Fifteen years ago, my husband and I relocated to Northern California to begin our committed life journey together. I took the job as the director of a small, independent school, and quickly became acquainted with several of the board members. I spent a great deal of time with one young woman in particular, whose husband was a computer pioneer and on the cutting edge of social media.
I didn't quite understand all the implications at the time, but the husband had developed a "friendship" with a woman via the web, and the friendship was negatively affecting the couple's marriage. The whole Internet friendship scenario was new to all of us then, but fast forward 15 years and we now recognize social media has revolutionized how we connect with other human beings and how we develop our relationships -- often at the expense of our most intimate connections.
We used to say, one's lifelong friends could be counted on the fingers of one hand. But in this century it is a status symbol to boast about the number of Friends one has on Facebook or followers on Twitter. Further, millennial social media users are often motivated to use these impersonal, distant connections as a substitute for human interactions and private connections.
It is apparent to me the entire definition of "friend" has been completely altered. The Miriam Webster Online Dictionary defines friend as: "one attached to another by affection and esteem," and "a favored companion." I have fair amount of friends on Facebook, but we aren't all connected necessarily by affection and esteem, nor do we seek out each others companionship on a regular basis. I don't think the Facebook friends' definition has hit the dictionary yet.
When marriages are in trouble and adults are feeling misunderstood or under-valued by their intimate partner, it is all too easy to sit down in front of a computer, iPad or tablet and pour out your heart to someone who has no greater investment in the "friendship" than typing a short, sympathetic response. Then the fun begins -- the disclosures, the fantasizing, and in many cases, the meet-ups.
In 1980 (yes, 1980), Barbara Streisand and Barry Gibb sang poignantly of the potential dangers of these marital triangles when they recorded "What Kind of Fool." While writing this column, I listened to the song again, and found it heartfelt and relevant for the social media "friend" dilemma. Here is the second verse: "There was a world when we were standing still, And for a moment we were separated, And then you found her, You let the stranger in, Who's sorry now, Who's sorry now." (B. Gibb--Galuten, Barry Gibb, 1980)
Social media has made it all too easy to let the stranger in to marriages and interfere with the critical intimacy a couple needs to remain in tact. We now add social media to the list of potential difficulties in marriage, along with cheating, dishonesty, addictions, abuse, changes in priorities and financial problems.
So if you are struggling in a marriage and relying on an Internet friendship for intimacy, ask yourself these questions:
1) Does your in-person partner know about your Internet friend or is the friendship conducted in secret?
2) If the answer to #1 is NO, how would it affect your in-person relationship if the secret was revealed?
3) Do you take time away from your in-person relationship to devote time your internet friend?
4) When your children are older and have intimate partner difficulties, would you encourage them to copy your behavior?
5) Are you devoting more emotional energy to the needs of your internet friend than the needs of your in-person partner?
I lost track of my friend of 15 years ago, so I don't know how her relationship turned out -- if her marriage stayed together or if it did not. But I think the following quote by author Tony Horwitz would have offered wisdom then as it does now: "There are people one knows and people one doesn't. One shouldn't cheapen the former by feigning intimacy with the latter."