With romantic relationships, there’s a natural order of sorts. After a breakup, especially the more heart-rending ones, we used to rely on time and distance to mend our old wounds. A year would become two years, two years would become five, and soon a decade would pass. You’d move out of town and maybe halfway across the country. The longer and wider the space between you and your old flame got, the more those old memories would naturally fade away, eventually slipping between the cracks of your brain and taking up residence somewhere between the name of that turtle you tried to keep as a pet back when you were eight and the name of that kid in the fourth grade who used to always eat his own boogers. And even if you wanted to reconnect, odds are it was impossible. If gaining basic access to his or her whereabouts didn’t thwart you, surely the logistics of hooking back up would have. Long-distance infidelity was WAY harder back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. If your contemporary significant other wasn’t tipped off by the sky-high collect-call bills, surely your sudden interest in purchasing postage stamps in bulk probably would have.
But as of late, something has happened to that natural order, and the normal “distancing” phenomenon has been disrupted. The impact of this on American relationships—particularly marriages—has been severe.
Four years ago, the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML) said a whopping 81 percent of the nation’s top divorce lawyers had observed a five-year increase in the number of cases in which social networking sites were cited as central reasons for dissolved marriages. Not surprisingly, the 2010 report listed Facebook as the primary virtual home-wrecker, with two-thirds of divorce lawyers stating that Mark Zuckerberg’s gift to us all was a major component in break-up proceedings.
The same year the AAML report was released, New Jersey pastor Cedric Miller grabbed national headlines when he made his deacons delete their own Facebook profiles, with the head of the Living World Christian Fellowship stating the site made it too easy for users to engage in infidelity. Apparently trying to win the Ted Haggard Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Irony Award that year, it was soon revealed that Mr. Miller himself had engaged in some pre-Myspace adultery in 2003.
Facebook has become an aspect of everyday American life, and perhaps its most understated social effect has been its ability to transform memory lane into an (all-too) easily accessible real world walkway. One DC-area divorce attorney said that one-fifth of her cases were anchored around adulterous sojourns facilitated by Facebook. The phenomenon is so widespread that it has led to the creation of an entire website, with user-generated stories detailing how FB derailed longstanding relationships.
One of the problems associated with the rise of Facebook is that we’re not conditioned to have that many lifelong relationships. Sure, we have our families and our spouses and maybe a few true-blue chums from high school as constants, but anything beyond that is likely beyond our cognitive capabilities. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar argues that our primate brains are really only able to maintain 150 or so long-term, intimate relationships at a time; anything beyond that number, he hypothesized, is just too damn taxing on our minds.
Many Facebook circles extend far beyond the conjectural “Dunbar’s number,” which likely ensures that most of our online relationships will be superficial at best. But what about those Facebook-facilitated reconnections with more intimate histories as considerable factors?
With Facebook serving as a true destroyer of all time and space (and anonymity, apparently), the service is much like the mythological apple of discord, Pandora’s box, AND the forbidden fruit of Genesis rolled into one. Facebook tends to stir up and intensify petty squabbles. It’s also a mechanism that somehow magically transforms simple curiosity into full-blown horror. Who among us hasn’t accepted a friend request from an old high-school chum who seems to use the site as nothing more than an online bulletin board to threaten suicide? Who hasn’t stared in shocked awe at a childhood friend’s nearly unrecognizable, time-and-drug-ravaged face?
But it’s the old tree of knowledge metaphor that’s probably the best analogy we can make here. Where once our minds were faced with utter mystery regarding our old acquaintances, today all we have to do is make a few key strokes in a search engine and—voilà—we can know everything there is to know about every person that’s ever crossed our paths.
It seems as if we’re generally a lot happier NOT knowing what happened to the people who used to be in our lives. It’s a lot more comforting knowing my fourth-grade math teacher as nothing more than an ephemeral elementary instructor than a nursing-home-bound octogenarian with dementia, or reflecting on the first girl I ever kissed as some random Goth girl instead of an Oxycontin-addicted battered wife with three illegitimate children. And I certainly prefer thinking of Becky Knuckemakker as the blonde girl who let me get to second base in the Wendy’s parking lot that one time more than I do thinking of Becky Knuckemakker, the technical college dropout on SSDI for schizophrenia.
Perhaps it’s the fleeting nature of our old friendships and courtships that make them special. As evanescent recollections of yesteryear, they reassure us and make us feel as if we’ve generally progressed as individuals. Turning those specters from a former life into components of one’s contemporary life, it seems, is an invitation for disappointment or worse.
The inescapable reality here is that, regarding most people we encounter in life, they are better off serving as memories instead of ongoing relationships. The danger of Facebook—virtual Ouija board that it is—is that it allows us the ability to communicate with phantoms, people whose sole import on our contemporary lives is merely the fact that they aren’t involved in them anymore.
Where there were once only thoughts, Facebook facilitates actions. In the past, you might be driving to Taco Bell at 3 in the morning, and while at a red light, “Boys of Summer” starts playing and you instantly think about that one girl you knew a few years back. And then the light would turn green, your mind would refocus on the goal of chalupas, and that was the end of it. But now? The only thing standing between you and the ghosts of your past are a few QWERTY presses. If the will is there, so is the possibility for contact.
Nostalgia is a dangerous thing. It convinces us that our pasts were somehow better than our currents, and in many ways, Facebook is a service that shamelessly panders to our wistful moments of weakness.
Therein lies the inherent problem of social media: it allows for people connections when people disconnections are the normal—and necessary—avenue for personal growth and development.