it's complicated

How Facebook has rewritten the rules of love and dating

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The holidays are upon us, and for many Americans that means traveling to spend time with family that you haven’t seen in weeks or months. Chances are you’ll find yourself making small talk about your jobs or friends or living situation. But you might be able to dodge one of the classic forms of family interrogation: Thanks to Facebook, your family—along with the hundreds (or thousands) of other people you call “friends”—already know whether you’re seeing someone. And they may know a whole heck of a lot about that relationship, too.

We’ve all read the think pieces and studies arguing that Facebook and the like have caused us to be too public about our love lives, to overshare all the minute details, in ways that aren’t always healthy. From couples publicly documenting every relationship milestone to elaborately staged proposal videos gone viral, the TMI culture of social media has led to an explosion of romantic oversharing, one that’s intensified as internet and social media use has evolved from a fringe pastime to a fixture in the lives of more than a billion people around the globe.

But while widespread social media use may be new, the urge to crow publicly about our relationships isn’t. History is littered with analog rituals intended to publicly proclaim our connection to another person, from the ‘50s-era ritual of “pinning” to the longstanding tradition of wedding rings. And what are weddings themselves if not an IRL status update conducted in front of a few dozen (or hundred) of your closest friends and family?

Social media has forced us to navigate new, sometimes tense relationship dynamics.

In some ways, the very foundations of monogamy are built on the public announcement of a relationship. Many of the things we take for granted as symbols of love and commitment are, in their own ways, a method of telling the world about our private lives. Sure, wedding rings are a personal reminder of a deeply intimate connection, but they’re also a way of communicating that you’re “taken.” As long as we’ve been creating exclusive commitments, we’ve been finding ways to talk to others about them.

But even if the desire to publicize our intimate relationships or mark others as our own isn’t unprecedented, there’s no denying that social media has forced us to navigate new, sometimes tense relationship dynamics.

For starters, it’s easier than ever to make a public declaration of love: There’s no need to buy a ring, or gather your closest friends together in a room, or even send an announcement to your local paper—just post a photo on Facebook or a “She said yes.” As the effort required to announce our affections has decreased, the impact and reach has dramatically increased. A wedding might mean declaring your love in front of a few people, but putting the photos, or video, online amplifies the reach of that public declaration to a broad network of thousands–or, in the case of a particularly popular wedding video, millions.

And those public declarations are also more permanent, as anyone who’s had an ex pop up in their Facebook memories can confirm. That combination of permanence and publicity can create some pretty awkward situations when a relationship ends, or even changes. “When partner and I changed [our relationship status] from ‘married’ to ‘open relationship,’ acquaintances messaged us with condolences,” says Chris, a web developer from North Carolina.

Social media has exacerbated a divide between more public people and those who’d rather keep a veil of secrecy over their domestic life.

Social media also seems to have exacerbated an existing divide between more public people and those who’d rather keep a veil of secrecy over their domestic life. For those who value a public declaration of love, the effortlessness of announcing your affections on social media can make a hesitant partner seem callous or cruel—as if they consider the relationship a dirty little secret. John, a New Jersey-based comedian, told me that the Facebook relationship status question was “a big point of contention” in a previous relationship. When his then-girlfriend, who he notes was “super anti-social media,” refused to confirm their relationship status online, “it made me feel like she was ashamed of me.”

If you aren’t already sold on the joys of telling the world about your relationship, the potential negatives of publicizing a relationship can seem overwhelming. Josh, a software developer based in the Pacific Northwest, cites privacy concerns as a major reason for keeping relationships offline. “Talking about your partner assumes a great deal of consent on their part,” he says. “I’ve found out the hard way things you might think are endearing about another person are considered very, very personal and private.” Unlike offline recognition of relationships, “Facebook has made it nearly impossible to create that sense of intimacy due to its slack privacy controls.”

But as frustrating as it can be to negotiate these new norms, perhaps we should be grateful to the internet for forcing the discussion. For many of us, it’s easy to default to what society expects out of our relationships—to board the “relationship escalator” and never look back, following a path more because it’s expected than because it’s something we actually want. By upping the stakes on what it means to be “public” about our relationships, in thinking through how much sharing counts as oversharing, we’re getting off that escalator and actively making decisions about how to structure our romantic engagements. The very fact that we’re making a choice about what we share on Facebook is, itself, important—regardless of what choice we end up making.