If you say you have never felt even the slightest bit of jealousy over your significant other’s social media interactions, you’re lying. While this might sound like a baseless opinion, it is rooted in a hard fact peering at us through the screens of our phones: social media is disrupting modern relationships.
While there is a lack of academic research on the topic, especially in the Indian context, both recent and past celebrity scandals that have unfurled on social media are proof enough. Three such cases – Ned Fulmer of The Try Guys, Adam Levine of Maroon 5, and comedian John Mulaney – have taken place in the past month itself, exposing some very real consequences of “sliding into DMs”.
In October, Levine was accused of (physically) cheating on his wife, Behati Prinsloo, with Instagram model Sumner Stroh. The model, via Tik-Tok, shared screenshots of Levine’s inappropriate messages to her, months after their affair ended.
Notably, these male celebs are popularly tagged “wife guys.” According to Slang.net, “A wife guy is a social media user who constantly posts about his wife.” In the celebrity world, the phenomenon goes beyond social media affection, becoming a large part of a male celebrity’s branding. Famous “wife guys” who dote on their wives in most communication include John Legend and Ryan Reynolds, with possible Indian equivalents Virat Kohli and Ranveer Singh.
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It’s worth looking at some research along similar lines. The results of a 2014 study published in Computers in Human Behaviour negatively link social media usage with decreased marriage quality and positively correlates the same with troubled relationships and divorce. Further, the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers or AAML notes that as many as 81% of divorce lawyers see more and more spouses searching for online evidence when there is suspicion of bad behaviour. However, when it comes to specific behaviours such as “sliding into DMs,” reliable numbers are hard to find. The American Psychological Association attributes this shortage of data to the secretive nature of online infidelity.
Numbers aside, when you’re scrolling through Instagram or Facebook and you see your significant other’s name or comment on someone else’s post (especially the opposite sex’s), it’s common for people to wonder – could this be something more than just politeness? With stories about online infidelity doing the rounds now more than ever, the suspicion is well warranted.
In a conversation over the phone, twenty-something Divya (name changed) from Pune shares the ill effects of social media behaviours on her relationship of over three years. She blames her ex’s Instagram actions for the breakup.
Divya – who works in the finance sector – said that she has never been “the jealous type.” So what changed? Referring to her (now ex-) boyfriend, she said, “He continued to re-share posts that would basically indicate hey, I’m single and available, you know… Netflix-and-chill with me vibes.” He also follows a long list of women on Instagram, she added, who are complete strangers to him. These accounts have a common undertone – conventionally attractive women flaunting “perfect” faces and bodies.
While Divya had no incriminating evidence, his overall online activity seemed to hint at what she (and most women) fear: his interest in interacting and flirting with other women while also having a real-life girlfriend. Naturally, she started keeping an eye on his Instagram from then on – a modern-day vice that most of us have committed at some point. When she confronted him about all this, he chose his online persona and continued following the accounts in question over their relationship.
Pune-based psychiatrist and therapist Dr Trupti Vedpathak has encountered similar cases in her practice of over 18 years. As someone who talks to people on a daily basis about various behavioural challenges, Dr Vedpathak shed light on the reality of social media becoming a recurring topic in therapy sessions.
She talks about one of her clients – a middle-aged wife – who started having an online relationship with a relative after feeling emotionally neglected by her husband. “They shared objectionable images over WhatsApp. The husband found these and got angry, but he doesn’t want to divorce her due to societal pressure,” Dr Vedpathak said. The husband had threatened to share those images with the wife’s family, which further disturbed her.
“Many of my younger clients going through breakups share their urge to check their ex’s social media to figure out if they are seeing someone new or are happy without them. They want to know how they can stop themselves. This compulsive behaviour takes a further toll on their mental health,” Dr Vedpathak said.
Another issue many of us hear about – and perhaps have experienced ourselves at some point – is partners controlling what we post on social media. Alisha, a Gurgaon-based software engineer in her 30s, shared a similar story about her boyfriend-turned-fiance’s objection to her Instagram posts. “We had dated for more than a year… He never had a problem with what I wore or posted online. He constantly travels for work, so he is exposed to cultures all over the world. But ever since the engagement, he told me to ask before posting something on Insta.”
Like many Indian women, Alisha has been under social media surveillance by some of her family members. “Not like it’s wrong, but I anyway never post in short clothes because of my family... So even though my legs are not visible in any of my posts, he had a problem because he knew I was in a short dress that day. It became a constant topic of arguments and fights. Even our families would get involved.”
Interestingly, even while expressing concerns about her online image, the fiance would share with Alisha photos of his female friends in “short” clothes. DM-ing the post of a bikini-clad friend, he asked Alisha to “like” it for the sake of reach. She asked him why he liked these photos when her photos with not much skin showing bothered him. He told her in jest that that’s why she (the bikini-wearing friend) was not the one he was dating. Alisha broke off the engagement after this.
Any discussion about social media causing turbulence in relationships would be incomplete without asking this question: What behaviours are considered cheating?
Dr Vedpathak sheds some light on this: “Pre-social networks, infidelity consisted of actual physical encounters (sexual or emotional). But in the digital era, people can get emotionally attached to someone just over chats and without meeting each other. The anonymity and the absence of the fear of being spotted together emboldens even married couples. In some cases, although physical intimacy isn’t present, sharing intimate photos or sexting is the preferred way of expressing interest.”
“Honest and transparent communication about their social media interactions is a must,” says Dr Vedpathak. “You should also refrain from bringing up the past after seeing something, especially if it was prior to the start of the current relationship. Spending more time together rather than through social media can really help.” She also warns against repeatedly and obsessively checking on partner’s posts, followers’ list, display pictures, etc., as they become a recipe for jealousy and mistrust.
At this point in our collective existence, we’ve had Instagram and Facebook for 12 and 18 years respectively. And while we have written off objectionable likes, comments, and DMs as nothing more than ill-mannered so far, it’s time to rethink social media etiquettes for those in committed relationships. When it comes to real-life love in a Reels-obsessed society, we must create a new awareness and use this quick and easy “access to access” more mindfully. Experts agree that a good rule of thumb to remember is this: If you wouldn’t do it in person, you shouldn’t do it online.
Sana Naaz is a Pune-based editor and freelance journalist.