From like to distrust: This is how social media affects relationships

Although they make interaction and communication easier, these platforms can also create false expectations and fuel jealousy and suspicion

A couple looking at their mobile phones in bed.
A couple looking at their mobile phones in bed.Johnce (Getty / iStockphoto)

“I don’t usually look at my partner’s social media, but when you go into suspicious mode, it helps to know what’s going on.” “Social media is not important, but I can’t help but attach importance to them.” “I think it’s extremely immature to keep an eye on someone else’s Instagram.” “Checking social media accounts is useful to learn about the interests of the person you like; other than that, not at all.” “I admit it, I am obsessed with it and I’m constantly researching everyone.” “The kind of pictures they post (alone, as a couple) tells you something; the people who like them too.”

These testimonials came up after I asked, on my Instagram account, how much importance is given to social media in relationships. Araceli Álvarez, a psychologist, sexologist and family mediator, also gave an answer to that question based on her own professional experience: “In consultations I frequently see conflicts, insecurities, jealousy... all because of what goes on in social media.”

According to the 2019 article Relationship problems caused by social media in college students in Mexico City, co-authored by a group of researchers from the Ibero-American University, posting a profile picture with your partner or announcing that you are in a relationship on a social network is associated with greater happiness and satisfaction. However, these tools, which make it easy to meet people at any time, are also related to jealousy and fear of infidelity. They allow us to see how our partner interacts with others, which can arouse fears and insecurities. A “Like” on a certain photo is evidence of attraction towards other people; a comment lets us witness how our partner behaves with others. What you can see can hurt you.

Because social media mirror the situations that occur offline, they are also tools through which violence is exercised. According to the United Nations, 95% of all aggressive behaviors that take place online are carried out by men and directed towards women. The most frequent actions of gender violence that take place online are control through social media, password theft, the dissemination of intimate and personal matters, spreading sexual content and issuing threats and insults.

Despite all this, the effect is not always negative. According to the study Influence of social media on couple relationships, carried out by researchers from the School of Human and Social Sciences of the Cooperative University of Colombia, the surveyed couples claimed that social media had a more positive influence (60%) than negative (40%) in their relationship. Among the positive aspects, they highlighted that it facilitates interaction and communication; the second group claimed that it encourages jealousy and distrust.

Araceli Álvarez adds that social media can create false expectations of relationships. “They create a feeling of immediacy that often prevents us from being able to handle the fact that a response is not as quick as we would like. This generates distrust, resentment and pressure.” On the other hand, she also highlights the positive fact that they help us maintain our relations with those around us regardless of the distance. “In the end, a mere tool that is neither good nor bad is demonized,” she concludes.

A matter of age

Considering that young people use social media more extensively, one would expect these to have a stronger influence among younger couples. Álvarez confirms it: “Older couples, in many cases, don’t use them regularly or only have them for informational purposes or to be in touch with family and friends, and they tend to define better boundaries regarding their own privacy. However, when something related to this matter happens, these mature couples take the conflict to higher extremes. It shakes them more.”

The psychologist and sexologist has noticed more complications caused by social media among new couples, where the bond is not yet stable. “However, they can also be seen in established couples in which situations of jealousy or communication problems have occurred,” she points out.

In consultation – explains Álvarez – these difficulties are usually worked on both individually and as a couple: “At an individual level, we address issues such as emotional dependence, impulsiveness control and self-esteem. As a couple, we work on irrational beliefs about relationships (often fueled by the myths of romantic love), non-violent communication and healthy emotional expression.” It is also important to be very clear about the limits that separate what is shared as a couple from privacy and individual freedom. “All of this tends to have a positive effect on mutual trust and the establishment of adaptive behaviors,” she says.

Technology has the power to start, build and maintain a relationship, but also to hurt it. It all depends on the use we give to that particular tool. And here – paraphrasing French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of The Little Prince – perhaps it is worth remembering that what is essential is invisible to the eye of social media.

Arola Poch has a degree in psychology from the University of Barcelona, a degree in Broadcast Communication from the Open University of Catalonia and a degree in sexology from Camilo José Cela University. She is an expert in sexual education and communication who has published several books on the subject.

More information

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS