Ayesha Vardag on protecting your relationship (and yourself) from the powerful allure of social media
When I was young, I wrote and received long letters from my friend. Every aspect of my existence, every thought and feeling I had, I communicated to him, every day, every free hour. It became an immensely intense and consuming relationship, although, in the real world, we hadn't even kissed. I neglected my studies to write. I fell in love by post.
At another time, getting past my divorce, again pre-Facebook, I wrote daily anecdotes about my various romantic disasters to a community of friends by email. I'd sit down with a glass of wine in the evening, get out my computer and chit-chat. It made it all so much better.
People need friends and community. They're lonely, either literally or shut off in their marriages or families. So many marriages become cold places, and people need to connect. They feel shut off from those around them, so they reach beyond.
Social media have filled the gap left by letters. The keyboard is mightier than the pen. What we have now is, on everyone's phone, through Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and the like, an immediate communication with a whole community, brought up as close as if you were leaning on the gate in the village green or talking over your fence in the tenement.
When you've had a difficult day, when there's something you're bursting with pride about, posting your news, your feelings, brings you immediate support, approval, engagement. It takes away isolation and boredom. It's a powerful force.
But through that process, people connect with others. They may be new people. They may be old friends or flames. I recently connected with the first boy I ever had a crush on, in primary school. Still a thoroughly nice bloke. These connections can just be interesting, fun, entertaining. But sometimes they set off a spark.
There's a power in people's chosen words and images, and a very direct connection with their minds, cleared of all the other clutter. It's dangerous to the relationships in the real world. When those real relationships are weak, or limited, connection with others via social media can give people what they need. And the moment you start meeting people's needs, you start to influence their lives.
Most relationships break up because someone meets someone else – and now, so often, it's not in a bar or a railway station, but via their online presence. It may be someone with whom they want to take up a missed opportunity or right a past mistake. It may be someone they never knew well or at all but have discovered. That can undermine and break up the old relationship structures.
Sometimes these marriages break up through another kind of discovery – we see a lot of cases where an infidelity was busted by random photo downloads to the spouse or Facebook messaging on the family computer. Other times, people choose to leave because they've found what feels more right for them.
And then, if things break down, social media become the outlet for revenge; vindictive, embarrassing, cruel words and images are spilled onto the web by rejected lovers looking for a very public outlet for their pain. In divorces, I've seen people threaten posting public humiliation as leverage for a settlement. People can go crazy when their hearts are broken.
We've started to provide for that in our work as family lawyers – I've brokered several divorce deals with social media confidentiality clauses, and my own husband and I have put in our prenup a clause to shut down posting about each other if the good will breaks down. We all give immense power to others to make our secret selves public. It's good to be intimate with those close to us. But we need to protect ourselves in case it all goes sour.
Social media haven't changed the basics of human behaviour. They ramp it up, make it easier and more familiar and give opportunities. They can help you out of a bad relationship, or out of loneliness or depression. But you have to be careful not to lose sight of the real world in favour of the seductions of the keyboard. It's powerful – hold on tight to reality.