Is social media a thorn in couples’ relationships

The positives of online communication far outweigh the negatives but beware the pitfalls for partners

Tue, Apr 1, 2014, 01:00

If you see a couple out for lunch and they are both staring silently into their phones, do you think it’s (a) quite normal or (b) bizarre and rather sad?

Answer (a) puts you firmly in the digital natives’ camp while answer (b) suggests you are a digital immigrant.

The terms for this divide, which were devised by US educationalist Marc Prensky, are ones that senior counselling psychologist Fergal Rooney likes to use in talking about the impact of social media on relationships.

Since becoming head of the Healthy Relationships and Sexuality service that was set up at the St John of God Hospital in Dublin last year, it is an issue he sees during consultations.

People may be attending the service for a sexual difficulty in the relationship “and invariably, in jig time, Facebook or Twitter or whatever it might be, will come up for grabs”, he explains. It is not unusual now for a client to produce a phone to read out a text, show a Tweet or share an image from Facebook.

“It changes the dynamic even of the therapeutic work. Not only are they dealing with it in their relationship but I am dealing with it in the context of the therapeutic relationship.”

When Rooney was training 13 years ago, the idea that a client would bring in such material would be deplored as a therapeutic invasion, he says. Now, he feels it would be impossible to work with some people without allowing it.

“It shows how pervasive it is and how unavoidable it is to engage with it,” Rooney tells The Irish Times , ahead of a lecture he gave last night on Insights and Helpful Hints on Managing the Impact of Social Media on Relationships , as part of the St John of God Hospital’s annual, free, public lecture series.

Of course Rooney is seeing the “skewed end of the spectrum”. Generally, he thinks people use social media very well and it enables them to stay in contact with extended family and friends in ways they never could have before.


Positive influence
This sentiment is echoed in research published last week, in which 83 per cent of respondents to an Eircom household survey say they believe technology has positively influenced their relationships with friends, while 73 per cent think it has benefited the relationship with their partner.

Some 80 per cent of parents with children aged between five and 17 also feel technology makes family live more harmonious, by keeping youngsters amused. (Although, it can be argued that this 21st-century state of children being seen and not heard is a worrying trend.)

There is a tendency – particularly for clinicians, researchers, policy-makers and media – to approach social media in an alarmist way, Rooney suggests. He attributes this primarily to an age difference between these professionals and the up-coming generation.

“The underbelly is where it goes wrong for a small number of people but that isn’t the norm,” he stresses. “But we need to look both ways when we step on to this highway and be aware of what are the strengths and what are the pitfalls.”

Social media is most likely to have a corrosive effect on couples’ relationships when partners differ sharply in their view of its use. There are people who are very comfortable with it and don’t regard it as an “add on” to life but an integral part, while others may see it as worthwhile but haven’t integrated it into the “core of their being”, he explains.

Put one of each into a household and they are quite likely to have rows over the time spent on social media, what’s “fair game” for sharing online and their children’s use of technology.

On a practical level, online communication with the outside world can eat into a couple’s “quality” time together, which is something counsellor Bernadette Ryan sees in her work with Relationships Ireland.

“Couples will say they spend lots of time together but, when looked at more closely, they may realise that while they are in the same room, they are not connected with each other but most likely with Facebook or Twitter or some other social media site, and probably the TV as well,” she says.


Lack of intimacy
It can cause a lack of sexual intimacy as couples extend their online activities long into the night in the bedroom, she points out. It can also interfere with sleep patterns, leaving one or other too tired for sex.

Rooney sees another level of complexity that couples can find “really, really hard to articulate”, particularly if there are other problems in the relationship.

Say, for instance, when you go out with your partner, he or she likes to share photos online during the course of the evening. The issue can go beyond frustration in that you wish the phone would be put down and you don’t want photos of yourself being taken.

“It can go to a more silent kind of a level: who are the friends he is posting this to, who is he targeting and why did so and so respond and not so and so?” You may not know the people who are seeing your photo, yet they are commenting on it, and you may start to feel unsure about this whole other side of a partner that is played out online.

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