8 ways to have a relationship in the digital age without going insane

Social media is re-writing the rules of dating. Here are a few dos and don'ts for our brave new world

By Jodie Gummow

Published April 24, 2014 3:15PM (EDT)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNet In the modern era, social media has changed the rules of relationships.  The ease and access to technology has made it increasingly easy to reach out to attractive strangers, find your high school sweetheart or reconnect with a random one-off encounter - all with the click of a button.

Certainly, such interactions help kick start the dating game for singles by allowing people to interact openly and freely.  But for those in relationships, meandering through this ever-changing digital medium can be challenging for even the most loyal, tech-savvy partner with temptation always on the horizon and relationship rules constantly tested and stretched by advances in technology.

What often starts off as a harmless flirtation online can soon fast track into a damaging, voyeuristic habit that fuels infidelity and breeds a lack of trust.  In fact, research has shown that once people enter into exclusive, monogamous relationships, social media has a harmful and negative effect and can place romantic unions in jeopardy.

A University of Missouri study released this week, examining the impact of social media on relationships, found that Twitter users are far more likely than non-users to experience Twitter-related conflict with their romantic partners leading partners to cheat and break up.  This coincides with previous studies that show a strong correlation between Facebook-related conflict and negative relationship outcomes as well as increased levels of jealousy amongst Facebook users in relationships.

Psychotherapist Sherrie Campbell, explained the trend to AlterNet: “Technology gives us more access to private information than we have ever had before.   Back in the day, meeting people was more about knowing one person who might set you up with a friend - there weren’t many people involved in the process.   Today, there is an expectation that people are talking to dozens of others at the same time on social media – social interactions have reached mammoth proportions.  The more narcissistic you are, the more attention you need from others and the more you use social media. As a result, we now see more affairs that are emotional in nature because social media provides a platform for sneaky, attention-seeking behavior where a person can escape accountability, ” she said.

With such a plethora of digital distractions coming at us from all angles, here are 8 tips to ensure your relationship doesn’t fall victim to social media.

1.         DON'T give personal information to strangers.

Unless you’re trying to establish a business relationship, it’s never a good idea to give away your personal information – and that extends to social media usernames and email addresses.  Even if it's considered harmless flirtation, you are essentially establishing a personal relationship in a way that your partner does not have access to which ultimately can progress into a private relationship with another individual.

Dr. Campbell explains: “Unlike street encounters with strangers which begin and end then and there, social media allows us unfettered access to a person to contact them again in an intimate setting.  In this regard, social media interactions go far beyond casual every-day flirtation that you may encounter on the street and consequently impinge on your principle relationship.  Today, we know too much about others and get away with more stuff than ever before because we can delete inappropriate communication at the drop of a hat,” she said.

2.         DO be considerate of who and what you “like” on social media.

Parties to relationships often get into conflict when one partner “likes” an image or status of someone else from the opposite sex.  In this regard, the right way to act depends largely on the communication you have with your significant partner, but as a general rule of thumb: “liking” half nude pictures of the opposite sex is a big – and quite frankly obvious – no-no.  Likewise, obvious flirting on public posts, pictures and profiles will only lead to unnecessary conflict.  Ultimately, it is important to be considerate of your partner’s feelings and how your comments may come across to him/her as well as to others, like your partner’s mom, dad or even grandpa who you recently "friended."  If it wouldn’t be appropriate to utter the words in person, then there’s a high chance it is unacceptable in writing.

3.         DO unhook from computer land every once in a while.

If you find yourself suffering relationship conflict related to social media it might be time to take a break for a while and get back to the real world.  Doctoral student and author of the social media Twitter study Russell Clayton suggests limiting daily access and weekly use or opening joint accounts in the interest of transparency to rebuild trust in relationships.

“Users should cut back to moderate, healthy levels of Twitter use if they are experiencing Twitter or Facebook – related conflict. Some couples share joint social networking site accounts to reduce relationship conflict, and there are some social networking site apps, such as the 2Life app, that facilitates interpersonal communication between partners,” Clayton said.

4.         DO discuss what level of communication you and your partner are comfortable with.

Observing social media interactions can create a lot of assumptions on both sides - this can even extend to popular emoticons where people express their emotions through pictorial expressions.  Based on these exchanges, those who are communicating with others through social media may presume that certain interactions won’t bother their partner.  Therefore, Dr. Campbell says it is important to be really clear and honest with your significant other about what interaction you view as acceptable and those communications that cross the line.

Ultimately, there will always be curiosity in relationships when a person you don’t know interacts with your partner, no matter how much you trust someone.  However, with good communication and healthy levels of comfort and trust, you won’t necessarily have to tear your hair out every time your partner’s phone goes “bing.”

5.         DON’T rant and rave about your partner on social media.

We’re all guilty of airing our dirty laundry on social media every so often when we’re angry or distressed via status updates. Passive aggressive jibes at our partners or friends are increasingly common but rarely a good idea.  Not only do you sound neurotic, but shaming your partner – even indirectly – for forgetting your birthday is never going to lead to a happy union…or to a birthday present.   As Your Tango says: “Relationships have good times and bad times. Using Facebook to announce marriage problems, debate marital issues, or rant on a spouse is only going to make a conflicted relationship more complicated.” Touché

Likewise, as loved up as you may feel about your significant other, it’s best to avoid over sharing lovey-dovey pictures and status updates of intimate moments that really are not meant for the world to see.  And yes, hashtag aftersexaccompanied by a half naked photo of you and your man is really TMI.

6.         DON’T become an amateur private investigator.

Just because your girlfriend liked another guy’s profile picture does not mean she is having an affair.  Conflict often arises between partners when information a person would not normally share becomes public knowledge on social media, such as compromising pictures a person may be “tagged in” or misconstrued comments.  One insecure partner in the relationship may begin to make assumptions and decide to become Columbo as they embark on a fact-finding expedition to get to the bottom of the ‘incriminating’ material.

If you’re find yourself feeling anxious or jealous about your partner’s allegedly inappropriate social media interactions, or worse still find yourself breaking into accounts and invading their privacy, then it may be time to have a closer look at your relationship and see what else may be missing that is causing you to feel insecure.  At the end of the day, no one wants to date some crazy, possessive person who is controlling and monitoring his or her every online move.  So get some perspective, keep your integrity and don't sweat the small stuff.

7.         DON’T change your relationship status without talking about it.

There is nothing more awkward then when a person changes their relationship status on social media to the absolute surprise, horror, shock or all of the above to the other person involved.  No one, let me repeat, no one wants to find out that they are in an exclusive relationship or alternatively now single via social media notifications.  It’s disrespectful, inconsiderate and at times rather creepy – particularly if you’re still on date number two.  It’s better to have this conversation with the person you are seeing (or planning on dumping first) before announcing it to the world.  Plus, if you break up a week later, you’re going to feel rather embarrassed when you have to change it back.

8.         DO delete your online dating profile when you start a relationship.

Again, this should be common sense, but in case you need it spelled out loud and clear, if you are dating someone exclusively, deactivate your online dating profile. D’uh!  If you’re in a relationship and your partner can see you’re online on a dating site continuing to meet other people, it produces insecurity and jealousy.  Relationships will always come to a head when our phones become our own secret world and we engage in behavior that quite obviously threatens our partner. Bottom line? Don’t be active on your online dating profile when you’re in a relationship.

Similarly, Dr. Campbell says that if you have been unfaithful or crossed emotional boundaries emanating from social media, transparency is the only way to rebuild that trust to enable your partner to be 100% available to you – and that can sometimes mean giving your partner full access to your accounts, passwords and all.

At the end of the day, deceptive conduct will always come out and a person will always find something suspect if they’re actively looking for it. For this reason social media is increasingly hard on relationships because at its core it pulls people out of their moral code.  Consequently, relationship survival comes down to individual self-control, trust and good communication between both partners in the interest of transparency.

Jodie Gummow

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