Couples counselling: How social media kills marriages

Couples counselling and how social media kills marriages. It’s a bold title I know, but I can explain what I mean by it, and how I justify saying it. My couples counselling practice in Bishops Stortford began in 2002 which was well before the age of smartphones, and Facebook hadn’t yet begun its takeover of the world. In fact, social media in general was very much in its infancy. Back in 2002, the couples who came to see me for counselling came for many of the same reasons they do today, but with one, specific difference: namely, back then when one or other member of a couple had an affair, it was almost always with a colleague, friend or neighbour. Essentially, people tended to have affairs with someone they’d first met innocently in real life, but who they had then created an inappropriate relationship with. In addition, the percentage of couples who came to counselling as a result of infidelity was roughly 25% with the other 75% experiencing a wide variety of other issues. Unbeknownst to me at that point in time, a couple of years earlier, back in June of 2000, the first real social media site to have an impact on the UK opened its virtual doors. Friends Reunited hit the online world slowly at first, but by 2003/2004 it really began to pick up speed.

Remember, back then (before smartphones), the only method we had to interface with the online world was by computer. The early 2000’s was the era of the affordable laptop and when Friends Reunited started to become mainstream in around 2003/04, it was not at all unusual for couples to find themselves sitting on the sofa together of an evening, one party watching the telly while the other fiddled about on their laptop searching for old friends to chat with. The net result: In mid-2004 my couples counselling practice in Bishops Stortford not only quadrupled overnight, but all of a sudden the primary presenting problem (roughly 75%), for these couples was that one had created an inappropriate relationship (or in other words had had an affair with) with an old friend they had re-met online from Friends Reunited. Even more noticeable about this sudden trend in extra-marital relationships was that the definition of “an affair” began to change. What constituted having an affair quickly opened up to include a wide range of relationship types and levels of emotional intimacy that didn’t necessarily have anything to do with the physical act of sex. As people began to connect with old friends and near strangers online, the intensely intimate relationships they created felt far more powerful and “real” than the ones they had with the person sitting there on the sofa with them.

While Friends Reunited ultimately closed its doors in 2015, by then Facebook had all but taken over the world in the sense of connecting with people online. The fact that we now have portal to the virtual world that each of us carries around in our pockets (rather than relying upon a laptop and a home wifi connection) has opened up opportunities to engage in online relationships in a way the creators of Friends Reunited couldn’t have imagined possible. To make things worse is the truth that our online personas are far more attractive, imaginative and interesting than our true selves 99% of the time. We put online that which we want the world to see of us. We post pics of our happy lives, our darling children (or grandchildren). We post pictures of the cool parts of our holidays that show us looking fab (not that bit when we’re sweating like pigs and looking like crap in the airport waiting for our delayed flights).

When we engage with others by posting on their walls, or in private messages, we have time to compose witty responses and clever remarks. Nobody sees the 10 minutes we spend saying “Ummmmmm” in our heads while we consider just what it is we’re going to write in those posts. When we specifically engage with a member of the opposite sex, we’re able to put our very very best foot forward, and we’re able to remember and respond to all the important things this other person has told us. This is easy online because we usually don’t have all that many things to remember. All this adds up to the perfect laboratory conditions for an affair to occur. The perfect person, with a perfect life, saying all the right things at the right time in the right way is pretty irresistible. Unfortunately, it is also virtual. Its not real. Nobody can truly live up to their social media persona. At the same time, the damage these virtual relationships cause our marriages is very real indeed. In fact, virtual relationships devastate real lives on a daily basis.

If you’ve been affected by a social media affair, and are looking for couples counselling services in the general Bishops Stortford area, please contact me on 01279 834467 for a fully confidential, no obligation discussion of your needs prior to making an appointment.