We've all been witness to it, a relationship that you realise is going to end before the individuals themselves seem to know. This has only gotten easier with Facebook. You notice your friend's status updates turning more personal and embittered, and then, after a few more weeks of passive-aggressive over-sharing, "Sally is single" suddenly crops up on your feed.
Back in the day, you would receive word of a troubled relationship one-on-one via a teary telephone call or on your couch after a shared bottle of wine. Now people are turning to social media in growing numbers, publically purging themselves of relationship anxieties as if every one of their contacts is a friend in the traditional sense. Which often just exacerbates the problem.
"My policy is to never be negative on a social networking platform. There is so much scope for interpretation when we write a text only post, and meanings can be misconstrued," said Nicole Greentree, CEO and founder of Empower Social Media. "With more and more conversations being had online and in public forums, a level of etiquette should be adhered to. There will always be those that like to have a Face-sook, but I don't believe it's of any value. Even if it is in a private group, there is always a chance that someone can do a screen capture of your comment and spread it through their networks."
Beyond providing a cringe-worthy international platform for you to air your dirty laundry, the way you navigate social media can also have unintended consequences – especially when it comes to couples with children.
"The big thing that we're finding in our mediation programs is that the kids are reading those posts," said Relationship Australia Victoria spokesperson Sue Yorston. "We've had some very distressed children because their mum and dad might think that the kids don't know what's going on and are not affected by it. We know that they are. People don't seem to realise that when you use these sites in this way it's out in the ether forever."
Social media itself can also be the root cause of the problem. A recent survey by Relationships Australia, headed by Yorston, showed that an increasing number of people are reporting issues surrounding the use of social media and related technology in counselling sessions. A total of 120 practitioners took part in the questionnaire and 80 per cent reported seeing clients who cited the impact of Facebook on their relationship as a primary concern.
"The idea of this survey came about because our practitioners started getting people coming in who were saying a major issue in their relationship is the use of social media," said Yorston. "There's been a lot of discussion around virtual affairs. Years ago we would have talked about people suddenly working back late. Now a flag is raised when someone walks into a room and their partner's laptop is quickly closed."
While the possibility of reconnecting with old flames via Facebook or Twitter has seen a rise in the number of people pursuing extramarital affairs, at least anecdotally, the connection doesn't need to be physical for it to cause conflict.
"There's a lack of understanding around the idea of engaging with somebody on Facebook. An individual might not feel as if they're having an affair and it has nothing to do with their real relationship. But for the person that's excluded, there are issues around trust and feeling violated," she said. "Whether the affair is real, as in physical, or virtual, its impact on the relationship is as devastating in each situation. If you're looking at the emotional investment in that virtual affair, it's taking from the other person's relationship. It's emotional cheating."
Part of the appeal, says Yorston, comes down to control. In the case of reconnecting with an ex or old friend, not only do we tend to focus on pleasant memories and discard the bad, we have an opportunity to present ourselves in the best possible light.
"The relationship is one-dimensional," she said. "This other person isn't seeing you getting up in the morning all grumpy or coming home and kicking the cat because you had a bad day or someone spent the credit card money. An online relationship is what you want it to be. That can be quite enticing."
Yorston says the best way to prevent social media from becoming an issue in a relationship is to refrain from making your private fights public and conduct yourself in a transparent way. While some couples share passwords to avoid temptation, those who prefer a healthy dose of autonomy should look at their behaviour objectively if they think they've crossed a line.
"If you have something on your computer that you want to keep from someone then that's a challenge for you," she said. "Look at why that's there and ask yourself, What am I doing here? If you wouldn't be comfortable with your partner looking at it then maybe that's a bit of a flag for you."
Keep it together
Nicole Greentree, CEO and founder of Empower Social Media, shares some tips to take into consideration when mixing relationships and social media:
* Be open with your partner about who you are networking with.
* Be respectful to your partner and spend quality time together, without having to update your status.
* Discuss with your partner whether they are comfortable if you share information about them, including their name, photos, activities etc.
* Don't keep secrets from your partner and express them online. It is a public space, and it's likely they will find out.