There is little doubt that we live in a culture where oversharing has become commonplace. Each time you log into social media, you are bombarded with details and news about the lives of those in your network, from the mundane—complaints about traffic, commentary on the celebrity scandal of the day—to the monumental—news about engagements, marriage, babies. As people’s impulse or willingness to share information publicly seems to increase every day, it often seems like no topic is off limits, like there is no triumph or tragedy too personal or private to share with one’s followers to be “liked” or re-tweeted or just quietly judged.
But in “Facebook’s Last Taboo: The Unhappy Marriage,” the New York Times argues that “[m]arital distress… is the third rail, the untouchable topic of Facebook.” The article describes a couple who bucked this “marital code of silence” by posting something “truly subversive” on Facebook: a joint status update announcing their recent divorce to all their followers. The article contends that “the social media screen tend[s] to go dark after the wedding,” with “strife, anxiety, discord or discontent” noticeably absent from the average couple’s documentation of the relationship on social media.
In other words, where many people don’t hesitate to share intimate details of their lives online—the good, the bad, and the ugly—sharing negative thoughts about one’s marriage remains off-limits. Couples present only a united, positive front online, keeping the spats and disagreements that are part of any marriage behind closed virtual doors. But is marital discord really the “last taboo” of social media—the one area where users are holding back details they’d normally casually share? And more importantly… is that such a bad thing?
IS SHARING MARITAL WOES ON SOCIAL MEDIA really STILL CONSIDERED “TABOO”?
A scroll through my own social media feeds on any given day shows plenty of details about other people’s relationships, from the Instagram photo of flowers sent to my friend by her husband, to the husband’s gushing Facebook update about his wife’s accomplishment at work. But among the happier (or even boastful) posts, my feeds are regularly peppered with less rosy thoughts, from the seemingly good-natured exasperation about how much time a spouse has spent watching sports that weekend, to the occasionally more serious musings on whether it might be better to be single again.
Sharing negative information on Facebook is nothing new. The New York Times itself noted back in 2010, “Whether through nagging wall posts or antagonistic changes to their ‘relationship status,’ the social networking site is proving to be as good for broadcasting marital discord as it is for sharing vacation photos.” As more and more people begin using Facebook and Twitter as a stream-of-consciousness narrative of their day, it’s inevitable that the bad news will get mixed in with the good. This is demonstrated by the recent controversy surrounding Facebook’s “Year in Review” feature, which was supposed to generate a celebratory roundup of the highlights of the user’s year on the social network. (“It’s been a great year! Thanks for being a part of it.”) The roundup turned out to be less than celebratory—even heartbreaking—for a number of users, whose Facebook summaries emphasized more painful aspects of their years: photos of a deceased child, an apartment on fire, a father’s ashes, dead pets.
Facebook apologized for any grief the feature may have caused, but the controversy underscored the fact that people are freely sharing not only the routine or happy aspects of their life, but the negative and often tragic aspects, as well. Among the other sad news and photos that are regularly shared on social media, is the “divorce selfie” really so revolutionary? Is posting negative thoughts about your marriage really such a departure from all the other gripes, complaints, and even heartbreak publicly displayed online every day?
CRAFTING A “MARITAL BRAND,” ONLINE AND OFF
The New York Times article characterizes the couple’s jointly crafted Facebook divorce announcement as “managing their marital brand, even after its dissolution.” While the very idea of having an online “brand”—personal or marital—makes me feel somewhat queasy, careful curation of one’s identity clearly takes place every day on social media, even for those not heavily invested in promoting their “brand.” Unflattering photos are de-tagged, profile photos are changed, and “About Me” fields are revised to reflect the self we want to project online.
If the depiction of a relationship online is managed in the same way, is this form of identity management so different from the steps we take offline? Most of us, at one point or another, attempt to preserve our marital privacy and keep certain imperfections behind closed doors. We clean up before visitors arrive, we force smiling faces when we get to the party, despite the unresolved shouting match we had in the car. It might not always be a deliberate attempt to exude perfection, but a natural attempt to keep private spats, well… private.
Extending these boundaries to social media, much of a relationship’s privacy can be maintained simply by omission, by resisting the impulse to share details of the argument you just had about your household budget, or refraining from sharing a photo of the kitchen sink perpetually overflowing with dishes. Easy enough, right? But as some couples actively and frequently post about the very best aspects of their marriage—romantic dinners, gushing updates about various kind deeds a spouse performed, photos of lavish anniversary gifts—where do the moments that are less than picture-perfect fit in? The New York Times article suggests that “we see our partners as a reflection on us, and any hint of weakness, insecurity, or conflict isn’t good for our personal brand…” Does selectively omitting the less cheerful behind-the-scenes photos from a marriage necessarily become a deliberate attempt to display your marriage in only the best light possible? Or is it just a reflection of a natural tendency to hit “post” only when something truly grand or noteworthy is happening?
IS IT SUCH A BAD THING IF SOME TOPICS ARE STILL TOo “taboo” for Facebook?
Even if oversharing has become a commonly accepted part of our online culture, is it such a bad thing if airing marital problems on Facebook is still considered taboo? Is there any good that can come of sharing grievances about your marriage in a public forum? The subject of the New York Times article (and crafter of the joint divorce announcement) suggests that marital advice could be crowd-sourced via Facebook, such as posting a question like, “Does anyone have any advice about how I could deal with anger in a way that isn’t destructive to our marriage?” But wouldn’t such a question be better addressed in therapy or, at the very least, over margaritas with a few close friends? Is this a question that should, or even could, be answered by one’s social media followers, many of whom may not be familiar enough with either partner or the relationship to render an accurate response?
Some might share their marital grievances online as a way to search for validation, to strengthen their own position in the argument through “likes” and supportive comments from their followers. Others might simply gain some satisfaction from the public shaming of their spouse. But none of these rationales for airing dirty laundry online seems particularly constructive or likely to improve the relationship in any way. Some marriage experts even say that sharing private disagreements in public “represents a gradual but significant degradation of our regard for marriage.” The relationship may ultimately be patched up and the argument may become a hazy memory to the couple in question, but the public record of the spat will live on indefinitely on social media.
The subject of the New York Times article argues that the “mirage” of only sharing the “fairy-tale” aspects of marriage “does a disservice to people who are thinking of getting married.” But with the right lighting and the right filter and the omission of a few key details, anything can be made to look flawless online—so should anyone really be looking to social media for honest examples of the day-to-day realities of marriage? Studies show that “[d]espite technological advancement and a growing global community, Americans are reporting a decline in their number of close confidantes,” so maybe people are beginning to look outside their immediate social circles for clues about what a relationship should look like (which is a whole other conversation unto itself). But on the occasions where I’ve seen marital drama unfolding on social media, it certainly didn’t give me some unique insight into the realities of marriage. Rather, it was more like the train wreck that I couldn’t tear my eyes away from, and a good reminder that people are actually watching what you do and say online.
Given that the average American spends over four and a half hours a week on Facebook and one study has found that “heavy use of social networks” is “a positive, significant predictor of divorce rate and spousal troubles,” maybe taking a step back from social media altogether isn’t such a bad idea.