An old high school classmate posed the question on his Facebook feed a few days ago: “Should we friend our exes on Facebook or is it equivalent to cheating?” Since couples therapy is my specialty, I was itching to think more about the question and posted a reply to his feed. The responses from others ran the gamut from “You should never friend a former lover!” to “Why not if your current relationship is a trusting one?” A couple of people openly confided in my high school buddy’s feed that Facebook aided infidelity and led to the demise of their marriage. One was the cheater, the other the “cheatee.” I was quite impressed with their candor and gut-wrenching vulnerability—both of them.
What are my thoughts on the question to friend or not to friend? In general, I am not black and white about espousing “rules to live by,” so know that first about my personality as a therapist. But I do think there are some things we can think about together in this article and you can think about with your partner later. Use this article as a conversation starter if you need help.
- Is Facebook replacing any kind of hole inside of you? You may be longing for some attention, longing to feel like you matter, and it may be outside of your awareness. Or you may know you want something but won’t ask for it from your partner. It is good to know fully that, “Yes, I want more attention,” so that you aren’t easily seduced into mistaking the attention of a former lover on Facebook as the remedy to a more common longing we human animals all feel from time to time—loneliness. The antidote is to talk it over with your partner. “I miss you.” “I want more attention.”
- Are you able to be honest in your relationship? A colleague of mine, Julia Flood, wrote a great piece on what she calls “liars” and “lie invitees.” Couples unwittingly set the stage for cheating when they block truth telling. Sweeping things under the carpet/conflict avoidance, exploding in response to truth, and suffocating our partner are all deterrents to telling hard truths, such as “I feel mad and hurt when I am the only one managing our budget,” or, “Your drinking worries me,” or, “We aren’t having sex and I want to talk about how to reignite passion.” Being in a relationship is hard, and telling the truth makes you vulnerable, but not telling the truth can create the perfect agar for Facebook’s “ex accessibility factor” luring one into a potential danger zone. Both partners are involved in creating a ripe atmosphere for honesty.
- Do you lead a purpose-driven life? In the early stages of love, we are intoxicated by love hormones of dopamine and norepinephrine … and then they wear off and are replaced by the cozy oxytocin hormones, and somewhere around two years we can get bored. Believing our relationship has lost its staying power, we might seek comfort by seeking out a “new” other to get that high back. All couples eventually reach a natural developmental phase of comfort, but the shift in romantic excitement does not spell impending doom. Unfortunately, romantic love has become so idealized in our culture that people get religious about pursuing it, says Robert Johnson in his book, WE. We may get addicted to this dopamine high or have misinformation about the natural rhythm of long-term relationships and start trolling Facebook to get our “fix” and find ourselves flirting with an ex. Esther Perel, in her book Mating in Captivity, encourages individuals to lead a life of personal fulfillment and purpose and have enough space between you and your partner that you can see your partner set ablaze by his or her life. Watching our partners in the act of doing something they are taking personal fulfillment in is the ultimate aphrodisiac.
- What did you learn about love and sexual desire growing up? Stella Resnick does a nice job of laying out how and why we often don’t lust after those we love and often can’t love those we lust after in her book, The Heart of Desire. She says, “In my view, the love-lust dilemma is not an inherent aspect of human sexuality but rather an artifact of a society that unwittingly primes us from childhood through adulthood to separate love from sexual desire” (Resnik, 9). If that is the case, then Facebook becomes an easy way to find someone to be “in lust” with and avoid repairing that societal wounding we might carry about love and sex.
- Is it OK for you and your partner to be different? The Couples Institute in Menlo Park, California, and many couples-therapist masters, such as David Schnarch, Esther Perel, and Terry Real, are proponents of not replacing the two individuals in relationship with a “big ball of we.” If we can freely express and listen to our differences and appreciate what makes us and our partners tick, with curiosity and a little humor there is a chance for both closeness and individuality—and that sustains interest in each other over the long haul. Our partner isn’t meant to be “everything” to us. It would be nice if our partners read our mind or could always clean the bathroom sink the way we do. It harkens back to our early childhood when our parents tended to every need without us having to ask. That brain circuitry from childhood gets lit up in romantic love, and we pull for our partner to be “the perfect parent” to us. Parentifying our partner usually happens unconsciously, and then we get enraged when they aren’t perfect at the gig or don’t want to play. It is hard to rewire that circuitry and to look and see that standing in front of us is just another human who is different than us whom we have chosen to be in relationship with over the long haul as an adult, not a child. Facebook is such an attractive way to not have to complete this necessary development of individuating from our partner. Couples therapy helps us embrace our partner’s humanity and our own in this “differentiated” way so we can continue our journey as a couple without the Facebook bait.
Long-term romantic relationships make demands on us as human animals to grow and complete some developmental stalemates from our younger life. We never had to grow past these when marriage was about duty. This new era of coupling for love necessitates learning some relating skills often picked up from a good couples therapist. With a solid relationship foundation, Facebook flirting stands a distant second place to the vitality of an honest relationship.
- Flood, Julia (2013). The Truth About Lies. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.psychedinsanfrancisco.blogspot.com/2013/01/the-truth-about-lies.html. Last accessed 8 July 2013.
- Johnson, Robert A., (2009). WE: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love. 2nd ed. USA: HarperOne.
- Perel, Esther, (2007). Mating in Captivity. 1st ed. USA: Harper Perennial.
- Resnick, Stella, (2012). The Heart of Desire Keys to the Pleasures of Love. 1st ed. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
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