How to Keep Facebook from Ruining Your Relationships

I think Facebook and other social networking sites are wonderful and fun tools for connecting people. However, using them is vastly different than connecting with people in person. So much of the privacy is removed, along with a great deal of context. If we’re not careful, this can create many problems and unspoken misunderstandings.

I feel like I’m normally relatively balanced in how I use Facebook, but over a recent period of a few days, I allowed myself to get pulled in for several hours, and simultaneously felt higher levels of anxiety than I normally do. I took a look at my own behavior and thoughts, and realized that the voluminous world of Facebook information had made my head spin a bit.

I had begun to experience Irrational Facebook Thinking, or IFT.

Humans Didn’t Evolve Through Online Social Media

We have evolved over thousands of years to interact with one another face-to-face, one-to-one and in small groups, with a very complex array of communicative tools built into our bodies and minds. Nuances of physical touch, eye contact, vocal timbre and intonation, and even pheromones enable us to sense myriad things about one another.

Suddenly, in a tiny blip of overall human history, social networking tools have appeared, removing much of the above while at the same time giving us access to hundreds of people at once.

Take, for example, the fast-paced “ticker” on the right side of the screen that shows second-to-second coverage of every little thing that someone you know has liked, commented on, etc. Even if those interactions are with people you don’t even know.

The Facebook ticker makes me imagine eavesdropping on a large party of friends, acquaintances, and loved ones, watching a computer monitor from a adjoining  room with a small group of other people. The monitor has up-to-the-moment transcriptions of every conversation occurring at the party, captured through microphones unobtrusively mounted on each person. The attendees know we’re observing, but occasionally forget as they enjoy their conversations.

The thing is, do I really want to know so much of what they’re saying? In contrast, I imagine attending a “normal” real life event with a close friend or loved one, where we’re free to talk to people together, or have our own private conversations with others. Afterwards, over coffee, we discuss our own perceptions of everything. In doing so, we can share what we want, tailoring our conversations specifically to each other, while using various tools such as our body language. That has a very different feel to it than the former scenario.

A number of articles have been written on how sites like Facebook can impact relationships, e.g., suggesting that increased time on the site is often correlated with negative emotions including jealousy. While much of this work has focused on romantic relationships, I think much applies to non-romantic relationships as well.

A few authors and researchers emphasize that it’s very easy to take things out of context, and to draw incorrect conclusions. This can totally skew our views of one another, especially if we don’t have very regular phone or in-person conversations with the friend(s) in question, or if we’re just getting to know them.

7 Irrational Facebook Thoughts, and Rational Replacements

I include here several hypothetical scenarios of Irrational Facebook Thinking (IFT) followed by more rational replacement thoughts. Perhaps you can relate to some of them, or know someone who can. I have wrestled with a few of them myself.

“So many of Timmy’s friends appear to have values that run contradictory to mine. I don’t know if I can be his friend.”

You’ve noticed that many of Timmy’s friends seem to like that political candidate you just can’t stand. Or they all seem to like certain sports a lot more than you do. Or they sometimes say downright offensive things.

Maybe Timmy had only brief conversations with some of his friends before connecting with them, or is liberal about whom he connects with. Maybe the values in question really aren’t that big a part of Timmy’s life. Maybe some of Timmy’s friends are from very different periods of life, or are actually relatives.

Also keep in mind that sometimes on Facebook—I think this is especially true with elements like profile photos—people like to show a part of themselves that they don’t often show in everyday life. A very good example of “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Whatever the case, people’s Facebook presences and photos often represent only a very small piece of who people are.

“Shirley has been friending many young and attractive men lately. And there’s a picture of her hanging out with one of them. I’m feeling jealous.”

couple playing twister

“Who is that guy, and why hasn’t she said anything about him before?”

Okay, if they’re playing Twister alone together, you might have a reason to be curious. But in other cases…

To begin with, even someone you’ve known for many years isn’t going to have time to fill you in on everyone they know. A tricky thing about online social media is that you will often learn about events in someone’s life even before they’ve had a chance to tell you about them.

Also, you probably don’t know the context in which she friended the person, and don’t actually know whether she’s interested in them or vice versa. You don’t know whether she requested to be friends with them or vice versa. Sometimes people request to be Facebook friends after just a brief conversation.

There are many hypotheticals here. There are also other potential dynamics to be aware of, e.g., the fact that we may be tempted to employ jealousy when we feel insecure in romantic relationships. (I don’t agree that the gender differences described always apply, but it’s good to have a general self-awareness.) There’s no way to know without talking about it candidly.

And pictures, a snapshot of a given instant in a broader context, can provide just enough information to make one’s imagination run wild. A picture can indeed be worth a thousand words, but that becomes a significant issue when our mind is making those thousand words up.

It may be helpful and comforting to get the real story. Ask before making any assumptions.

“Oh, crap. That article and comment Nancy posted is meant for me.”

“Oh, no. She just posted an article entitled ‘How to Know When Your Relationship is Over.’ I feel nauseous.”

This is really, really difficult to say. Nancy’s post may not be geared toward anyone, or it may be geared toward one of her other 500 friends. For example, I post a lot of things on relationships and sexuality, so if anyone who’s recently friended me thought that some of my posts were geared specifically toward them, they might be pretty freaked out. Or flattered–hard to say.

For example, someone recently shared a post entitled “How to Know You Love Someone.” Once in a while I may post something that someone close to me will know is geared toward them, but it’s always best to ask before ever drawing any such conclusions.

“Lamar seems to spend a lot of time on Facebook, but has very little time for me. I don’t think he cares about me.”

It is possible that Lamar is somewhat addicted to Facebook, and could stand to benefit from more real-life interaction. Maybe he rarely spends time with anyone else, either, so don’t take it personally.

However, it’s also possible that he posts large volumes of information that take relatively little time to post, e.g., clicking “share” on many items each day. This creates a large volume, that may make it look like he spends more time on the site than he actually does.

Also, someone who is on a site several times per day for short periods is going to look more active than someone who spends a single longer period each day, because the postings are spread out over time.

“Lamar seems to spend a lot of time commenting on Tina and Bob’s posts, but very little on mine. He must not like me as well.”

Maybe Lamar doesn’t talk to them or see them in person as often as he does you, so he feels the need to keep in touch with them via Facebook more than with you. Maybe for whatever reason, he prefers to interact with you in a different format. Maybe there are simply certain topics those people posted on that stimulated him, or maybe there’s a follow-up to a prior conversation. Hard to say here.

For example, on occasion I’ll meet someone with whom I have a very stimulating conversation, and upon visiting their page for the first time will find a post that really resonates with me. So I’ll leave a longer comment to make a connection with them. Sometimes we’ll follow up more either on Facebook or in person, or sometimes I’ll sense that we really didn’t have that much more in common.

I like to keep up with people through skimming my news feed and visiting the pages of the people closest to me regularly or occasionally, depending upon how close they are. But I really don’t want to know every little thing they’re liking or commenting on, because it feels kind of voyeuristic. It can also feed the irrational thoughts related to “likes” described below.

In fact, when I think to look, and notice that one or more of my closest friends are online at the same time, I sometimes try to ignore the little ticker box on the right-hand side. And I’m not the only one who doesn’t really care for it. But I also haven’t begun to experiment with the close friends vs. acquaintances feature, which might simplify (or complicate) some of the items here.

“Lisa doesn’t like many of my posts, even though she likes many of Todd’s and Priscilla’s. And every time Lisa posts something, even if it’s nothing profound, she ends up with 30 or 40 likes. Nobody likes me.”

Come on, fess up to it. You know you’ve compared yourself with someone in this way at least once, and have had a pang of “like envy.” But this is a dangerous thing to get caught up in.

There are many alternative explanations for your posts not being liked:

Some people are simply more likely to get “likes” just because they interact with others a lot more. People reciprocate “likes.”

Sometimes it may have to do with the time of day that you post. Maybe more of your friend’s friends work from home or have more flexible workplaces.

Perhaps another friend of your friend is a prolific and popular Facebook sharer, and drives many “likes” back to your friend.

If you post on more controversial or taboo topics, people may read them but be afraid to “like.” I find this happens with posts I do on sexuality. People know that when they “like” or comment on these posts, any of their friends online at the time will see it.

If you tend to post longer articles, friends may simply not have the time to read thoroughly, even if they find the topic interesting.

Also, people use Facebook in many different ways, filtering the data they see in a variety of ways. For example, because I haven’t yet divided my friends and acquaintances into groups, I seem to receive a mix of people’s posts in my newsfeed. I like this in some ways, because I think it probably exposes me to a broader array of information. On the other hand, I may eventually switch so I don’t have to manually visit the pages of people closest to me as often.

Whatever the case, don’t get too caught up in “likes.”

“Vicky liked some things that I really don’t agree with, and now I’m worried that I can’t relate to her.”

Keep in mind that a lot of very polarizing opinions and strong statements about issues are posted on Facebook. This is partially because the strongest ones, representing a dichotomy or far end of a continuum, often elicit the strongest emotional response and will thus spread the most rapidly.

Sometimes a person may “like” a strong statement that’s largely aligned with their values, but simply clicking “like” doesn’t express any ambiguity they may have. For example, I consider myself “mostly plant based” because I’m not consistently vegan. However, I sometimes post items related to veganism on my Facebook page, because I do identify with many of the values represented by veganism. Someone who knows me primarily through Facebook may not know about these nuances of my opinions.

It’s How You Choose to Use the Tool

I’m sure there are many more possibilities, but hopefully these examples give you enough of a general flavor to become more self-aware of your thinking and behavior. Again, I don’t like to fault innovative tools like social networking sites; it’s how we choose to use them and how we perceive information that often causes issues.

If you feel you spend too much of your social time in the digital world, and want a life with more in-person connections aligned with your authentic self, set up a no-obligation consultation to see if my coaching could benefit you.

If you have additional thoughts or experiences to share, feel free to include them in the comments!

Dave welcomes phone-based life, career, and transition coaching clients from around the world.

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