Is social media a thorn in couples’ relationships

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


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.

Or there is the thorny issue of an “ex” being a friend on Facebook. “It undermines a person’s current relationship,” he warns.

For instance, somebody texted his partner to say he had a friend request from a previous girlfriend and was she okay with this? To object can seem petty, yet the idea of it can be really upsetting.

In the past, a partner proposing to have lunch with an ex to catch up was something that couples occasionally had to deal with.

Now the issue of an ex being a Facebook friend is “mainstream”, he says, “but it can be very unnerving to think this person can see all that is being posted on your partner’s feed”.

Rooney heard of another case where a couple who were expecting their first child were deeply divided after one of them posted the image from the first scan on Facebook and the other regarded this as a real invasion of privacy.

Such a scenario highlights how couples need to discuss, rather than assume, their boundaries around the use of social media.

“Talk openly and honestly about what each believes to be appropriate and not,” advises Ryan, who also recommends that couples limit texting and internet-based activity when spending time together, whether that is out socially or at home.

“Stay connected to each other. Talk and, most importantly, listen to each other.”

Beware also of online infidelity. Ryan believes that any sharing or engaging in intimacies, sexual or emotional, that are the preserve of an intimate relationship, runs the risk of your partner feeling betrayed “and they may have good cause to feel so”, she adds. “I would consider texting/sexting to be in the same league.”

The St John of God free Public Lecture Series continues in the hospital in Stillorgan, Dublin, next Monday, April 7th, with a talk on Motivation and Change: What happens when your sweet tooth says yes and your wisdom tooth says no? and concludes on Monday, April 14th with a lecture entitled Living Mindfully in a Material World .

For more information on Relationships Ireland, tel 1890 380 380 or see

‘Of course there are no-go areas . . .
we share as much and as little as we want

When 18-month-old Emilia Saconne-Joly grows up, she will have no shortage of home movies to watch – although many millions of people around the world will have seen them before her.

From the moment of her birth, she has starred in the video-blogs (vlogs) that her parents, Jonathan Joly and Anna Saconne, share through social media every single day.

Sometimes referred to as the “Kardashians of Cork”, they have broadcast 20-minute slices of their lives at 6pm daily on their own YouTube channel for nearly four years now, in what has become a lucrative business. They have 335,000 subscribers and the film of Emilia’s birth, for instance, has been viewed more than one million times.

At the time of writing, their second child, a boy, is due any day (watch out for the video) after which they are planning to move to the UK to expand their horizons for a venture that began as an alternative to drawing the dole.

“When I started making these videos on YouTube, although I wished and worked hard, I never thought we would become as popular as we have,” Joly tells The Irish Times. “Now, as the biggest fish in this small pond I am ready to become a small fish in a big pond.”

He and Anna never disagree on what he puts out, he says, so there is no need for her to see footage in advance.

Nothing is scripted, nothing is acted out, it is “just our life as it unfolds. Of course there are ‘no-go’ areas . . . we share as much and as little as we want.”

Does he think that when Emilia and her brother reach a certain age, they will have to stop including them in their daily documentaries? “No,” he answers simply.

Inadvertent viral hit
Corrina Stone in Co Kildare inadvertently made her 10-month-old twin girls a viral hit when she filmed them laughing at their dad as he counted out scoops of formula for their bottles. She put it up on YouTube for the benefit of family and friends abroad, never envisaging that, six years later, more than five million people would have watched it.

With four children now, and a fifth on the way, Stone says social media has improved her life “exponentially”. Living in an isolated area outside Athy, it has enabled her to talk and stay in touch with adults, while caring for her children at home.

“If I look back and think of what I would be like now if I didn’t have it in 2006 when I had the twins on my own down here . . . I would probably be a depressed, shrivelled heap in the corner.”

She uses social media as a “stepping stone for getting out”. By constantly looking out for special offers, she and the family have been able to travel widely.

“We’ve done Route 66 twice with the children; we’ve travelled all across Europe. It’s always on a deal, on a budget, at the right time,” she explains.

While she enthuses about all the positives, one negative aspect is the trolls and she admits some of the comments on her daughters’ YouTube video reduced her to tears.

For Amanda and Darren O’Beirne who live in Dublin, it is he who is the more enthusiastic Facebook user. He resisted joining her on it initially but as soon as he started he was hooked.

Ease of communication
With friends and family spread around the world, he loves the ease of communication it offers, “without deliberately doing something, or emailing somebody, you can contact everybody in one go”, he points out. He also gathers information from it.

Amanda, on the other hand, uses it to publicise her baby swim school, Baby Splash, but is less inclined to post personal material.

She can recall one occasion when she had to ask Darren to take down a photo of her that she didn’t like. “But we were out and there was no way of deleting it on the phone. I wasn’t very happy.”

However, generally he runs photos by her before posting. They also occasionally put up photos of their two daughters, aged four and 16 months.

Online history
Sometimes Amanda reflects on how the girls don’t have any say in this, yet they have an online history now – but that “will probably be very normal for them when they grow up”.

Naomi del Pozo’s husband, Jesús, gets on to her about being on social media too much. However, she says he is happy that she keeps his family in Spain up to date with their lives in Dublin.

She mostly posts photos of their two children for the in-laws and rarely puts up photos of herself.

While she concedes that she is always flicking through Facebook on her phone, which can be irritating, “I am not on it to the extent of some people who I know, who you can’t even have a conversation with. When you are out they have checked in [messaging their location] and then they are seeing who has seen they have checked in – that drives me mad.”

Jesú s, who works in business, doesn’t like her tagging him in places and people knowing exactly where he is. Whereas, Naomi’s main concern, as a primary school teacher, is that her pupils won’t find her on Facebook, so she uses a different form of her name.

Debbie Curran, who lives in Kildare, uses Twitter more than Facebook, and she admits her husband would say she’s on it too much. He did join Facebook “but he is not one bit interested”.

At one time she had hundreds of “friends” on Facebook but when she realised that some of these people seeing her day-to-day life online would pass her on the street without speaking, she decided to cut it down to about 10 real friends.

Her parents live abroad and a close friend moved to the US, so social media is a very handy, free way to keep in touch, she points out. However, she no longer posts photos of her 10-year-old son and seven-
year-old daughter.

“There are too many dangers,” she says. “I can email pictures to my mam.”

Porn significant issue in relationships counselling

The easy availability of porn is one of the more destructive aspects of our online world and it has emerged as a significant issue in relationships counselling.

People use it to meet their sexual needs and then start to lose interest in the real thing.

“I often hear people say ‘I just didn’t want to have sex with my partner because it didn’t match up in excitement’,” says counselling psychologist Fergal Rooney.

“They find porn infinitely more rewarding and then, of course, the relationship begins to deteriorate ,” he adds

The majority of people who look at pornography won’t have a major issue with it, Rooney explains, apart from perhaps a blip in the relationship when they’re found out, “but research shows that 20 per cent could have a significant problem with it”.

Counsellor Bernadette Ryan agrees that the constant availability of porn is having a serious impact on an increasing number of couples’ relationships.

“We are seeing more and more addictive behaviours emerging,” she reports.

“Online porn can also be experienced by the other partner as a rejection of them.”

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