Meeting/dating/relationship-ing was hard enough before 2003. And then Facebook created a whole new set of obstacles, awkward conversations and unclear situations. “Can I admit to knowing things you’ve done (based on your pics) before we go on dates?” “Should we get to know each other on Facebook before we date?” The difficulty of dating in the era of Facebook is not just in your head, either. Researchers have found that Facebook really is altering, or at least reflecting, new relationship patterns, even how people break up. Or more accurately, don’t break up.
“I’ve been surprised at what a real impact Facebook has on romantic relationships,” Galena Rhoades, a clinical psychologist at the University of Denver, told me. “And I do think Facebook is playing bigger role in relationship formation and relationship disillusions.”
One of Rhoades doctoral students in clinical psychology, Gretchen Kelmer, noticed that Facebook’s role in romantic relationships got a lot of media attention, but that there wasn’t any new research or data to show how Facebook directly affected relationship development. In her dissertation, she found that how people displayed their relationships on Facebook — through things like a relationship status or including a partner in their profile picture — were associated with differing levels of commitment. Those that displayed their significant other in their profile picture and were listed as “in a relationship” were more likely to stay together and less likely to have cheated when she checked back with them six months later. They also showed lower levels of “alternative partner monitoring,” i.e. scoping out better alternatives.
At each stage of a relationship, even before it really begins and when it needs to end, Facebook has created a whole new slew of obstacles and awkward conversations that previously didn’t exist for people in the dreadful world of dating. “There’s less structure for people today as relationships develop,” says Kelmer. “A lettermans jacket or a class ring — those kinds of social courtship scripts don’t exist on Facebook.”
The idea of “Facebook stalking” a prospective date isn’t new, but the implications of carefully examining every aspect are still largely unknown. Earlier research into Facebook stalking dynamics characterized this behavior negatively, but more recent studies have shown that we often Facebook stalk “to reduce some of the uncertainty in relationships.” But the uncertainty can sometimes be the most exciting part, and if said person-of-affection somehow manages to pass a thorough stalking, you can probably forget any of that pre-date giddiness. Goodbye butterflies and excitement, I already know everything about you.
For relationships that get past this weird knowing someone on Facebook before knowing them in real life, Facebook has created new hurdles for those just getting started. “I’ve seen couples in my practice struggling with their identity on Facebook,” said Rhoades, pointing to decisions like whether or not to be listed as “in a relationship.”
Kind of surprisingly, Kelmer’s research showed that it was actually what people didn’t do on Facebook that caused the most strife. Seemingly insignificant PDFAs (public displays of Facebook affection) such as choosing to include your partner in your profile picture and listing your relationship status reflected how committed people really were IN REAL LIFE. “People sort of have their inclination that ‘it’s just Facebook and people take Facebook too seriously’,” she told me about starting her dissertation. “But this [research] shows that how we portray our relationships on Facebook is telling and shouldn’t be dismissed or seen as trivial.”
On Facebook, relationships have to fit into in a pull down menu of a few options — it’s one of the only places on Facebook where you can’t fill in the blank. And these check-a-box decisions weren’t things couples, or anyone for that matter, had to worry about before Facebook. Now no one’s really sure how to act on Facebook before you’re dating and what to do once you are. And it’s not just the omg-I-like-you-lets-make-babies parts that Facebook has affected — it’s also made it more difficult to end relationships and move on, too.
People feel more pressure from friends and family to stay together when they have their partner in profile picture and relationship status, says Kelmer, making it seem like the decision to display those PDFAs in the first place — the ones that demonstrate how committed couples are — might not always be the best choice. The thought of that tiny splintering red heart spreading across hundreds of news feeds and everyone you know commenting, “ohmygod WHAT happened?” can sometimes prolong the inevitable, she says. “It could definitely be a constraint for people, another step in the breakup process that could perhaps reduce the likelihood of breaking up.”
Before Facebook, ending a relationship actually meant the end of communication, for the most part. Not anymore. Once you finally manage to sever offline ties, there’s really no way to avoid virtual run-ins with your ex unless you’re off of Facebook entirely. De-friending doesn’t really do much when your online social lives are so entangled.
“Facebook gives them automatic window into an ex’s relationship,” said Rhoades. “And often times that sustained contact can be detrimental, in terms of ones own functioning.” In a recent study social psychologist Tara Marshall from Brunel University found that remaining Facebook friends with an ex delayed emotional recovery and led to greater distress over the breakup, negative feelings, sexual desire and longing for the ex-partner. Breaking up IRL is no longer enough to get over an ex, you’ve got end contact on Facebook too.
“There is strong research that has looked at breakups and maintaining offline contact with an ex partner, and it seems to have negative consequences,” Marshall told me. “A lot of times people break up and the only way they stay in contact is through Facebook. I found that people who remained Facebook friends and those who engaged in more Facebook stalking were stuck on the past relationship.”
Facebook has changed a lot of things — how we communicate, consume news, share things — but it really is fascinating to see how much Facebook has changed dating norms and behaviors too. But as complicated as Facebook has made it to date someone, stay dating, stop dating and move on — these things were really freaking hard to do before Facebook. There’s no research (yet) that says the advent of Facebook has ruined love, so there is still hope. If I can offer any completely unqualified relationship advice, Facebook is pretty much real life now so don’t treat it any differently than you do dating OUT THERE. Be normal, be cool, be nice.
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