We all know the warning signs of a couple in trouble. Unrealistic expectations. Poor communication. A mutual tendency to blame and shame.
Newly published research adds another red-flag behavior to that list: Facebook usage.
A team of researchers reports finding a robust correlation between using social network sites, experiencing a troubled relationship, and thinking about divorce. Using empirical evidence to confirm anecdotal reports, it finds this same troubling pattern using two different sets of data.
Writing in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, the researchers are quick to note it’s unclear whether Facebook usage leads to more unhappy marriages, or whether unhappy spouses spend more time on Facebook. Indeed, they write, both may be true.
Excessive use of social networking sites could leave ignored spouses feeling abandoned. If people are using such sites to follow former lovers—or people who could conceivably turn into romantic partners—such behavior "may evoke feelings of jealousy."
“It may seem surprising that a Facebook profile, a relatively small factor compared to other drivers of human behavior, could have a significant statistical relationship with divorce rates and marital satisfaction,” write Sebastian Valenzuela and Daniel Halpern of the Catholic University of Chile and James Katz of Boston University. “It nonetheless seems to be the case.”
The researchers looked at state-level data from 2008 through 2010, comparing divorce rates with Facebook penetration. (The total number of Facebook accounts in each state was divided by the total population.)
They found “a 20 percent annual increase in the share of a state’s population with a Facebook account is associated with a 2.18 percent increase in the divorce rate.” That relationship remained robust after taking into account such variables as income, unemployment, and the statewide rate of Internet access.
In addition, the researchers examined data from 1,160 married people collected as part of a 2011-12 survey taken by the University of Texas at Austin. Participants responded to a series of statements designed to measure the quality of their romantic relationship, and revealed whether they had thought about leaving their spouse at any point during the previous year.
Separately, they reported the amount of time they spend during a typical weekday on social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Myspace.
Participants who spent more time on online social networks reported, on average, lower levels of marital happiness. In addition, the researchers write, heavier use of social networking sites was “a strong, positive predictor” of thinking about walking away from one’s marriage.
As noted earlier, this relationship has two possible explanations—and they’re not mutually exclusive. The researchers note that some people turn to online social networks for emotional support in difficult times—say, when they’re stuck in a bad marriage, or attempting to navigate the strange world of being newly single.
On the other hand, they write, there are many reasons why Facebook usage could harm marriages. Excessive use of social networking sites could leave ignored spouses feeling abandoned. If people are using such sites to follow former lovers—or people who could conceivably turn into romantic partners—such behavior “may evoke feelings of jealousy,” they note.
“The ‘mutual’ and ‘suggested friends’ features may also facilitate potential cheating,” the researchers add, “since users can search through their friends’ friends to find someone in whom they may be interested.”
So if you’re a married person who is spending more time with your virtual friends than your flesh-and-blood spouse, be aware that your marriage may be at risk. Perhaps too many “likes” can imperil love.