In the distant past, in a land not very far away, new lovers would meet in clubs and bars, campuses and offices. They would share passion in dorm rooms, apartments and hotels. When they were apart, they’d spill their feelings through long handwritten pages of prose, and talk for hours over miles of telephone wire. If love went wrong, they’d murmur goodbye with the glance of a kiss or shout good riddance over the angry slam of a door.
But that was then . . . Here and now, lovers are likely to meet online, track each other on My Space, grow intimate in Second Life and share ideas through their blogs. An illicit affair might be discovered in email, the breakup occurring via text message or AIM. Today, when relationships like these go through transitions, their ups and downs become the emotional flotsam of virtual space; the drama of public consumption. What’s left of purely private pain is found in the grief of each ending. But even then, online support groups soothe the misery of pining alone.
The term “social networking” and “social media” encompass the myriad ways we’ve come to integrate blogs, wikis, podcasts, networking sites, text messages, video phone, tagging, RSS feeds and other not yet invented but eventually ubiquitous innovations into our daily lives. Just like our working life is framed by these technologies, our romantic life, too, is built around them. Whether they serve or somehow diminish our emotional intelligence is a reasonable question to ask, but not one we can yet answer. Only one thing is for sure: this brave new word of social media, now unleashed, won’t be stuffed back into the virtual Pandora’s Box from whence it came. As the distinction between virtual life and real life grows ever more blurred, our relationships are changing to match. Soon, whatever distinctions between cyber and real still exist may become invisible or irrelevant.
Consider how Elliot and Bree navigated their way out of a brief, but intense, extramarital affair. Both were married to others, with no intention of leaving their spouses, and they knew their romance wasn’t meant for the long haul. Yet they chose to fling themselves into the fire, promising that when the time came to douse the flames they’d do it bravely. It was no surprise to anyone who knew Bree or Elliot that, when that day came, “goodbye” was not so easy to say. Neither one of them was ready to cut off contact completely, yet they were wary of having an extended relationship, or even an email relationship that might be discovered. They arrived at a compromise that that reflected their unusual circumstances and the little miracles created by the times we live in: they set up a public blog. Their blog was deliberately available to anybody, in theory, but in practice, the blog was a place where they could journal and communicate without committing to anything more. It was the perfect bridge between worlds for them, something that wouldn’t have been possible just a few years ago.
Whether committing to a relationship or untangling one, many people are using social media to announce changes, marking their transitions with brevity and strong symbolism rather than discussion or argument. Why, just a tiny change to one’s online profile on any social networking site can tell a complex tale, send a message to the world and put one’s lover on notice that times are a-changin’. Despite the fact that a profile change doesn’t sound like a kind or definitive way to deliver news, such changes are frequently made with all the fanfare of a mouse click. Is it any wonder then, that these days men and women obsessively scan the profiles of people they date for indications of subtle shifts in attitude – like going from “in a relationship” to “single” or “it’s complicated”? Changes in one’s online presence can communicate mood and emotion in almost the same way that tone of voice or body language does, both offering clues that beg to be decoded.
Of course, these methods can backfire as easily as they can enable the winds of change. When Amilee decided that she’d had enough of her boyfriend’s raucous nights out with the boys, in a fit of frustration she decided to take a stand by updating her MySpace profile, changing her status from “in a relationship” to “single.” She wasn’t exactly ready to break up with Jeremy; she was, however, inclined to send out the equivalent of a smoke signal to the gods asking them to send along a prince instead of a toad. She knew Jeremy wasn’t on MySpace, so her effort was her own acknowledgment that she was ready for something/someone better. However, Amilee forgot to consider the fact that even if Jeremy didn’t scan profiles, his friends did. When Jeremy’s best friend’s girlfriend was browsing MySpace, she saw Amilee’s “single” notation and immediately told her boyfriend, who told Jeremy. At that point Jeremy cut off the relationship with a stinging public comment on Amilee’s page for all the world to see.
Some social network users feel that there is a protocol to employing social media as a romantic intermediary, but few people know what, exactly, that protocol is. It seems there are as many versions of protocol as there are users. Because the world of social networking is so new, the etiquette is unformed. Common sense doesn’t always apply there, any more than it does between bloggers or listserve participants, who are prone to cruelties of communication in text that they’d never consider expressing face to face. The bluntness of a profile indicator, a demotion in favored number status, or a sharp comment left in a fit of pique can pack a walloping emotional punch because it is precise, cutting and humiliating in public.
At the onset of relationships, social media has begun to have impact, too. It can announce to friends that a couple is taking their pattern of hook-ups to the next level – but a premature shift in status from “single” to “in a relationship” on the part of just one partner can provoke rumbles of anxiety if the other one wasn’t consulted and isn’t ready. If two people haven’t had “the talk” that clearly defines them as more than dates, a “relationship” announcement in black and white can suffocate, and may even send the undecided one running for a new playmate.
Of course, the very fact that relationships issues are not discussed – just announced in social-code – can bode poorly for a budding relationship. When MySpace or Facebook takes the place of genuine discussion, perhaps the symbolism applies to both partners, stating that neither is ready for a “real” relationship quite yet. And then there’s the matter of cell phones. What happens to a frequent chat /text habit between friends when one changes carriers and is no longer affordably accessible? When their 30 daily text messages start costing? Can the relationship stand the heat? Researchers show that cell phone connections enhance bonds between users, especially among those under 25 – and that the ability to free-connect to friends is the reason people choose one network over another. But if circumstances force a change, can the love survive? Does a Verizon networker have to choose between their friends and an iPhone (restricted to AT&T)?
With so much uncertain in the cyber-social sphere, at least one thing is guaranteed: relationships will be born and transition in and out of existence just as they always have. It’s the methods, the technologies, and the creativity with which they shape-shift that we need more time to fully comprehend. Of course, given the exponential speed with which social networks and the media that support them are changing, it’s most likely that just when we begin to understand the latest iteration, a whole new world will open up – and we’ll be back at the beginning all over again.
About the Author:
A psychologist and sex therapist based in New York City, Dr. Joy Davidson has been involved in the development of internet-based sexuality education for much of her career. Convinced that the internet has the capacity to revolutionize intimate connections, she has been actively researching and writing about the internet as a vehicle for sexual expression, education, and therapy for nearly a decade.
Dr. Davidson was a key contributor to MSN’s pioneering online magazine for women, Underwire, as well as a sex and relationships columnist for MSN’s WomenCentral.com, SexualHealth.com, and SavvyMiss.com. Offline, she was for 8 years the sex columnist for Playgirl magazine and Men’s Fitness magazine. In addition to her current articles on LoveandHealth.info, she hosts a sexual enhancement video series, The Joy Spot, which can be viewed on other major video sites as well. Dr. Davidson’s personal website is www.joydavidson.com
Dr. Davidson is the author of Fearless Sex: A Babe's Guide to Overcoming Your Romantic Obsessions and Getting the Sex Life You Deserve (2004, Fairwinds Press), which, in hardcover, was a selection of the Literary Guild and the Venus Book Club. As an expert on sexual issues in popular media and culture, she is also a contributor to four of Benbella Books’ acclaimed “Smart Pop” anthologies and the editor of an upcoming fifth release. Her astute insights and warm, vivacious personal style have made
Dr. Davidson a sought-after speaker at seminars and conferences, and a guest on hundreds of national television and radio shows, including Oprah, 20/20, CNN News, Entertainment Tonight, Montel, and Bill O'Reilly. She was the host of 36 episodes of the Playboy channel’s series, “Secret Confessions and Fantasies,” and the writer/creator of the Playboy/Sharper Image home video series, “Secrets of Making Love to the Same Person Forever.” Dr. Davidson is a frequently featured expert in national magazines and press, including USA Today, Salon.com, Redbook, Wall Street Journal, Glamour, Marie Claire, Men's Health, and Cosmopolitan. She holds a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology and a Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology. She is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, an AASECT certified Sex Therapist, and a member of AASECT’s Board of Directors.
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