Gloria met James from a Facebook comment. They had shared a mutual friend, a music critic whose posts on pop culture inspire lively discussion among thousands of followers. Gloria and James were regulars.
Gloria, a publicist who cultivates relationships with critics and writers, admired James’ extensive knowledge about obscure music, as well as his wit and taste. And, judging from his profile, he was cute.
So when James asked for the name of an obscure band, released by an even more obscure record label that Gloria had once interned for, she wrote to him, offering to send some songs.
“I don’t know you, Gloria, but I already like what I see,” he replied.
Soon they began “talking” to one another in comments. Friendly exchanges turned to witty banter, which led to full-on flirting. “Get a room,” mutual friends joked.
Though James and Gloria lived in different towns, they did the next logical thing: they friended one another. This led to personal messages, which led to phone calls and texting, and then FaceTime and Skype. Finally, when they converged onto a local college town for a music festival, they met in person.
The meeting proved to be no disappointment. “Instantly electric” is how James remembers it. Gloria was equally bowled over. “It wasn’t love at first sight, but it was a definite ‘Come to Jesus’ moment when I first laid eyes on him in person,” she says.
Soon, they were in a full-fledged relationship — which both were not shy about sharing on social media. They flirted over Facebook and Twitter, and filled up each other’s Instagrams with photos documenting their time together.
If this was a “Relationship 2.0” fairy tale, Gloria and James would marry and live happily every after. But they didn’t have a happy ending. In hindsight, Facebook was partly to blame. It might be the biggest way to kill love before it has a chance to blossom, bringing out the best and worst aspects of ourselves.
Despite changes in society, culture and technology, we date much like our grandparents: we meet, date to figure out fit and then, get together, which sometimes leads to marriage and children. Some mores have shifted — the rise of hookup culture pushed sex ahead of the traditional schedule, for example — but overall, we still follow the time-honored patterns and rituals.
But now, phones and apps are creating wrinkles and snags in love and romance. Instead of our friends and family, we scroll through Tinder to meet prospective dates. Rather than love letters, we flirt with emoji. The Internet isn’t just a way to meet people — it’s a medium through which we conduct our relationships.
Gloria and James certainly maintained their bond and attraction to one another through their social media. “We definitely were ‘that couple,'” Gloria notes. “I’d start off my morning on Facebook, leaving a little comment on James’ profile or sending him a private message, and he’d do the same for me. During the day, we’d tweet each other funny or interesting stories we were coming across. And of course we texted throughout the day as well. At night if we didn’t see each other, we’d end the day on Facetime.”
“Since we didn’t live in the same town, Facebook and Facetime played an important part in keeping us connected,” James says. “But even if we could see each other every day, I think we still would’ve participated in each other’s social media stuff. I got a nice lift every time I’d see her name pop up in my feeds. It made me feel cared for and important.”
Gloria and James — both adults in their late 20s with strong professional careers — were very strategic and smart about using social media to keep their relationship going. They saw each other every weekend when they could. They made conscientious attempts to go beyond shallow electronic communication — they’d watch movies together over Skype, for example, and take time to discuss what they’d seen.
“We weren’t like ‘selfie generation teenagers’ in how we used mobile technology,” James says. “We really made efforts to use it to build intimacy and really get to know each other. We conducted a serious, substantial relationship with it.”
“It’s amazing to think how much our phones and computers played a part in keeping us together,” Gloria says. “Even when we were apart or not in contact, our feelings for each other were very much an active presence in our lives. And that’s definitely because of technology.”
Gloria and James are an overt example of a growing trend: tech increasingly plays a part in maintaining our attraction and bond with our intimate partners. One-in-four adults in the U.S. say tech has an impact on their relationship in some way or another, and of that group, three-quarters say the impact is mostly positive, according to a Pew Research Internet survey released earlier this year. Couples report texting and online exchanges makes them feel more connected to their partner, for example.
And if you’re a young adult, this tendency is even more pronounced — four-in-ten of 18-29 year-olds in serious relationships felt closer to their partner because of mobile or social media communication, according to Pew. For Gloria and James, this was definitely the case — their relationship wouldn’t have started or sustained itself if it weren’t for technology.
However, using tech to cement a romantic bond has its dark side — Pew also found tech was also a source of tension in the relationships of four-in-ten of young adults. Gloria and James also found this to be true — and in their case, it was a potent factor in unraveling a promising relationship.
Social media worked well for Gloria and James in their first year of their relationship. “You know how it is,” Gloria says. “There’s always that honeymoon period at the beginning of a relationship, where everyone presents their best selves and it’s easy to get along with each other. And we were probably a little proud of ourselves — everyone in our circle knew us as ‘that picture-perfect couple on Facebook.'”
But every couple hits snags in their compatibility eventually, and Gloria and James were no exception. Both had great jobs in their respective cities, and while they lived only an hour away from one another, the commute and hours proved stressful.
“We both work in the music industry, so weekends and nights are working occasions, especially for me, since I review live music,” James says. “It got hard to juggle our real-life dates with each another.”
Longer-term issues came up as well. “I knew we needed to live together in the same city,” Gloria says. “At some point if we were serious, we needed to figure out a long-range plan.”
But hammering out the specifics was tough. “Finding a stable job as a critic isn’t easy,” James says, “I was loathe to relocate and work freelance as I did earlier in my career until I could find another one. But Gloria couldn’t find anything in my town that wasn’t a step down from her current position.”
In fact, Gloria got a plum job offer in a city even farther away, which complicated matters. The conflict eked away at the couple. “We were open and communicative about it, mostly,” James says. “But it did chip away at some of my good feeling about the relationship. I understood where she was coming from logically, but on another level, I just didn’t get it. Gloria kept saying she wanted to be with me and make it work, and yet why was she running off in the other direction?”
Gloria echoed the same frustration with James. “For the first time, I felt James was being a little selfish. His career gives him more flexibility than mine, and I didn’t understand why he wasn’t taking advantage of it to create a situation that benefits us both. I kept thinking, ‘Why do I have to be the one to give up my career to have this relationship?'” Gloria says. “It felt unfair to me.”
While both tried to hammer out solutions, Gloria and James both admit they didn’t give voice to their growing hurt and resentment. The buried feelings began to chip away at their relationship. Their free-and-easy rapport became increasingly strained, and they became moodier. “Things just weren’t as fun,” Gloria says. “Everything started to feel kind of burdensome.”
Both began to miss dates and weekends, and felt hurt and angry — though neither admitted it to one another, preferring to retreat into work. Instead, they turned to Facebook to gain information, validation or simply a way to quell their fears about one another. The result, however, was disastrous.
As the slow-acting poison of resentment began to infect their relationship — and affect their real-time, real-life dates — Gloria and James held back on the social media. “It felt a little fake to be lovey-dovey on Facebook as much,” James says. “I still liked her stuff and replied to her comments and tweets, but looking on hindsight, it was with less of the flirtatious, affectionate tone I took with her usually. But that couldn’t be helped; I wasn’t feeling as carefree and happy in the relationship as earlier.”
In response to his new reserve, Gloria tried to “up her game” with James. In real life, she “did all that women’s magazine stuff, fancy lingerie, sex tricks, whatever,” she says. Online, she tried to charm James by finding the funniest viral videos to post and tried to reply to his Facebook posts with perceptive, witty comments. “I put in the effort to be that cool, charming, carefree girl he fell in love with,” Gloria says.
But Gloria’s efforts didn’t produce any results: she still sensed coolness and distance from James. Gloria then decided to give James his space, and instead focus back on her life and her interests before she met him. She refocused on her job and her professional community, and she found herself active again online and on Facebook.
“A big part of my job as a publicist is relationships with other people, and working in the music industry, professional relationships often blur with friendships,” she says. “A big part of that is social media networking: being active on Facebook and Twitter and e-mailing people all the time.”
And that meant being more active with people online besides James. “I guess once I was in a relationship with him, I scaled back a little with the online activity, perhaps out of respect for James,” Gloria says. But now, Gloria renewed her online acquaintance with a number of other critics, publicists, music label executives and others in her industry, many of whom were men.
James noticed — and in not a good way. “Gloria is very friendly and vivacious,” he says. “But I felt she was laying it on a little thick with the other men she knew. And online as well — it felt kind of embarrassing to me.”
“That’s not true,” Gloria counters. “I was the same as I was with anyone else: friendly, colloquial and professional, which is normal for my line of work. I was exactly the same as I was before I got together with James.”
Piqued by a growing jealousy, James admitted he began reading Gloria’s online commenting and tweets to others, especially with the men she came into contact with through her job. He found nothing concrete, but he resented Gloria’s warm tone and the frequency of her communication with others. “She was commenting and tweeting all the goddamn time, even during times when I’d text her and she wouldn’t text back right away,” James says. “She can comment on some guy’s Facebook discussion but not get back to me over text?”
Rather than hash it out with one another in an open, honest conversation, Gloria and James instead played out the tension in a passive-aggressive way. “I admit, it’s not mature,” James says. “I’d see she’d post to some guy’s Facebook about something she’d read and wanted to share, so I’d do the same to a female acquaintance or colleague.” He also upped the ante, checking in on Facebook at various places around his town — and the comments would often reveal who he’d been with. He admits this was a cheap shot, “but I couldn’t help myself,” he says.
Gloria was incensed. “I know the end of relationships are hard for lots of people and bring out everyone’s worst behavior, but what made this worse was that everyone on Facebook and Instagram that knew us both could see what was going on,” Gloria says. “I was humiliated.”
It was the breaking point for Gloria. On their next date in real life, Gloria broke up with James with a full-fledged fight. Both laid bare their frustrations and fears, but the openness and honesty was too late to save their relationship.
Gloria accused James of being “emotionally unfaithful” to her, while James pointed out her flirting with other men online. Social media — once a treasure trove of evidence for their love for one another — gave each other plenty of ammunition.
Gloria and James — both articulate, mature, self-aware people in conversation — had fallen victim to a common pattern when couples lean on social media to conduct much of their relationship. What was an advantage and a helpful tool in keeping their love going had become a liability — a blank screen upon which to project their fears and anxieties about one another and their relationship. And it wasn’t pretty.
This is actually a common pattern among many who conduct a significant part of their relationship online. Many use Facebook and other social media platforms to keep tab on their partners, according to researchers at Albright College — especially if those people base a lot of their self-esteem and self-image on the outcome of their relationships.
In fact, the more neurotic you were, the more likely you use Facebook to watch over your partner and brag about your relationship. According to the Albright study, neurotic people use social media to soothe their fears of rejection and anxiety in a relationship. All those happy couples “schmooping” and gooping all over each on Facebook may, in fact, be using the site to prop up a shaky sense of confidence in the relationship.
Researchers say these people are high in what they call “Relationship Contingent Self-Esteem,” or RCSE, and perhaps need the validation of online gestures more than most.
“These results suggest that those high in RCSE feel a need to show others, their partners and perhaps themselves that their relationship is ‘OK’ and, thus, they are OK,” Gwendolyn Seidman, assistant professor of psychology at Albright, said.
Gloria and James both don’t see themselves as people whose self-esteem relies on their relationship’s success, but the idea of using social media to check in on their partner — and perhaps boost their sense of reassurance of one another’s affection and love, or affirm their fears — did resonate. “Yeah, I definitely did check in on Gloria on Facebook and Instagram,” James says.
Gloria admits the same, though she adds touchingly she also scrolled through old posts and photos on Instagram and Facebook when she was most stressed over James, “trying to reassure myself that I didn’t imagine it, that he did love me.” Gloria sighs. “We probably should have just talked to one another about everything right away and directly,” she says, “instead of looking out for signs on Facebook. But when you’re scared and sad, it’s hard sometimes to be that brave and open, especially when you think the other person won’t listen.”
In many ways, Gloria and James used social media well to keep their relationship going in a healthy way: they made sure to balance Facetime with real-life facetime and attempted to deepen their communication instead of keeping the tone shallow. And “bragging” and showing off a little on social media about a relationship is fine, according to most experts — it shows you’re proud of your partner, boosting the ego and self-esteem of both in the relationship.
But perhaps the best thing couples can do to ensure their survival is not use social media so much in the first place. Using social networks like Facebook too much can lead to relationship challenges like cheating and breakups, according to University of Missouri. The site can pique jealousy and insecurity, as well as broadens the opportunity for emotional and physical cheating.
Interestingly enough, the study discovered couples who were together for shorter periods of time were most vulnerable to social media disruption.
“These findings held only for couples who had been in relationships of three years or less,” Russell Clayton, a doctoral student in the University of Missouri School of Journalism who helped conduct the study, said. “This suggests that Facebook may be a threat to relationships that are not fully matured. On the other hand, participants who have been in relationships for longer than three years may not use Facebook as often, or may have more matured relationships, and therefore Facebook use may not be a threat or concern.”
Couples should also avoid changing their relationship status prematurely, according to experts, as well as posting photos and statuses referring to their couple status. “You need to have that conversation before you change it,” Wendy Walsh, author of The 30-Day Love Detox, told Women’s Health. “When a relationship is in its fragile dating stage, it’s very important to have privacy. Intimacy needs privacy to grow.”
Another important pointer: avoid social media if you’re feeling triggered emotionally in some way. Going on Facebook and seeing other happy couples when your relationship is going through a rough patch can make you feel even more dissatisfied with your relationship. It can also boost the chances of venting and posting online — and potentially regretting what you say later, when tempers have cooled off.
James heartily agrees with this advice. “It’s way too easy to retaliate right away and do something you later regret,” he says, thinking back to how conflicts escalated between him and Gloria on Facebook. “I perhaps kept hoping she’d see something and then bring it up, maybe. But instead, it just led to a mess.”
After their breakup, Gloria and James blocked each other on Twitter and Instagram and stopped texting. Curiously, neither completely cut each other off on Facebook right away. But a few weeks after their breakup, James sent Gloria a Facebook message, telling her seeing her on Facebook was too hard and he was going to unfriend her and change his relationship status. “I agonized over the right way to do it,” James says. “I wanted to be a gentleman, as much as I could.”
That didn’t prevent them from popping up in one another’s feeds in mutual friends’ comments — just like how they met. They also got tantalizing clues about one another’s lives post-breakup. Gloria would see James address another girl in a comment and wonder if they were dating; James would see Gloria pop up in a photo with a man in their professional network and wonder if they were together.
The social media proximity fed a continued emotional fascination with one another. “I hate to admit it, but I never stopped thinking of Gloria, even after we broke up,” James says.
In truth, both Gloria and James admit as a couple they had problems well beyond their social media gaffes. Their larger, fundamental issues would have driven them apart, eventually — both were dedicated to their careers and found it difficult to work out a compromise, and both admit neither of them were up for the open, honest communication needed to work out the situation. The physical distance proved to be a contributing factor, as well.
But the social media aspect of their relationship didn’t help either of them keep an even keel emotionally, and in fact, “more quickly poisoned the relationship,” James says. “It was easier to obsess over some guy flirting with Gloria online than look at the painful reality of loving someone but realizing it might not work with them anyway.”
A year later, Gloria and James struck a kind of peace, over social media at least. Both report no longer being unsettled by seeing one another pop up in each other’s Facebook feed. Moving on with new relationships helped; both are dating new people now. Both say they’re over the other and wish each other well, and think fondly of their time together.
Still, though, they haven’t re-friended one another on Facebook. “I’m not opposed to the idea,” Gloria says. “I know I’ve friended a lot of my exes on Facebook. It’s a nice but distant way to keep in contact. But it’s a bit too soon still.”
“I can see myself being friends with Gloria on Facebook again,” James says. “But I don’t think my current girlfriend would like me friending my most recent ex on Facebook. I don’t want to make things unnecessarily complicated. I’ve learned my lesson.” ♦