It might be a stretch to say social media causes divorce, but it appears mingling a fragile marriage with social media can, at times, prove toxic. Over recent years, a definite uptick in entanglements regarding Facebook usage (and other social media sites) has grown exponentially among my clients seeking divorce; our cultural Internet obsession filled with potential relationship landmines.
But which came first: the rocky marriage and spouse seeking refuge in social media or a benign social media habit leading to marriage dissatisfaction or even infidelity? The truth? It’s complicated.
What does the research say?
A swell of studies scrutinizing the connection between divorce and social media has emerged in the past five years. According to the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, for example, over 80% of U.S. divorce attorneys have witnessed a rise in the number of divorces linked to social networking.
In the journal, Computers in Human Behavior, a study revealed that the use of social networking sites “is negatively correlated with marriage quality and happiness, and positively correlated with experiencing a troubled relationship and thinking about divorce.” Beatriz Mileham, of the University of Florida at Gainesville, conducted in-depth interviews with men and women who use Yahoo’s “Married and Flirting” or Microsoft’s “Married But Flirting” Internet chat rooms, both geared specifically to married couples. (That such sites exist is information in and of itself.)
What these chat rooms provide, site members report spans anything from “cybersex” to gossiping about marital issues to initiating a real-life affair. Most notably, though, is the fact that almost 83% of chatroom participants do not consider this online activity to be “cheating,” and the remaining 17% called it a “weak form of infidelity” or “easily justified.” Ms. Mileham added: “The number one complaint from men was lack of sex in the marriage. With cybersex, there is no longer any need for secret trips to obscure motels. An online liaison may even take place in the same room with one’s spouse.” Ouch.
Today Facebook boasts 200 million daily users; according to a survey by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, 1 in 5 divorces involve Facebook.
What’s the allure?
Various studies confirm a link between social media use and decreased marriage quality; this research does not prove that social media is to blame for troubled marriages, but rather reveals that individuals in problematic relationships who engage with social media might use it—consciously or no—to support a bruised ego or to bolster low self-esteem; once online, the fragile state of a marriage (or a spouse within a marriage who does not feel appreciated) might make a person vulnerable to the momentary ego boost or quick emotional fix that online chatter and perceived “connection” can provide.
Of course, going behind a spouse’s back to “connect” with a stranger has nothing to do with real connection; it is a desperate attempt to feel better about isolation at the moment.
Still, with no check on what many consider private communication, research bears out that on-line contacts, often innocent at first, might move quickly to flirting, insinuation, and sexual relationships. Online chatting can create an aura of acceptance, surreal intimacy, difficult to compete with for the day to day realities of marriage.
Additionally, the perceived anonymity associated with electronic communication gives users the feel of being unrestricted, establishing the potential “virtual affair” as fun and accessible. Once an individual in a problematic relationship turns to social media for a boost, he or she may continue this behavior against better judgment to create a support system. Online ‘friends’ are obviously less challenging, and more immediately fulfilling, than addressing a complex marriage in need of a tough emotional overhaul. The addictive nature of social media can create marital difficulties that weren’t necessarily there, promoting an environment of insecurity and jealousy that can set the scene for an affair.
What’s the problem?
Lawyers and clients arrive more and more often at the courtroom (or attorney’s office) armed with records from Facebook and social media. Any online activity—including email and text messages—are admissible evidence in Court.
Digital information can be subpoenaed, studied, and used to prove any number of arguments. (And if a party to a divorce destroys digital data, they can be sanctioned by the Court, and the Court will assume there was proof of bad behavior in the data.)
Online activity can also expose clues to hidden assets and other questionable behavior. Evidence might prove flirting, an affair, financial indiscretion, and lying, none of which make a good impression with a judge (or soon to be ex-spouse: particularly when kids are involved).
Married couples often have mutual friends who prove to be more loyal to one party or the other when divorce occurs. Spouses might ‘unfriend’ one another, but rest assured this does not stop friends privy to Facebook status’ reporting pictures posted with the new girlfriend or the new car or expensive present (problematic if a spouse is pleading to be broke).
Both hiding assets and lying on financial statements have been uncovered through scrutinizing social media. With an impending divorce, spouses fill out a Financial Affidavit: falsifying financial documents is a crime, and evidence gathered from social media can be hard to explain away.
Facebook itself is not the culprit. Nor is the rest of social media.
Rather online activity holds the potential to be used in a way that damages, perhaps irreparably, the bond of marriage if not approached responsibly. And much of this information will make a divorce take much longer, and be more expensive than it would have been without it. At the end of the day, the Internet is a tool that sometimes shortens the search for a new connections, even for those who are already married.
What’s the takeaway?
Social media should be considered both public and permanent. A cached version of photos or posts is potentially retrievable through a search engine. If a client has shared something digitally that is at odds with what he or she has conveyed in court or in legal documents, it can spell big trouble: not only can social networks and digital communications contribute to the breakup of a marriage, they can have unforeseen consequences in divorce settlement negotiations.
Not every friend can be trusted, and often what was meant to be private sees the unforgiving light of day. I advise clients not to put anything in email, text, or online that they aren’t fine with a judge, their spouse, and their mom (for good measure) reading.