Greg and Susan have been married for eight years, following a two-year courtship.  Greg remembers his initial impression of Susan, noticing that she had all the qualities he liked in a woman.  She was attractive, full of life and energy.  She was self-assured and clear about what she wanted in life.  “I adored Susan when we first met. I often found myself feeling happy just looking at her; being with her is all I wanted in life.”

Susan describes enjoying the closeness that she and Greg had in the beginning years.  She experienced him as understanding her, and she liked the attention he gave her.  She recalls telling a friend that she thought that   she had met her soul mate. She felt secure and safe in the relationship.

After three years of marriage, Susan fell pregnant, leaving her demanding job as a graphic designer after their baby was born.  She felt she wanted to be there for her child full time, but describes struggling with the change from being in a stimulating environment where she experienced herself as productive and effective, receiving a lot of recognition for her high standard of work. She had not anticipated the emotional demands of a baby.  She missed the company of others and sometimes felt lost and bored.  Adding to the discomfort of the change, she also noticed herself struggling with feelings of insecurity and anxiety when going into social settings such as the nearby mothers’ group.

What brought some relief to her day was spending time on the computer when her baby was sleeping.  She enjoyed Facebook in particular. It gave her a chance to communicate with friends and to feel part of the outside world, which seemed to ease her loneliness.  Sometimes she would feel bad about not getting on with household chores after becoming absorbed on the internet for longer than she had intended.

After the birth of their second child, it became more apparent that there was tension in their relationship.  Susan became more conscious of feeling that Greg was just not interested in her any more. She battled to lose the weight that she had gained during pregnancy and she was afraid this was an issue for him, but was reluctant to address it with him.  He did not seem to notice her, giving the impression that he was self-absorbed. She felt angry about his lack of initiative and involvement with the children.  She would try to express her dissatisfaction, but felt she did not get much understanding in response.

At the time of the birth of their first child, Greg had received a promotion at work.  He had felt the financial pressure that accompanied the fact of him becoming the sole breadwinner.  He was aware of Susan’s struggle but felt unable to help her, given his own work pressure.  After the birth of their second child, he began to notice that he felt reluctant to go home after work. He felt that Susan was constantly dissatisfied with him; bossy, controlling and nagging. Nothing he did seemed to be good enough in her eyes. He felt the strain of the needs of the children and sometimes felt like running away after being home for half an hour.  Home life seemed boring and mundane. “I don’t feel valued for who I am; I am just a work horse, producing money and relieving Susan of the children when I get home.”

He recalls what first attracted him to Facebook. “I felt it might be nice to catch up with old friends, see what the guys have been up to.” Spending time on Facebook developed into a regular habit.  Once they had got the children to bed and Susan, in her exhaustion, had gone to bed early, he settled down to an hour or two in front of the computer.  He liked the experience of people noticing him, enjoying connecting with him.  At times when he and Susan had had an argument, spending some time at the computer seemed to calm him down.  He felt he needed this “time out”; otherwise he would act on his anger, and feared being hurtful.

On Facebook he met up with an old friend from high school.  Initially they were just friends, but after some time he noticed that he missed her if he did not have daily contact with her.  Facebook became a place where he could express what he was really feeling, which seemed to help him cope.  His friend also shared her heartache and he felt needed and appreciated by her.  At times he felt guilty, particularly when they were communicating about more emotional issues, but he consoled himself with the knowledge that she lived in London and that there was therefore no physical contact.

 

We are all aware of the way in which computers have changed our lives. Not only have these technological advancements changed the effectiveness of our work, but the onset of internet has changed the way we communicate.  The internet has opened a new vehicle for people to make contact and converse with one another. In one sense, this has been inevitable. There has been an evolving progression of means of communication throughout history. From the beginning of time, our universal way of communicating has been face to face, using gestures as well as words.  Over time, communities became more educated and most people were able to write letters and communicate with each other from a distance.  Then we were able to speak telephonically. Now the internet has brought another medium of communication in the form of social media.

The social media is continually evolving. The salient characteristics of these forms of communication are that they are immediate, convenient, affordable, easily accessible, and constantly available.  It is like carrying your friend in your pocket: there for you, anytime, any place, anywhere.

Though this has reconnected people, and in many ways enhanced communication, we need to approach its use thoughtfully and with discernment. For example, social media in the context of our marriages raise all sorts of questions in terms of whether they present some form of obstruction to the growth in our marital relationships. Before we understand its possible hindrance in this regard, it is helpful to revisit the underlying goals of most couples in a marital relationship.

 

Goal of marriage

On their wedding day, most people have a conscious desire and intention for the relationship to be permanent, “till death us do part”. Furthermore, couples generally enter into marriage with the hope and desire that they will experience increased levels of intimacy as their marriage evolves. They desire a loving, close relationship, an emotional bond, not just a functional partnership.  Young couples these days are characteristically intolerant of simply going through the motions of being married. Women are more empowered and are able to work and not be dependent on men.  Similarly, men are able to nurture children and care for themselves in practical terms. They therefore no longer need women to help them function effectively. Couples, now more than ever before, want long-term relationships for emotional reasons rather than physical or practical needs. They have a conscious awareness of their need for love, emotional support and security. Individuals who do not feel this closeness typically begin to feel restless and would describe themselves as being unhappy in their marriage.

This restlessness is significant.  It is experienced as an inner “niggle”, an unhappiness or a defined grievance. Over time, if this restlessness is resolved through constructive dialogue, it can become a pivotal period of significant growth in the relationship. However, if the remedy to this restlessness is sought outside the marital relationship in the social media, it becomes a distraction that interferes with the couple’s effectively resolving and working through the emerging growth stages that are part and parcel of all intimate relationships.

 

Social media as a vehicle of communication 

How do social media hinder growth in marriage relationships? Considering that all communication occurs at different levels, from the superficial level to ever deepening levels, then social media can be described as being effective at the more superficial level.  This level is concerned with making contact and exchanging thoughts and ideas.  Facebook, for example, is very helpful for making contact with friends, staying in touch with news and making practical arrangements.

The deeper levels of communication, however, require more vulnerable sharing of our inner world and particularly our feelings.  Before entering into this deeper sharing, we need to experience safety in that relationship.  The information we gather to discern safety is usually not only in words, but in gestures, that is nonverbal communication. We need this information to make intuitive decisions about the one to whom we are relating. For example, is there eye contact; is the person present when I converse with them, or distracted?  How do they generally treat me? Do they respect my needs and boundaries? That is, do they adhere to arrangements? Do they put themselves out for me?  These are important questions that help us decide whether we can risk opening ourselves up emotionally or being vulnerable.

We can’t answer these questions effectively when the interaction is solely in the form of social media.  Deeper interaction through the social media channel is in fact regarded as high risk in the sense that non-verbal cues are not there. We need an intuitive filter to discern safety and know whether we can trust our friend.  We need to be able to trust that what he or she presents is who they really are and not just a presenting persona created to play an emotional game in cyberspace.

 

Minimising the possibility of social media harming on our marriage

How do we minimise the possibility of inadvertently increasing the tension in our marriages, and hindering the spiral of growth? It is worth considering four aspects of our approach to our marriage.

  1. Self-knowledge

Self-knowledge is an essential part of an intimate relationship.  In order to experience being known, understood and ultimately loved for who we are, we need to be able to allow ourselves to be known.  Before we are able to communicate our thoughts, feelings and needs, we need to have some awareness of these aspects of our inner world. This can be referred to as establishing and nurturing a relationship with self. This relationship with self becomes the cornerstone to a fulfilling relationship with someone else. Nurturing a relationship with self does not come naturally. It requires time, time to be still and reflect on our inner world.  Being present to ourselves and taking time to notice our inner world is difficult in our modern culture.

In the above case study, Susan had gone through some significant changes which had clearly evoked feelings in her she did not know she had.  Spending time with herself and her uncomfortable feelings was difficult, and the option of screen time was a welcome distraction from her restless inner world. Although it offered relief from her inner pain, it also contributed to her stagnation in her growth. Grappling more consciously with her inner turmoil would have helped her to understand herself better.  With this increased understanding would come the possibility of her communicating, in a non-blaming way, her difficulty to Greg.

If Greg were able to view Susan’s pain and unhappiness for what it is, he might be able to get a more understanding perspective on the bossy, controlling woman who meets him at the end of a day.  He would perhaps be able to come to met her in a more caring way, rather than avoiding and distancing himself from her. In summary, self-knowledge facilitates more constructive dialogue, which in turn minimises the tendency to move toward distractions to cope with or manage our inner discomfort.

2.Human needs

We all have emotional needs.  As rational adults, we know we cannot have all our needs met all the time. Learning to live and work with unmet needs and the concomitant feelings of discomfort is the task of growth and maturing adulthood.

Social media, particularly Facebook and Messaging, bring with them an ever-available source of need fulfilment.  The needs that are met by these interactions are primarily the need for attention and affirmation.  When we post comments or pictures, people will notice and usually affirm us. We can find ourselves engaging in mutual ego strokes – “you scratch my back, I scratch yours”.  Put in this way, the superficial nature of Facebook interaction is apparent.  But, sometimes we can be at such a low ebb that even superficial attention is better than nothing.

When Greg was feeling lonely and distant from Susan, it was appealing to feel noticed and valued, even at a superficial level.  His Facebook relationships eased the inner tension of his lack of emotional fulfilment in his marriage.  Releasing some of his inner conflictual feelings helped him cope with day-to-day life.  Initially he was unable to see that these relationships simply offered a band-aid, not a healing; an escape hatch from the relationship between him and Susan.  Instead of entering into that difficult conversation pertaining to needs and grievances, he escaped into the temporary relief offered by cyber relationships.

3.Time

Time is one of the more obvious obstacles created by social media.  We all know the demanding nature of day-to-day life. In a very real sense, there shouldn’t be time for a married person to engage in much social media contact.

Married couples not only need to communicate at both a superficial and a deep level, but they also need to simply spend time with each other.  Creating this kind of time to be together in a non-productive way requires discipline and choice.

4.Working with our inner pain

A significant characteristic of a close relationship is that the interpersonal space inevitably evokes difficult feelings in us.  Our inner worlds are complex and have many layers.  As a single person, we are often not aware of the intensity of emotions that exist within our inner world.  It takes an intimate relationship to highlight the reality that in particular relational situations, we can find ourselves struggling with intense feelings of disappointment, anger, insecurity, jealousy or abandonment.

We have a natural inclination to avoid difficult feelings.  But it is these uncomfortable feelings that are so valuable in terms of both personal growth and the growth of our intimate relationships. If we are able to communicate and share these feelings, there is a real possibility that the depth of our relationship will increase.  There is a direct correlation between open and honest sharing, and the experience of love and intimacy in marriage.  The deeper we share, the deeper we will love.

Social media and other distractions have a way of releasing the tension or pressure that builds up in our inner world due to its conflicted nature. This diminished pressure then means that we simply go round and round in the same unhappy circle, never experiencing enough discomfort to push us towards change or prompting that difficult conversation without which growth and maturation are stymied.

 

Conclusion

In summary, it is our conflicted inner world, with its accompanying restlessness that we experience in our marital relationships, that becomes the gateway to the experience of deeper intimacy in our marriage. Getting to know, name and disclose our inner world will always remain our ongoing challenge. Avoiding this challenge by temporarily alleviating the discomfort of our inner restlessness through distractions such as Facebook liaisons, even if they lead to no overt complications or infidelity can inhibit the growth process of our relationship with our spouse.

 

Janine Boulle
July 2013