By Michael Foust
A 2010 survey by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers showed that 81 percent of "the nation's top divorce attorneys" reported an increase in social networking websites being used as evidence in divorce cases. Facebook is the leader, being cited in 66 percent of cases that involve online evidence.
"We're coming across it more and more," clinical psychologist Steven Kimmons of Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, Ill., said in a news release. "One spouse connects online with someone they knew from high school. The person is emotionally available and they start communicating through Facebook. Within a short amount of time, the sharing of personal stories can lead to a deepened sense of intimacy, which in turn can point the couple in the direction of physical contact."
The Facebook-divorce link has been discussed widely in the social media realm lately thanks to a survey from the United Kingdom supposedly showing Facebook being at least partially blamed for one in five of all divorces. The data is from a U.K. online divorce service that found the word "Facebook" appearing in 989 of the company's 5,000 divorce petitions, all of which were uncontested, The Wall Street Journal reported. The company's managing director called the survey "unscientific."
Whether or not Facebook is a reason for one in five divorces, it is becoming an increasing problem in marriages, Kimmons and other marriage experts say.
Couples should take common sense safeguards on Facebook, said Michael Martin, vice president for academic affairs and professor of New Testament studies at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in Mill Valley, Calif.
"People need to manage the beginning of the relationship," Martin told Baptist Press. "If somebody contacts you from your past and wants to strike up a friendship -- somebody that you dated once or somebody that you knew in high school or college, there's nothing necessarily wrong with entering into that relationship. Just do it along with your spouse. Include your spouse into the conversation. If you're willing to do that openly, then it's likely there's nothing at all wrong with the Facebook relationship. If you are being invited into a conversation that you are uncomfortable including your spouse in, then you should not start the relationship."
There "absolutely" are times when a husband or wife should decline a Facebook friend invitation from someone of the opposite sex, Martin said.
Thomas White, vice president for student services and communications at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, said "unhealthy marriages, unguarded partners and fallen humanity" -- not technology -- are the problem. White, who also is an associate professor of theology, offered four tips for spouses who are on Facebook:
-- Give your spouse the password and the "freedom to check your Facebook at any time."
-- Disable Facebook's chat function. "It provides a way to communicate without any record and can lead to a false sense of safety similar to the woman in Proverbs 7 whose husband was away," White said.
-- Set all Facebook messages to forward to someone else's email address who can serve as an accountability partner. An additional layer of accountability, White said, would be to have the messages forwarded to your spouse's email. White said his messages are forwarded to his work e-mail which his assistants view.
-- Don't accept a past romantic interest's friend request -- or send a request -- until discussing it with your spouse.
"Facebook is not evil, but as with all forms of technology, we have to be wise in how we use them," White said.
Ease of communication has opened the door to all sorts of possibilities -- good and bad -- White and Martin said. Prior to the Internet and Facebook, a person would have had to spend days, weeks or even months to try to find someone they knew years ago.
"An out-of-the-blue phone call would have been a much bolder action," White said.
Now, though, a person can do that in seconds, "simply by just going on Facebook or any other social networking site and doing a search for that person," Martin said.
"It can almost be done on a whim, and that's part of the problem," Martin said. "A thing done on a whim can evolve into a secret relationship that evolves into an emotional attachment that then leads to a divorce. There are some early warning signs that a person should note in order to avoid that kind of thing happening."
Facebook relationships, Martin said, are "real relationships."
"It's not a game. It's not a fantasy. These are real relationships.... People can form powerful, genuinely emotional attachments as a result of an exchange that is initially nothing more than an online exchange," Martin said. "Because these relationships are real and relationships shape our lives, we need to manage the beginning of a relationship with an eye toward the possible outcomes of that relationship. In other words, you don't toy with a dangerous animal. If there is something that a person would not do in terms of a face-to-face relationship -- an intimate discussion or a private discussion -- they should not do it on Facebook. Otherwise, they are starting down a path which can have extremely negative consequences."