The internet is changing our lives in many subtle and unexpected ways. It’s changing how we shop, how we watch TV, how we do business, and it’s changing how we manage our relationships.
Some of this is good. Online shopping, for example, means that we can find the best prices, access reviews and information to help us make buying decisions, and shop whenever it’s convenient for us. Similarly, social networking sites mean that we can stay in touch with faraway friends and family, plan social events, share photos, and even organize politically.
However, there is also a downside to some of this. Online shopping may encourage us to spend more money than we should, while easy access to online pornography or gambling can have obvious negative consequences.
There are also various downsides to social networking sites. For example, most of us have heard stories about employers using Facebook pages to assess job candidates and rejecting some based on photos of drunken escapades, or about oppressive governments using surveillance of social networking sites to target political activists.
However, the aspect of social media that is causing a big fuss this side of the Atlantic these days is their role in divorce. Divorce is rampant in the United States, with roughly half of all marriages ending in the courts. Divorce is an extremely costly process, not only in terms of legal fees, but also in terms of its impact on people’s net wealth and earning potential, not to mention the emotional costs of the whole mess.
Thus, there is a lot of interest in ways to prevent or reduce the divorce rate, and this is why social networking sites are attracting attention.
A few weeks ago, the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers issued a press release saying that two thirds of America’s divorce lawyers reported that Facebook was the country’s top source of online divorce evidence; in other words, many people who are getting divorced are using Facebook updates, messages, and activities as evidence in their divorce proceedings.
The report generated plenty of press coverage and debate about the relationship-related dangers of Facebook – and plenty of advice to people in bad marriages to clean up their Facebook pages. Of course, this particular research really shouldn’t be taken to mean that Facebook is a major cause of divorce; it simply means that it’s a good source of evidence of infidelity or incompatibility.
Nevertheless, there is some suggestion that Facebook is also playing a more direct causal role in divorce. According to a press release from Chicago’s Loyola University, “If you’re single, Facebook and other social networking sites can help you meet that special someone. However, for those in even the healthiest of marriages, improper use can quickly devolve into a marital disaster.”
Basically, according to Loyola researchers, Facebook can make it much easier for people to reconnect with old flames and find potential new ones.
“We’re coming across it more and more,” said licensed clinical psychologist Steven Kimmons, Ph.D., of Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, Ill. “One spouse connects online with someone they knew from high school. The person is emotionally available and they start communicating through Facebook. Within a short amount of time, the sharing of personal stories can lead to a deepened sense of intimacy, which in turn can point the couple in the direction of physical contact.”
Essentially, Facebook reduces the transaction costs of connecting and communicating with possible candidates for illicit affairs. It’s easy to find former lovers on Facebook, and even easier to strike up a conversation with them; it’s also easy to meet new people who share common interests with you. Thus, Facebook makes it easier (and cheaper) for people to stray from their marriages.
Although there are no convincing studies of how many adulterous affairs start on Facebook, in part because the data would be very hard to collect, the whole debate is an interesting reminder of how much of our lives are now lived online, and of how different these online lives are from our previous lives.
It’s also an interesting echo of what many businesses have found, namely that the internet makes it much easier for customers to find alternative suppliers. It used to be that when a person wanted to buy something, he or she would probably just go to the nearest vendor, or perhaps would check out advertising in the local paper in an effort to find a good price. Today, however, the internet has made finding a new, cheaper supplier very simple. In business, this is a good thing, since it promotes efficiency and competition. Unfortunately, it’s not quite such good news for personal relationships.
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