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Is Facebook the Petri Dish of Jealousy in Your Love Life? What “Cyberpsychology” Says

April 12, 2012, 12:00 AM

Does Facebook kindle romantic jealousy? Can your choice of “relationship status” in a profile affect your relationship? Three recent articles from the journal Cyberpsychology & Behavior tackle these questions of love in the time of Facebook.

“More Information than you Ever Wanted” by Amy Muise et. al. (2009) asks if social network sites “enhance jealousy” in relationships. 

It seems reasonable that they could. Facebook collapses the boundary between public and private. It introduces a panoptical into romance: In the past, lovers weren’t subjected to “daily scrutiny in their exchanges” by their “social circle.”

Facebook makes it easy to connect with past romantic partners, which can stoke jealousy. In Marriage Confidential (coming out in paperback in May) I call this the “sexual uncanny:” The ghosts of relationships past come to haunt the present. In Muise’s study, 75% of participants were at least somewhat likely to add previous lovers as Facebook “friends.”

Facebook also assists in “maintaining relationships that may otherwise be only ephemeral,” and connects people who would otherwise never communicate. All of this could increase jealousy and suspicion.

To test the hypothesis, Muise conducted an online survey with 308 respondents, age 17 to 24, and used hierarchical multiple regression analysis, controlling for individual, personality and relationship factors (to tease out what’s Facebook’s contribution to jealousy).

She found a significant association between time spent on Facebook and jealousy, and posited a “dual causation.”  Basically, we’re in a romantic jealousy feedback loop.  Facebook exposes a partner to information they might not otherwise ever find, which potentially provokes jealousy. The jealousy, in turn, leads to greater surveillance of a lover’s Facebook page. This “persistent surveillance,” in turn, increases the crop of potential jealousy-provoking tidbits.

For some partners, Muise concludes, the need for knowledge about their partners’ intentions becomes almost insatiable. Some even called Facebook surveillance an “addiction” in the open-ended questions. Among other interesting comments:

“…I can’t help but second-guess myself when someone posts on [my girlfriend’s] wall… It can contribute to the feeling of you not really ‘knowing’ your partner.”

 “[Facebook] definitely invokes a false sense of jealousy.”

“I was already a bit jealous and insecure, but I think that Facebook has definitely made me much much much worse.”

One fascinating finding is that women spent more time on Facebook than men, and also scored significantly higher on Facebook jealously.

 “Time to Face It” (2011) builds on Muise’s study by looking at “Facebook intrusion” into people’s daily lives, and how it might “spill over” into romantic dissatisfaction. Elphinston et. al. recruited 342 Facebook members at an Australian university to record their Facebook use for a week and complete questionnaires about jealousy and relationship satisfaction.

They found that Facebook intrusion was linked to relationship dissatisfaction. More specifically, it was linked via romantic jealousy. Facebook provides “a visible interpersonal forum in which the information shared between Facebook friends can be ambiguous and perceived by a relationship partner as threatening.” Facebook also offers an “infinite number” of potential third-party threats, in the form of “friends,” and in these ways “encourages the experience of jealous thoughts and surveillance behaviors.”

The unique qualities of social networks—the hybrid of private life in public, the easy introduction of “friends” who stoke jealousy, the uncanny presence of Ghosts of Romances Past, and the de-contextualized, fragmented comments written on Walls, so easily mis-interpreted and misconstrued—make Facebook a petri dish for romantic jealousy, paranoia and surveillance.

Does your declaration of your partner status in your Facebook profile (“single, “married,” “bafflingly unclassifiable”—I made the last one up) influence your relationship happiness? Apparently, yes.  “Are We Facebook Official?” (2012) looks at “relationship status” on Facebook profiles as it relates to relationship satisfaction. Researchers Papp et. al. recruited 58 couples in committed relationships, from a small Midwest town.

Among other findings, they observed interesting sex differences. Men’s and women’s disagreements over Facebook relationship status were linked to lower levels of relationship satisfaction for women, but not for men.

Similarly, a male partner’s indication of a “partnered status” on his Facebook profile was linked to more relationship satisfaction for both the man and his partner. But a female partner’s indication of being partnered on her profile wasn’t related to her partner’s satisfaction. A woman’s inclusion of her partner in her profile picture was associated with greater satisfaction for both of them, but no such link was found when a man displayed his partner in his picture.

These “unanticipated gender differences,” researchers note, suggests that men and women don’t place the same importance on public, Facebook relationship displays. Women seem to care about this more, or to get more satisfaction from being romantically “out” on Facebook.

These studies support the anecdotal hunch that love in the time of Facebook—and the Internet, online avatar games, sexting, chat rooms, and cyber-affairs--really is different, and likely to get more so.



Is Facebook the Petri Dish ...

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