‘no-fault states,’ it only takes one to dissolve a marriage,” Gaither said. “Therefore, early intervention is crucial. If one spouse or the other does not manage expectations well or does not resolve disputes constructively, someone should seek the help of a counselor. Obviously, both individuals should be present and actively engaged, but this is not always possible. […] In this case, counseling for one partner is better than none at all.”

4. Help make invisible sins visible

Gaither explains his family’s approach: “In the spirit of building and maintaining trust, my wife and I disclose all online accounts and we give complete access to one another. She has all my passwords, and I have all of hers — e-mail accounts, Facebook, Twitter, Google+, online banking, everything. While we respect one another’s privacy, neither of us can see any good coming from secret or locked online accounts.”

Covenant Eyes Internet Accountability is a useful tool to make both partners’ online choices visible to a trusted Accountability Partner. Make sure this person (or people) will tell the other spouse if they see signs of trouble, and the Accountability Partner should be aware of specific boundaries that have been set.

Does this sound too intrusive? Hear what Gaither says: “If one partner is reluctant to grant complete access to the other, they suffer from a serious breakdown of trust. Again, online behavior becomes a symptom of a deeper problem. The issue undermining the couple’s trust should be discovered and removed for the marriage to thrive.”

5. Spouses set boundaries

Either partner should be able to say, “I’m not okay with that activity,” and have that statement respected and not fought.

A wife may think it’s not a temptation for her to be Facebook friends with her high school boyfriend, but if her husband is uncomfortable, it is a problematic issue for the marriage. One spouse may see danger ahead that the other does not. Even if a spouse is overly sensitive, protecting shared intimacy and trust should be the bottom line.

What boundaries might be set within a relationship?

  • Unfriend and block anyone who is a temptation. Old flames are likely to fall into this category.
  • Move a computer so that the screen is visible to both partners.
  • Chat and browser windows should not be minimized when a spouse walks by. Other than surprises planned for one’s partner, such as gifts, all online activity should be open to a spouse.
  • Many people are tempted when chatting online late at night, when their spouse is not home, or after several hours of surfing the Internet. Consider setting time limitations on Internet use. Covenant Eyes Filtering can create such boundaries.