When a friend brings a relationship quarrel onto Facebook, filling our newsfeed with a list of bitterly-spoken done-me-wrongs, it stirs up a lot of emotions for the rest of us, none of which are pleasant.
We’re very sad that this is happening. We might have pleasant memories of what seemed like an everlasting couple. We might mourn the loss of what has been a steadfast institution in our lives.
Or we might just be sad because someone we care about is obviously hurting.
If we believe one partner has wronged the other, we might feel anger on our friend’s behalf. Righteous indignation could be prickling all along our skin: how could (s)he do that to my friend?!
Sometimes we’re just annoyed: Oh, look. Steve is complaining about Jane again. Where are the cat videos? I need cat videos.
For many of us, I think it is quite normal to simply squirm in quiet discomfort, not commenting, not “liking,” only hoping that the drama ends soon.
It’s not that we don’t care; we just don’t want to be involved in this.
While we do want our friends to be happy and safe, we mostly wish their dirty laundry would be packed away.
Just scroll past, seems to be the common wisdom.
I suggest that simply ignoring this is problematic for two reasons: first, these posts can do real harm to the poster, the troubled relationship, and the couple’s family; and second, highly inflammatory statements may possibly be a flag of an abusive situation.
Ignoring can turn us into unwilling accomplices.
First, let’s consider what a Facebook post means: the content of your friend’s outburst might be safe with you, but you’re not the only one reading this information.
Disclosure to some parties could have serious, long-lasting ramifications for your friend and others.
Chances are, the audience includes a significant swath of your friend’s social, familial, and professional circles. Reading this tell-all, blame-sodden post may be people who make hiring decisions, people who interact with the couple’s children, and at least one die-hard gossip who “always knew that relationship was doomed,” and is now salivating over your friend’s unhappiness.
If the couple has teenagers or adult children, it is very likely that they have access to the post and can read what one parent is saying about the other.
Can you imagine what it would be like for a child to read such things?
If your friend is facing a divorce or other legal proceeding involving this partner, publishing too much information could prove truly cringe-worthy later on.
Just picture an attorney holding a printed copy of whatever horrible thing is on the screen right now. It may not always be admissible as trial evidence, but it may be influential at a bargaining table.
If your friend has expressed hopes that the relationship might be saved, this is definitely not the way to go about it. This is the very essence of nailing the lid on one’s own proverbial coffin.
We like to hope that if we all stay silent, our friend will sober up with embarrassment and take the post down.
Alas: The lack of commentary doesn’t mean the post isn’t being widely read and discussed.
And more often than not, these posts draw more than a choir of crickets. There are always those people who must deposit their particular two-cent opinion. These people are either well-meaning but completely blind to the danger of your friend’s post, or they are ne’er-do-wells who understand the problem fully and relish it. They will comment up a stream of what looks like support, but is really just enabling your friend’s destructive behavior.
When your friend’s mind is clouded by pain, don’t let the advice of short-sighted or possibly malevolent people be the only words this person hears!
Once personal, accusatory drama is released on the internet, it is almost impossible to rebottle the beast, even if the original post is deleted. But certainly the longer that information sits in the public eye, the more people will have an opportunity to read it, and the more damage it can potentially cause, spawning all sorts of horrendous rumors which can make your friend’s life quite miserable.
To help your friend, understand the source of these posts: pain.
Your friend is hurting, and is desperate for someone to validate such feelings, to provide comforting attention and support. The person who has traditionally provided these feelings is no longer doing so, and your friend is sensing that loss very dearly.
Every “like” or supportive comment your friend receives will feed this need, but it will only be a temporary fix. “Atta-boy” (or “atta-girl”) Facebooking addresses none of your friend’s underlying issues, and certainly does nothing to approach healing whatever relationship difficulties may exist. The same yearning for attention will likely pop up again, possibly intensified; it will happen again, and again, and again.
Remember also that Facebook encourages narcissistic tendencies.
Instead of aiding your friend’s demise, contact your friend privately, as soon as you see the post. Don’t be argumentative, nor gossipy. Simply try to steer your friend toward a more productive means of expression, such as professional counseling, perhaps with the troubled partner—or at least, a chat with a good friend.
Try something like this:
Hey…I care about you, and I’m sorry you’re upset. But this thing you’re doing right now will probably end up biting you in a bad way. Maybe you should take this offline. Want to chat? I’m here.
Some people may be too hurt and too stressed by the current challenges in their lives to follow your advice. Others may take your offer and try to lean too hard on it; be mindful of boundaries. Still, I think offering a lifeline is always better than just cruising by a sinking ship and hoping for the best.
There is another reason why we cannot ignore these posts: the reality of our world is that abuse of a lover, by a lover, is dreadfully common.
We know that there are many species of abuse. It can be emotional or physical, and it can come in any number of degrees. It can be quietly manipulative, or violently raging. It can be something which has been carried on in private for years, or it can be situational: a new poison springing from the wound of a pending breakup.
Of course, we like to think that our friends are incapable of hurting one another, and that the people we have gathered close to us are somehow of a better sort, not prone to the vices which impact so many in our society.
No matter how well you think you know any member of this couple, you will never know the full truth of what has passed between them.
There is always a chance that one partner’s public attack against the other is part of an abusive pattern.
For instance, statements which describe the other spouse as mentally ill can help an abuser diminish that person’s credibility, should the victim ever decide to share the secret story with friends and family, or maybe even law enforcement.
Likewise, posts which allege the other spouse is somehow deeply unethical—a betrayer, a horrible parent, etc. —can work to alienate a victim from the very people who could be lifelines out of the abuse.
Posts which ask friends to spy on the other spouse should be naturally suspect, as should requests for faux-privacy.
What is faux privacy? Sharing another’s intimate information with hundreds or even thousands of contacts, then demanding, “Don’t tell my partner I said this.” Not only is this sort of post logically lacking on its face, it is a behavior which must naturally divide the couple’s society in two — with the expectation that everyone will fall into line against the other spouse.
I am not suggesting that every impassioned, inflammatory post about a lover is a symptom of abuse. I am, however, asking you to be conscious of the fact that Facebook provides a tool for abusers to do their dirty work.
The allegations may be true, they may be fabricated, or they may be exaggerated slivers of truths, broken and glossed by human pain.
You don’t know.
How does one even begin to respond, if we decide we are not going to ignore it?
This is tricky; our society is still debating the appropriate way to respond to hints of abuse witnessed in public, such as a mother spanking a child, or a boyfriend berating his partner. We have less information than ever when viewing potentially aggressive behavior through the veil of the internet.
My suggestion is not to make ourselves judges, but compassionate observers and communicators.
We must make ourselves most aware and observant, at a time when we’d like most to turn our senses off.
Don’t try to defend the person’s partner in the post comments.
If the situation is abusive, your argumentative approach could cause the abuser to further punish his or her partner in private.
Furthermore, even if the situation is not abusive, feeding additional details to the public as you debate the merits of the allegations will only expand the violation of privacy.
If you have concerns about the nature of a post, I suggest trying to make private contact with both parties, for the purpose of gently interrupting the destructive Facebook behavior.
Check in. Be friendly. Make yourself available to listen.
If you’re not comfortable speaking to either or both halves of the couple, ask a closer friend to help in this intervention.
It is best if this is someone whom the other party will not see as a potential romantic rival.
I have found that it is not necessary (and not helpful) to be accusatory or heavily confrontational in private discussions. It is not your job to play marriage counselor or lawyer, police officer or judge, and attempts to do so may prove more harmful than helpful.
What I am suggesting you do is help build connections so that each party has a positive lifeline when needed.
If you can’t fulfill that role for whatever reason, ask people closer to the parties to talk to them.
Try something like this:
Hey, I’m worried about these people, but I know you’re closer to them than I am. I don’t really know all the details and I don’t need to—but it seems like there’s a lot of pain there, and I’d sleep better if I knew someone was at least talking to them. Can you do that?
Keeping connections open is such a powerful thing. If a person is truly being abused, the lifeline can provide the strength and clarity necessary to get out. In non-abusive situations, having a positive contact can do wonders to help ease the tough transitions of a breakup, and facilitate healthier conversations.
Again, I am not suggesting all negative posts about partners are indicators of abuse. Be aware, but don’t jump to conclusions about the person posting, nor their partner.
Don’t add to the gossip which has already been released. Simply keep connections open and encourage the parties to use them.
Remember that even the most vile, accusatory speech on Facebook is rooted in pain. Be a friend who recognizes that, and help the situation by connecting your friend to healthier outlets of expression.
Please don’t turn the other way and let friends hurt themselves (or others).
Author: Katie-Anne Laulumets
Editor: Renée Picard
Photo by Septembermess via Flickr.