Is Social Media the Third Wheel in Our Relationships?

How long do you think you spend with your partner, on average, each day? How often do you really deeply engage with them? Now, look at your phone, how much time do you spend each day on social media? If you’re like the average person, you’re most likely spending around 2 hours and 25 minutes a day on social media. Admit it, that might actually be more time than you meaningfully spend with your partner. 

Don’t worry: we’re not going to shame you, because that’s just the world we’re living in. But social media is not all bad for our romantic relationships. It can have a lot of negative effects, but it can also have a few positive ones; the difference is in how you use social media. So how does social media affect our romantic relationships, and is it time to reconnect with your partner?

Falling Out of Love with Social Media

We definitely have a love-hate relationship with social media. More than 70% of us have active accounts, and we spend more than two hours a day engaging with it on average. But we also spend plenty of time complaining about its negative impact on our lives, and how it sucks away our time. 

Time spent on social media can even begin to negatively affect our dating life. Pew Research has looked into how partnered adults in this country feel about their significant others’ use of social media (specifically on their phones), and you probably won’t be surprised by the results. After all, who likes to take second place to an app? According to Pew’s findings:hands holding a cell phone

  • 51% of all partnered adults say their partner is often or sometimes distracted by their phone while they are trying to have a conversation with them. And 62% of 30- to 49-year-olds and 52% of 18-to-29-year-olds who are in a romantic relationship say their partner is at least sometimes distracted by their phone when they’re trying to talk to them.
  • 40% of partnered adults say they are at least sometimes bothered by the amount of time their partner spends on their mobile device.

People are doing a lot of scrolling, so let’s get down to how social media is specifically affecting our relationships. 

The Bad

What comes to mind when you think about social media and its effects on real-life relationships? Your first thoughts probably aren’t sunshine and rainbows – and there’s a reason for that. There are a lot of negative effects of social media on relationships that you definitely need to be aware (and wary) of. We already know that social media can exacerbate mental health issues, and can negatively affect body image (which can cause problems with intimacy), but it can also:

Take Time (and Attention) Away from Our Partners

We’ve all been there: you intend to spend just a minute checking something on social media, and before you know it, an hour or two has passed. That’s time you could have spent engaging with, or just being present for, your partner. This can ultimately begin to decrease your sense of satisfaction and connection in your relationship. In fact, a recent study has even determined that the negative effects of social media on relationships are distraction, irritation, and decreased quality time.

When one partner is engrossed in social media, they can often get irritated with their partner if they’re interrupted. They can also be so distracted that they might end up missing what Dr. John Gottman calls “bids for connection.” These “bids” can be something as small as reaching for a hand, or something as big as seeking emotional support. According to Gottman, in healthy relationships couples respond positively to one another’s bids about 86% of the time, but being distracted by social media can cause you to miss these bids.

Create Unrealistic Expectations

We’ve definitely all heard this one before, and we know that people often post unrealistic portraits of themselves and their relationships online. But even though we know this, it can be hard not to compare yourself and your relationship to these glossy images, and to begin to feel dissatisfied because your life doesn’t look like all the highlight reels you see on social media. 

And not only that, but you might even begin to resent your partner for not posting about you the way your social media friends’ partners post about them. According to sex and behavioral therapist Chamin Ajjan, M.S., LCSW, A-CBT, “You may begin to feel jealous of how much someone posts about their partner and feel resentment toward your partner for not doing the same. The lifestyles you are scrolling through may change how satisfied you are in your relationship because they seem to be better than what you have.”

Cause Jealousy

2 people arguing
Social media can cause jealousy in relationships, which causes fights between partners.

Checking up on what your partner is up to online? Feeling a bit green at the sight of them liking and commenting on other people’s posts? There are studies that suggest social media use can create an endless (and damaging) cycle of suspicion and scrolling. As one study in CyberPsychology & Behavior puts it, increased social media use (especially Facebook use) can mean a vicious cycle, which “may be the result of a feedback loop whereby using Facebook exposes people to often ambiguous information about their partner that they may not otherwise have access to and…this new information incites further Facebook use.”

And another study in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking puts it pretty bluntly: social media use (again, specifically Facebook) “was linked to relationship dissatisfaction, via jealous cognitions and surveillance behaviors. The results highlight the possibility of high levels of Facebook intrusion spilling over into romantic relationships, resulting in problems such as jealousy and dissatisfaction.”

So, in other words, spending time on social media sites like Facebook can make you jealous, which makes you want to find out more, which increases your time on social media…which can also be damaging to your relationship. Yikes.

Start Fights

Yes, spending more time on social media can mean more conflict in a relationship. In fact, a 2013 study found that, among couples who had been together for less than three years, spending more time on Facebook was linked with more “Facebook-related conflict” and more negative relationship outcomes. This could be because some couples actually disagree when it comes to what’s acceptable online behavior. For example, you might feel like your partner is oversharing, you might want them to block their exes, you might not like something that they posted, or you might even feel like they didn’t post something they should have – all of which can lead to hurt feelings. 

The Good

All of the above is pretty rough stuff, but we don’t want to completely trash social media. After all, it is a big part of a lot of people’s lives these days, and it can’t be all bad, even when it comes to our dating lives, right? In fact, social media can be a positive part of our lives, because it can:

  • Bring you togetherA ton of relationships literally start online these days. In fact, a 2017 survey found 39% of heterosexual couples reported meeting their partner online, compared to just 22% in 2009.
  • Keep you connected – Interacting over social media can be a fun, easy, and low-pressure way to keep connected to your partner throughout the day. Not only that, but studies show that younger people in long-distance relationships were better able to maintain their relationships with the help of social media.
  • Teach you about relationships – As with any information you seek out on social media, you need to be discerning, but there are relationship experts out there giving good advice on social media.
  • Make you feel good – Mutual sharing and public declarations of affection on social media can actually positively impact a relationship.
  • Help you hold onto your memories – Not many of us make scrapbooks or photo albums anymore; instead, many of us have profiles on social media to do that work for us. These profiles have the added component of being shared with others, so according to Ajjan, “social media can be an institutionalized way to express love publicly and invite community support, both of which enhance a couple’s ability to flourish.” 

Is It Time for a Social Media Intervention?

So social media can actually have some positive effects on your relationship, but you still need to be careful. You could be headed toward some serious damage to your relationship if you’re:

  • Spending less quality time together (especially in the evenings)
  • Feeling disconnected from your partner
  • Learning more about their life from social media than from them directly
  • Constantly checking up on them online
  • Fighting about social media use, or what one or both of you are posting
  • Being secretive about what you’re doing online

If you’re worried about how social media is affecting your relationship, or that it could affect your relationship in the future, try:a man and woman having dinner while smiling at each other

  • Setting boundaries around social media time. For example, you can make dinner or bedtime no-screen times.
  • Planning quality time together at least weekly – no phones allowed!
  • Communicating, communicating, communicating! Be very clear about what you find acceptable (and desired) behavior on social media, listen to their views on the matter, and make sure you are both being completely honest about who you are interacting with.

Social media: can’t live with it, can’t live without it, right? Well, it’s not going anywhere, so if it’s something you and your partner are engaging with, you’re going to have to find ways to use it as a positive (or at least neutral) influence on your relationship. It’s definitely possible, you just need to be aware of the pitfalls, and the signs that it’s time to change your online ways!

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