New Start Therapy
Love In The Time Of Social Media

or: "Hey, Why Didn't You Reply To My Message?!"

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Technology and social media have become part of most people's daily life. It's part of how we build and maintain our relationships today. It is also frequently the cause - or at least a trigger - for relationship stress. There isn't a day in my therapy practice when somebody doesn't mention Facebook, and how something they read contributes to stress or insecurity. There is a saying - I forget where on social media I read it first - that says, “Nobody is as happy as they say they are on Facebook, as successful as they seem on Linked In, or as depressed as they sound on Twitter.” Still, social media is a real factor in our lives, and it affects us in deep ways.

One specific example for how technology can affect romantic relationships is a little feature on WhatsApp, which is currently the most widely used smart phone messaging app in the world. The feature I'm referring to is a read-receipt that lets the sender know when the recipient of a message has opened, and presumably read, the message. So when a boyfriend or girlfriend does not reply in what the sender deems a reasonable time frame, questions arise such as “Why am I getting no response? What are they so busy doing? Are they up to something I don't know about?” The read-receipt feature seems to trouble especially new romantic relationships, the ones where you freely tell each other about all your daily activities, but you haven't yet formed the secure no-doubt-in-my-mind bond that is more typical of long-term relationships.

Many have blamed privacy-invading read-receipts (a feature that now can be disabled on WhatsApp) for the painful arguments they've had with their partners about why they haven't responded to a message, but my take is that we are not talking about a technology problem at all here! Rather, technology just brings to the surface a stage in your relationship's development. People have felt insecure about their (new-ish) relationships before the onset of modern technology. I still remember similar debates about privacy and obligations to respond when people started first carrying personal cel phones, and even at the advent of home answering machines (remember those?).

The way I see it, relationships, especially romantic partnerships, go through different stages. For the first 6-12 months or so everything seems to be a perfect fit as both partners put their best foot forward and minimize conflicts. As you get to know each other's differences and the relationship deepens, and as you realize the expectations you begin to have of each other, it is very normal for doubts to set in.

Does he really love me, even as he gets to know me better?”

How much does it bother me that she does (or does not do) xyz?”

I thought we were on the same page about x, but now I'm not so sure.”

This is the perfect storm for insecurities, and Facebook posts and missing message replies are simply fodder for those vulnerabilities. You simply don't yet have the feeling of safety and certainty you hopefully will acquire in a long-term relationship.

So what do you do? Rather than simply disabling features, talk to your love about your insecurities in a non-blaming way. This is a topic I have addressed before. In short, if you're in a new-ish romantic relationship and you're arguing about social media use, this might be an indicator that you have entered a new developmental stage in your relationship. But safety and security don't happen all on their own. There are underlying questions of trust that you need to address with each other, and the sooner you begin practicing that, the sooner your relationship can deepen on its way to developing the security and trust you desire.

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