A couple I’ve known since college, who got married and had kids shortly after graduation, are apparently now in the midst of a divorce and are broadcasting the details on Facebook. All of us who are friends with both of them are literally watching this play out in their status updates. It makes me cringe to hear their private business, to witness them calling each other names, and to have them be the topic of conversation at pretty much every dinner outing or happy hour among our friends. It’s becoming like a reality show where we know the characters firsthand.
Like most people, I love connecting with friends and acquaintances on social networking sites, but watching this unfold over the last few months has me really upset—and worried for my friends and their kids. Maybe there’s a downside to all this “social networking” that no one is thinking about. How should I handle this?
Facebooking and Flopping
While I think most people would agree that social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter are amazing tools that can bring families, friends, communities, even whole cultures together for positive results, there are also some serious concerns—privacy, exposing children and teens to predators, and lowered productivity, to name a few.
Your question highlights an example of such privacy concerns, although not in the typical way. Here, the parties seem to be enabling their own exploitation and privacy violation. These days, people seem to be living their lives in full public view, and more and more are either unable or unwilling to draw a boundary between public and private, proper and improper.
And unfortunately, behavior that goes beyond the bounds of good sense and propriety has (somewhat recently) been afforded a certain legitimacy in our culture. Reality television, talk shows, even our beloved social networking sites, seem to glorify narcissism on some level, teaching people that there are no limits, and encouraging everyone to spill private details without any regard for the potential destruction of themselves or others.
In my office, I regularly see people horribly wounded by this kind of public fighting, accusations, bullying, name-calling, rumor spreading, and public revelation of secrets. Some are those who regret having succumbed to the impulse to behave this way. My guess is this couple will come to deeply regret this.
Calling this couple your “friends” points to another problem. Social networking has muddied the very definition of the word, as if there’s simply no difference between a friend, an acquaintance, someone you met once a long time ago, and a business contact. I have hundreds of Facebook “friends,” but honestly most of them are people I haven’t seen in years, or people I really have little connection with. Think about whether this could be the case here. Does this truly affect your life? Or have you entered into a certain “Facebook voyeurism” that is simply fueling gossip and petty entertainment?
If you really care about (and know) these people, one possibility might be to write a short email to one or both of them and, as humbly as possible, say: “Forgive me for intruding, but I, like many of your Facebook acquaintances, have been seeing your recent posts and am concerned that you’re playing out your private life in public and may regret it later.”
But here’s my real “advice:” As a therapist, I always tell people that we can’t control or change anyone else’s behavior. The only behavior we can control is our own, and so it’s best to focus on who we are and how we behave in the world.
With that in mind, I’d first advise you to step back and acknowledge the lessons this situation is teaching you. One important takeaway is to gain self-control through some sort of reflective practice, like mindfulness meditation or (private) journaling, so that when you find yourself caught in a volatile emotional situation, you’ll have an outlet and the means to calm yourself down before acting impulsively. In my work, I’ve seen many people react with knee-jerk immediacy while in the midst of an emotionally charged situation, and there’s simply no good ending to that kind of response—as you’re currently witnessing in real time on your Facebook news feed.
Second, refrain from publicly “commenting” on the couple’s status updates, and avoid gossiping with your (actual, real-life) friends about the situation. When the subject comes up, acknowledge that it’s human nature to be drawn to a train wreck, but point out how destructive this kind of behavior can be and how uncomfortable you feel with it. Keep in mind that there are children involved in this struggle and that this is far more than fodder for cocktail hour.
And finally, use the time and energy you could expend on petty blather to engage in a more elevated, intellectual discussion in which you and your friends consider and weigh the benefits of our increasingly pervasive social media against the dangers it poses.
I wish you all the best,
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