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How social is social media?

Thursday 22 October 2015

That digital media is a way of life is hardly news. In Australia 90% of our population are Internet users and 62% of them are on social media sites with Facebook being the most prevalent. The convenience and immediacy of mobile media in particular are compelling but as with most things, with the good comes some not so great.

Recently PREPARE/ENRICH Australia undertook a practitioner survey*https://betterplaceaustralia.com.au/blog/ that revealed that 80% of respondents had counselled clients who had raised concerns about the impact of Facebook on their relationships; 72% had encountered concerns about email and 50% had encountered concerns about mobile Internet devices, blogs and forums.

I am one of the 80% of practitioners referred to who have counselled clients expressing concerns about the impact of social and mobile media on their relationships. The complaints or concerns I hear can be overt or mentioned in the context of distractions or distance between partners. In my experience such complaints are frequent and becoming more common. Generally speaking, I can classify the issues I hear into three categories.

The first is the ‘turning away’ factor – when couples are not able to connect and be fully present for each other even though they are in a close physical proximity. Clients often report that the quality of their togetherness is compromised when technology creeps in whether that be once the kids have finally been put to bed, or in a restaurant on date night where the lure of emails, texts or social media takes over.

Clients regularly express how frustrating it is when their partner disappears into a world of social media or virtual relationships instead of being present for the real person next to them. Mind you, it seems that both partners are guilty of using such activities to escape instead of sorting out their differences and engaging with each other.

The second concern is about content – what is discussed on social media, and who has access. A lot of information about couples’ relationships that used to be private, or at least discussed only within a close circle, is now public. It is hardly surprising that having distant relatives, friends, work colleagues, childhood friends or immediate family aware of the nuances of a couple’s relationship can add an unwanted spin to the relationship dynamic.

I saw a couple not long ago who almost broke up over information posted on their joint Facebook account by one of the couple’s friends. The other partner found it suggestive, highly offensive, compromising of their integrity and didn’t want to be associated with the post at all.

The third concern in counselling, and by far the most dynamic, is the question of online infidelity. What constitutes flirting and what doesn’t is highly variable and as such can be a real bone of contention. With social media and the Internet being such a big part of our lives, the boundaries are becoming more fluid making it harder for people to draw the line that shouldn’t be crossed. Some clients I have seen don’t see much harm in chatting up someone who lives on another side of the world because they remain physically faithful to their partner, even if those chats are quite sexually explicit and provocative. Their partners however, often have a very different perspective. Likewise, I have seen clients who, through online conversation, have found emotional sustenance virtually instead of finding a way to do so with their partner in the real world.

As use of digital – in particular social – media brings new layers of complexity and often sensitivity in relationships, I believe it is more important than ever that couples consider couples counselling. This isn’t about mending broken relationships. Privacy and transparency of personal boundaries are issues that need to be discussed and negotiated with sensitivity so that relationships flourish. As most of us (unless trained to do so) aren’t necessarily skilled at dealing with our vulnerabilities all that well, seeking the services of a couples’ counsellor is often a valuable investment in future engagement and long term happiness.

Irina Hart – Counsellor, Better Place Australia


*Knight, K. (2012): Child Family Community Australia (CFCA) information exchange, 28 May.