There’s something about the holiday season and the January blues that stirs the desire to connect with old friends and lovers. In the olden days of the 1990’s, the desire remained in the imagination or found occasional outlets by flipping through college alumni directories or white pages. But with today’s social networking, the desire to connect can so easily be fulfilled.
“I feel like a computer widow.”
“What do you do in your room with the door closed all evening?”
“You say you are not having an affair, but it sure feels like one to me.”
“You’re on your iPhone all the time. If you have nothing to hide, why do you always go in the other room?”
I hear comments like these far too often as couples sit in my office – weepy, screaming, or stony-faced. As fun as social networking can be, it has side effects that can be fatal to marriages.too often as couples sit in my office – weepy, screaming, or stony-faced. As fun as social networking can be, it has side effects that can be fatal to marriages.
If you have a solid marriage, if you enjoy spending time with your spouse and children, you would not be sitting in another room with the door closed, or turning away while texting someone. Your spouse would not be feeling neglected.
If you have a solid marriage, you would be spending some time in the evenings together, maybe even sharing with your spouse information about the people you are contacting, funny stories you are hearing from them, and other tidbits.
Social networking does not have to be a threat to a marriage. The difference between social networking being a nice way to reconnect with old friends and social networking becoming an emotional affair is your intent and how you use it. And this is even truer when you are connecting with a former romantic partner. Here, it is most important to be clear with yourself as well as your spouse why you want this contact.
Anisha was excited when she found Neil, a lover from two decades ago, on Facebook. Anisha had married a few years after he left her but later divorced. She has not remarried and was not in a serious relationship when she decided to contact Neil to get closure – why he broke up with her. She was also curious if he had taken that job he was so excited about back then. While she did not verbalize this, she was interested in filling in information from her past; She was not thinking about Neil in her present.
He wrote her back explaining why he needed to walk out on her, and yes he did get the job. This started a series of changes that over the next few months increased to several times a day. Neil shared feeling unappreciated at work and his doubts about whether this was the right field for him. Because Anisha was a compassionate listener and supportive, he soon shared his doubts about his marriage.
As she felt closer to him because of his sharing, she was talking about the awful dates she was having. She was so impressed when he was bold enough to ask if she was lonely. Clearly, he understood her.
In time, the closeness they both felt, fueled by the frequency of their contacts and what they were sharing, intensified to the extent that they decided to get together in person. What started as an innocent effort to get closure on a past relationship had evolved into Anisha considering an affair with Neil, who was considering divorce. An innocent beginning led to what would become a disastrous and painful outlet.
They would have been protected if they had known about the five guidelines for using social networking to protect a marriage or relationship.
1. Be clear about your agenda
Although Anisha was initially clear about her reason for contacting Neil, he had given no thought to what it might mean. They had innocently slipped into something that violated their values and ended up causing a lot of disruption to their lives.
This might have been avoided if both of them were clear about the reason for their reconnecting.
2. Consider the frequency of your contacts
One way to keep the agenda clear is to limit the frequency of the contact. Writing once every week or two allows you to hear from each other, but anticipates the intensity from the building. With their contact increasing to several times a day, it was easy for Anisha and Neil to slip into sharing more personal feelings.
3. Be cautious about sharing much personal information
It’s important to limit the amount of personal information you share. Telling someone about your feelings increases intimacy. That’s what should be happening within a marriage. It becomes dangerous when it is shared outside the marriage. Neil clearly needed to talk about his feelings, but it should have been to his wife or a marriage therapist. Focusing on their relationship would have given them time to see if their marriage could have improved or if they needed to separate. Then, and only then, would it have been safe to get emotionally involved with someone else.
4. Be sure to keep your spouse informed
As long as you are letting your spouse know what are you contacting and leaving her an option to see the emails, both spouses are safe. This eliminates confidentiality which leads to jealousy and suspicion, and it increases the couple’s confidence in each other. The social networking then becomes a part of the marriage, where they can talk about the people in their cyberspace lives.
5. Do not meet in person – without with your spouse
If your agenda is clear, contact is infrequent, the information changed not intimate, and your spouse aware of your connections, you have just another friend. So, if you want to get together with that friend, there is no reason the guest should not be a part of that meeting.
What happened with Anisha and Neil, while exciting at first, became horribly disruptive. They met secretly. But, a relationship built on secrets does not have a solid foundation. Because they had a history together, they assumed they could quickly forge a future. What they had not counted on was how different they had become over the years. Once they openly announced their affections, Neil’s wife immediately initiated divorce proceedings. His children were furious and would not talk with him.
Anisha and Neil became closer as she was supporting to him, but their relationship had become one-sided, with her doing a lot of hand-holding while he was trying to handle a divorce and reach out to his rejecting children.
When Anisha realized how little she was getting from him, she left. As she later said, “It was like I was on a moving train, starting slowly from the station and then speeding ahead – faster than I had intended. The longer we were together, the more I saw who he really was, not the fantasy From my youth. I was getting discouraged, but I felt I had to stay because he was in such pain. ”
When You Receive the Contact
Anisha was the one to initiate contact. But, what about when an old flame contacts you? A good first question is to ponder why the person might be writing you, and why now? What is that person’s underlying intent? Is that person trying to escape from a bad marriage? Does that person long for emotional closeness? You probably would not ask these questions, but they could be in the forefront of your thoughts.
What could Neil have done to protect himself? First, he could have been clear of his own agenda in writing back. Then, following the other guidelines, he could have limited the frequency and the intensity of their changes. And, he could have been clear with his wife. If their marriage was in trouble, he could have taken steps to fix that first.
Regardless of whether you are the initiator or responder in the social networking, you need to protect yourself with these 5 guidelines. Without that, and especially if you are in a fragile marriage, you are vulnerable to seeking happiness elsewhere. So, what may start out as an innocent curiosity, may turn into a nightmare – for you, your spouse (and children), and the other person. Fantasies of how this old flame could reignite your lost passion, your desire for emotional closeness, could lead you to share unhappiness as you “innocently” write back and forth about “What are you doing in your life now?”
Do not avoid the great potential of social networking, but like any new appliance, gadget, or technology, use it wisely.
This holiday season, next year, forever – protect you and your marriage. Use social networking in ways that provide fun and contact, including your spouse, and see how much closer (and safer) you feel with your on-line friends and your marriage.