Can social media destroy marriages/partnerships? Read the all too common scenario below and make your own judgment.

A spouse spends excessive time on the phone and ignores the partner. The partner tries to strike up a conversation and gets ‘phubbed’ (a combination of ‘phone’ and ‘snub’). The partner feels left out and wonders about the potential causes of the spouse’s excessive phone use. The partner finds access to the spouse’s phone and uncovers inappropriate messages sent to others.

Those messages could reveal an actual betrayal, but if no explicit boundaries were set, could flirtatious messages be considered ‘online infidelity’ or at least the forerunner of actual infidelity? 

My review covering research on the effect of social media on primary romantic relationships has consistently found that partners (both dating and committed/married) consider some of their online friends as romantic alternatives and become emotionally intimate with them. Romantic alternatives are prospective partners with whom one keeps in touch with the possible intent of starting a future relationship. Interest in alternatives reduces relationship commitment. Therefore, committed partners dismiss alternatives.

When individuals are sofalizing (combination of sofa and socializing) with potential partners online, they are investing their time in interactions that could jeopardize their primary relationship. Online interactions can quickly become uninhibited and could lead a person to share their deepest intimate desires. Uninhibited self-disclosure could therefore lead to an emotional intimacy with an extra-dyadic partner. Time cannot be expanded, so time spent online with virtual friends cannot be reclaimed later to spend with the significant other. When time and emotions are invested in an extra-dyadic relationship, the mutual investments that are needed to increase relationship commitment diminish. Moreover, emotional intimacy with an extra-dyadic partner could cause jealousy, conflict, infidelity, envy, surveillance, loss of trust, and divorce in the primary relationship.

In one study, I compared two groups: dating partners and committed partners. People in the dating group reported higher social media addiction, and felt they had a better quality of romantic alternatives online, than the committed group. Moreover, the dating group, when compared to the committed group, reported a significantly bigger number of romantic alternatives with whom they would consider having a sexual relationship if their primary relationship ends. Interestingly, the dating and committed groups both reported a comparable number of online friends that they would consider having a committed relationship with if their primary relationship ended.

In the age when social media access is ubiquitous, restricting access to social media may not be an option, as many people could get anxious with a ‘fear of missing out’ (FOMO) if their devices are inaccessible. Researchers have found that couples hardly set boundaries around Internet use. Following openly negotiated netiquette (a combination of networking and etiquette) could solve some problems arising from social media use. Therefore, partners can protect their primary relationship from external threats by openly negotiating online boundaries and sticking to the agreed terms. Since commitment is making a choice to leave all other choices, making deliberate emotional and time investments within the primary relationship could increase relationship commitment and relationship longevity.

For Further Reading

Abbasi, I. S. (2018). Falling prey to online romantic alternatives: Evaluating social media alternative partners in committed versus dating relationships. Social Science Computer Review, 37(6), 723-733. doi:10.1177/0894439318793947 

Abbasi, I. S., & Alghamdi, N. G. (2017). The pursuit of romantic alternatives online: Social media friends as potential alternatives. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 44 (1), 16-28. doi: 10.1080/0092623X.2017.1308450

Abbasi, I. S., & Alghamdi, N. G. (2017). When flirting turns into infidelity: The Facebook dilemma. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 45(1), 1–14. doi: 10.1080/01926187.2016. 1277804

Daines, B. (2006). Violations of agreed and implicit sexual and emotional boundaries in couple relationships - Some thoughts arising from Levine’s “A clinical perspective on couple infidelity.” Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 21, 45–53. doi:10.1080/14681990500430011

Irum S. Abbasi is an independent post-doctoral researcher currently examining social media behaviors and attitudes towards password sharing in romantic relationships.