[image by soundlessfall]

Earlier this summer I was contacted by Irving Bible Church in Las Colinas, TX to write an article on technology for their monthly magazine. After talking with the editor at length we eventually agreed upon a topic that we thought would be of importance to the readers — We came up with Is Facebook Making Your Marriage Vulnerable for the October 2009 issue of Chattermag.

I thought/think is a very important topic, and will only continue to grow, but I have been amazed at how this topic has been at the heart of many conversations that I have been a part of (unbeknownst to them that I even wrote this article). I have had several more friends convey stories to me about how their friends actions on Facebook were the cause of the demise of a marriage.

I even received a call from a local TV producer who is working on a story about this topic. In our conversation we talked about the growing concern over this topic, but the difficulty in pinning down what the real issue is. And with these incidents being so early in a new trend (i.e. social networking’s effect on marriage/relationships) it is hard, if not impossible to get people to step forward and discuss the situation.

So I figured that over the course of the next week I’m going to post several times on this issue, looking at what is going on, and what lies behind this issue.

But for today, I wanted to repost my article and get any feedback from you on the issue.

Is Facebook Making Your Marriage Vulnerable?
In the spring of 2005, I found myself in an endless battle with my college students (whom I was pastoring) over the issue of MySpace. Should our college ministry have, or not have a MySpace group? I had questioned the wisdom of it for a long time since I was not happy with much of the salacious content on the site, and I knew I would have little control over it. I finally gave in and was quite pleased that a week later new students showed up to our Wednesday night worship because they had found us on MySpace. But I soon realized how much I had to learn when the fall semester rolled around and my college leaders had gone ahead and created a Facebook group without my knowledge. It was then I decided that the best position for a pastor to take was to be involved with his/her online community. At least then I might have some influence.

That was my big concern 5 years ago. But like most of you, I have since adopted online social media—so much so that it has just become a way of life. I spend time daily writing on my blog, communicating with others on Twitter, updating my resume on LinkedIn, as well as checking out the latest photos and stories from old and new friends on Facebook. And that’s just a few of the hundreds of social media sites vying for my daily attention. But as time passes, I have fewer questions about whether I should or should not be active in these online spaces, but rather, questions about the boundaries I need to establish for them.

Recently, a couple of friends and I were lamenting about two of our friends’ marriages that had ended in divorce. One partner in each of the marriages fostered online connections on Facebook, which eventually led to full-blown affairs. One affair began when a partner reconnected with an old high school friend; the other affair began when one spouse initiated an online connection after meeting a person earlier that week at an event. What had begun as a simple hello on Facebook left in its wake two shattered marriages—devastated spouses and angry children. If you think this is out of the ordinary, just Google the words “Facebook” and “affairs” to find the growing amount of literature on this topic (for instance: here). Maybe this shouldn’t come as a surprise since most of the Facebook rumors tout that it was created to make it easier for college students to “hook up.” I buy into the theory that technology in our lives is not neutral (as my good friend and technologist John Dyer has helped me better understand). Rather, when we use technology, it will affect us in some way. And as married couples, we have to ask ourselves how the current social media is influencing us.

After hearing stories about Facebook affairs, it would be easy for us to take a drastic position and stay as far away as we can from online technology. I’m here to say, however, that I’m not just a big fan of sites such as Facebook, Twitter, blogs and others—but that they have been a great source of community and fun with my friends, family, and spouse. And with social media comes a responsibility: the need to create boundaries.

In the wonderful book Boundaries, Henry Cloud and John Townsend state:

“Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership…If we are not shown the parameters, or are taught wrong parameters, we are in for much pain…The Bible tells us clearly what our parameters are and how to protect them, but often our family, or other past relationships, confuses us about our parameters…”

Why are we slow to set boundaries for ourselves? Because when we lack an inner sense of self or identity, it is difficult to set the appropriate accountability safeguards. This becomes exacerbated online when the rush of information, noise and people soon becomes overwhelming.

As Christians, it is crucial to place our identity firmly in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus himself began his ministry with a clear affirmation of his identity in God (Mark 1:9-11). And in 1 Peter 2:9, it says this about our identity: “you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God.” Not only does our identity rest in Christ, but it is also embedded in a social context, whether in the communities of which we are a part (church, work, neighborhood), or the relationships in which we live (marriage, dating, parents, siblings, etc.). If our identity is not secure, then our boundaries soon lose stability and we will go looking for our value in all the wrong places.

I think it’s interesting that in the context of Ephesians 5:15-21, where Paul is talking about marriage and the importance of “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ,” that he begins the passage declaring we should be very careful how we live, not as unwise, but wise. It’s an important reminder: we must continually be mindful of the influential forces that threaten to infiltrate and hurt our relationships. When we are, we embed a stronger sense of identity in our marriage and are less likely to find our sense of self in a passing comment from someone on Facebook.

For us to truly foster an identity in our marriage—and to live and love within proper boundaries—we need accountability. It’s not surprising that a married man who is unsure of his own identity in God, life and marriage goes online and (without the proper boundaries in place) seeks out new affirmation—quite possibly from that old high school or college sweetheart, or in the world of pornography. Or that the stay-at-home mom who is alone a lot of the day with the kids may find online encouragement from another man—someone she thinks understands her.

So if technology is not neutral, then a few healthy guidelines are in order. Here are just a few tips I have found helpful in my own marriage and counseling practice:

  • Set parameters around how much time you are online each day. For example, no Internet after 9 p.m.
  • Share passwords with your spouse. Let your spouse check your accounts on occasion for accountability and vice versa, not because you don’t trust each other, but for an added measure of protection.
  • Do not engage in intimate online conversation with someone who is not your spouse. For example, are you sharing details about your marriage with someone online who is not your spouse?
  • Set appropriate privacy filters/details on social media. For example, have you set parameters for your iPhone and YouTube, which are huge avenues of pornography for many?
  • Be a part of an offline accountability group/small group.
  • Use online accountability tools. For example, subscribe to an online service such as Covenant Eyes (www.covenanteyes.com), which keeps track of all your web usage and e-mails a report to your accountability partners each week.

Online social media is a great way to connect with people. I love how families keep grandparents updated with new photos, how moms groups have organized themselves more effectively, and how all of us can get a good laugh at an old high school photo. But as we engage with others in the online world, we must always remember to live within healthy boundaries. It’s the only way to protect our marriages.