Blaming social media for divorce is shortsighted

Before blaming online social networks, we need to look at the deeper drivers behind high divorce rates, writes Ayesha Almazroui

Are online social networks really to blame for the increasing number of marital disputes? Jeff Topping / The National
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Social media has been increasingly blamed for marital disputes and divorce, not only in the UAE but around the world.

A recent US study, published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, found a link between social media use and decreased marriage satisfaction. Researchers found that the use of social network sites is negatively correlated with marriage quality and happiness and positively correlated with experiencing a troubled relationship and contemplating divorce.

In the UK, reports also say that social networks have become a significant threat to many marriages and a major factor in an increasing number of divorce cases. The law firm Slater and Gordon reported a rise in the number of clients who said that Facebook, Skype, Snapchat, Twitter, Whatsapp or other social media networks had played a part in their divorce.

In China, local lawyers say that popular social networks, such as Alibaba-backed Weibo and Tencent’s WeChat, have been fuelling the rise in the country’s divorce rates, which rose by 3.9 per cent to 3.6 million cases in 2014.

In this country, experts say that the situation is no different. A Dubai psychotherapist, Jared Alden, said in an interview with The National that social media has been one of the major reasons behind relationship problems, with "easily 85 per cent" of the couples who visit him suffering problems that could be related to social networks.

Local statistics across the Emirates show that divorce rates seem to be steadily increasing. The current generation seems to be more willing to file for a divorce than the generations before them. Current divorce rates, experts say, are comparable to Europe but growing faster.

Now the question is: are social networks really a “major reason” in marriage break-ups? Can such a relatively small factor alone lead to such a serious issue like divorce? Or does it only play a part in intensifying existing problems?

Divorce is one of the most complicated social issues. There are both general and specific local causes for high divorce rates.

UAE society is changing as the country develops. It’s true that social media is playing a role in altering young people’s perceptions of marriage, but so is popular culture, education, social interaction, globalisation and many other factors.

There are reasons to believe that social media plays a negative role in relationships. For example, social networks’ addictive qualities can create (or widen an existing) emotional distance between couples. It can also create an environment for misunderstanding or jealousy. It can open doors for comparisons that can lead to marriage dissatisfaction.

But doesn’t all this point to a deeper issue? If the relationship was strong and solid enough, would it be so affected by external factors? All those apparent causes of conflict linked to social media can actually occur offline. Social networks have only made it easier and faster for people to engage in them.

A married person can spend hours on social media websites talking to other people. The same person can also spend hours socialising offline or doing something else, if they are not keen enough to spend the time with their spouse.

Online social networks may help facilitate extramarital affairs by allowing people to connect with other people, including past lovers or people with similar interests, which may cause emotional and physical cheating that lead to divorce. But, again, doesn’t this mean there is already an issue of infidelity or lack of commitment?

What social media sites basically do is provide an environment for individuals in an already fragile or unstable relationships to escape their issues and find an alternative environment or a support system online. This doesn’t necessarily make them a major cause of marital problems.

There are deeper drivers of human and social behaviours that lead to conflict. And because conflict is inevitable in any human relationship, communication is always critical in resolving issues and protecting relationships from reaching a breaking point.

When it comes to Emirati society, it’s important to discuss the effect that arranged marriages have on the sustainability and success of marriage. One can argue that in such marriages, intellectual compatibility, and therefore good communication, between married couples is a matter of luck.

If a marriage is not based on understanding, on the harmonious sharing of thoughts, ideas and opinions and on compromise, the chances that it survives are very slim.

It’s easy to blame social networks for our problems, but it’s hard to dig deeper and try to understand the root causes. The truth is that online social media networks could only be a symptom if the relationship is already ill.

On Twitter: @AyeshaAlmazroui