Decoding My Relationship Status With FacebookBy Natasha Burton
When my college boyfriend and I broke up, I sought comfort in two activities: drinking too much wine and Facebooking. No sooner than the moment I removed my ex and my "relationship status" from Facebook—debating for a good hour or so whether or not to select "Single" on my profile or opt for nothing at all—I began regularly updating my Facebook status with anything from thinly veiled cries for help—à la "Natasha Burton should know better than to listen to Death Cab"—to don't-you-wish-you-were-here announcements of my roommate and my impromptu dance parties.
These updates were not directed at my ex—I'd de-friended him, naturally—nor were they a means to show others how over him I was. No, instead, these glimpses of my newly manufactured persona served solely to get the attention of a new guy, who I'd promptly enlisted as my post-breakup, shiny new "boyfriend." While the guy liked me well enough when I'd spend the weekend at his place, I decided that he needed constant reminders of why he should fall in love with me. Despite a lack of reaction from him, I pressed on, carefully crafting statuses that often invoked esoteric song lyrics from artists like Christina Aguilera and Bob Dylan, in order to prove to him how organically and ironically hip I was. But really, I was at home reading Eat Pray Love (again) and waiting for him to text me.
A decade ago, no "online me" existed. There was no profile picture to choose, no status update to draft… no relationship status request to (delusionally) hope for. In order to actually be seen by others, I would have had to put down my bottle of cheap cabernet and leave my apartment. But with Facebook, I could always have an audience. And for some reason, that idea didn't creep me out. Instead, I found a sort of empowerment in being able to control how others saw and shaped their opinions of me. Attempting to craft my own image distracted me from the uncertainty that my breakup caused: Suddenly, I no longer knew what my life trajectory looked like, essentially voiding the "life plan" I'd concocted.
I'm certainly not the first person to live vicariously through her Facebook profile. I think it's fair to say that social media in general has created a somewhat unavoidable compulsion to put ourselves up for public approval by a panel of digital cheerleaders (or judges, depending on how you see it). Unsurprisingly (though somewhat sadly) women are, according to a University of Buffalo study, more apt to use Facebook as a means of self-promotion than men are, especially in terms of crafting an ideal representation of themselves for those in their networks to see. The findings showed that "women identify more strongly with their image and appearance, [suggesting] that this image-conscious view was linked with their activity on Facebook," reported Time magazine. According to researchers, not only do women tend to have larger social networks than men do (and share five times as many photos), but also, women who seek approval based on others' views of them tend to be more active in social media.
Not surprisingly, my constant updating made me feel more depleted than anything, as I waited for some kind of reaction to my efforts that never came. Once the reality hit that my pseudo-boyfriend would never become an actual one—no matter how poignantly I used "Like a Rolling Stone" to evoke our current situation (a message further emphasized when he blocked me on Facebook)—I eventually got over him, my ex and, presumably, myself.
I have a new boyfriend now, and our relationship is nearly perfect (this, coming from a gal who jadedly believes that anyone who says things like that must be overcompensating for a loveless—and sexless—union). But there is one issue: Although Greg and I have been dating for nearly two years, you wouldn't know it by my Facebook profile. We are not "In a Relationship" with each other, nor am I even listed as "In a Relationship" on my own without attribution. We simply do not have relationship statuses on our pages at all.
Keeping our relationship off Facebook was Greg's choice—not mine. When we first began dating exclusively, he told me he would prefer to not make things "Facebook official." Of course, all the normal reactions went through my head: Is he trying to hide our relationship? Does he not want his secret other girlfriend to know that he's taken? Is he just using me for my ability to make macaroni and cheese from scratch?
I had no reason to make a big deal out of this. If there was ever a question as to whether or not Greg was trying to conceal me from his social network, then one would only need visit his profile to see a Facebook wall filled with links to my articles (a gesture that is not just incredibly sweet and supportive, but that also feeds my ego in the most pleasant of ways).
Still, I desperately want to be claimed. Unlike the boys of Facebook past, Greg and I are the real deal. So, although we'd talked about the relationship status issue early on, I recently brought up the subject to refresh myself of his reasoning. Our conversation went a little something like this:
Me: So, why aren't we in a relationship on Facebook again?
Him: Because all our friends already know we're in a relationship
Me: What about your other friends who don't know me?
Him: You're in all my pictures!
Me: But they don't necessarily know who I am.
Him: I don't want randoms to know every detail of my life.
Me: Aren't I more than just a detail?
The inquiry was clearly less a real question and more a way to coax Greg into reassuring me that, yes, I am. Still, it's hard for me to understand that Facebook just doesn't matter to him. As much as I'm the type who will immediately un-tag myself from an unflattering photo someone posts of me, he simply doesn't care. He doesn't have his birthday, nor his real job title, on his page. He uses the site for what it was created for: to keep in touch with old friends (gasp!).
Still, I can't help but agree with Michael Welch, an assistant professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State University, who said that, nowadays, if a given event or piece of news "is not on Facebook, it didn't happen." Being "In a Relationship" lets others know this fairly important detail. Such a distinction validates the relationship, making it more real—not quite in the way an engagement ring does, but in that same vein.
Maybe I'm attributing qualities to Facebook's relationship status function that make it more meaningful than it really is. Part of me simply wants redemption for those months during which I fooled myself into thinking the image I'd tried to create was also fooling everyone else. Now, I have an annoyingly great life. Greg and I are so functional and communicative with each other that sometimes I wonder when he's going to just blindside and dump me already. Because seriously, there's no way a relationship can be this easy. Is it so wrong that I want people to know?
Well, yeah, kind of. The logical counterargument, which Greg has made clear, is that the people who matter to us are well aware of our relationship status and how content we are. Truth be told, these are not the people with whom I'd most like to share our happiness. No, my carefully chosen audience would include the "friends" who still talk to my ex-boyfriend, those who may interact with the guy I clung to in order to get over said ex-boyfriend, any girl Greg is friends with who hasn't met me yet and, of course, his ex-girlfriend—whom he's too nice to de-friend, and whom I want to make jealous, even though she's engaged to someone else. The truth ain't pretty, people.
During my stint as a single-for-the-first-time-in-my-adult-life chronic Facebook-updater, I lacked self-awareness to realize how lame (and transparent) my actions were. Even though the image I'd like to project now is, in fact, reality, my want for a specific audience harks back to that fanatical mindset. Sometimes the urge strikes to post an inside joke or a memory from Greg and my trip to Tahiti on his wall, in an effort to "prove" to that targeted group of people just how "close" we are. But I need to remind myself that whatever it is could be relayed in person, in the apartment we share. I often wonder if having that simple and oh-so-easy relationship status that will placate me, squelching these desires for good.
After talking about the issue with Greg again a couple nights ago, he made it clear that he'll follow my Facebook lead: If I want to be "In a Relationship," then he's game. His being on board, however, only brings a new crop of questions: Now that we've gone this long without it, how will it look if all of a sudden Greg and I are “In a Relationship”? Will people assume (correctly) that I basically forced him to do it? What if we break up and I have to cancel a relationship… again? Does the fact that I am asking these questions ultimately prove that I am not, indeed, "over" my self-image-tailoring ways? Probably. And so, I am at an impasse: not with Greg, not with Facebook, but with myself.
Does Facebook make your relationship "complicated"?Comstock Images/Thinkstock