Romanticizing other people's relationships is not a new concept (thanks, rom-coms). Unlike a movie script, though, social media shows real couples living real lives.
But can looking at these seemingly perfect couples online interfere with our own romantic relationships? Here, how social media can affect your relationships and more.
How social media can affect relationships
Social media, if used sparingly, is not necessarily bad for relationships.
Research has shown social media use can both positively and negatively affect relationships, depending on how it's used.
For example, social media can contribute to unhealthy comparison and unrealistic expectations for what relationships are supposed to be like, and couples may spend more time curating an "image" of who they are rather than focusing on the relationship itself.
Social media use has also been linked to poor body image and depression, which can negatively affect relationships.
Negative effects on relationships
Social media can create unrealistic expectations
Although there are some useful resources shared via social media, "what you will mostly see are curated and filtered posts that only highlight unrealistic images of what a relationship is," says sex and behavioral therapist Chamin Ajjan, M.S., LCSW, A-CBT.
Attempting to measure up can distract you and your partner from the relationship.
Inevitably, real life won't look like the endless highlight reels we see on social media, which can lead to disappointment in either yourself, your partner, or both.
"You may begin to feel jealous of how much someone posts about their partner and feel resentment toward your partner for not doing the same," Ajjan says. "The lifestyles you are scrolling through may change how satisfied you are in your relationship because they seem to be better than what you have."
It can lead to jealousy
People may get upset seeing their partner liking or commenting on other people's posts, stoking concerns that their partner is interested in other people (or worse, is already cheating).
The use of Facebook, in particular, has been shown to increase feelings of suspicion and jealousy in romantic relationships among college students.
"This effect may be the result of a feedback loop, whereby using Facebook exposes people to often ambiguous information about their partner that they may not otherwise have access to," one study writes.
For example, cookies and Facebook algorithms can cause a partner's "hidden" interests to pop up on their feed.
The desire to find more information about them can perpetuate further social media use and feelings of mistrust.
(Notably, many of these studies have been conducted on college students, so it’s possible that there would be differences among older couples.)
Excessive social media use is linked to couples fighting more
Social media might make daily life seem less interesting
The drool-worthy image of a couple on vacation can trigger feelings of envy, which can keep you from appreciating where you are in the present moment.
Struggles, chores, compromise, and intimacy in the midst of challenges—these small mini triumphs are valuable, he says.
Just remember: A vacation can make you feel happy, but it's the everyday moments that lead to ultimate satisfaction.
When relationships end, it is so often those tiny, mundane moments that evoke the deepest nostalgia, Page adds.
It can distract you from spending quality time with your partner
The more we become hooked on the dopamine rush of social media, Page says, the less engaged or excited we will feel for the quieter, simpler moments of life.
"But those are often the moments when our loved one reveals something personal and intimate," he explains.
Next time you and your partner are together and both focused on your phones, bring awareness to that.
"Practice valuing real-time connection over internet connection," he says. This can help increase emotional intimacy.
It can affect our mental health
People with preexisting mental health issues may also be more susceptible to social comparisons, due to a negative cognitive bias8, one study found.
On the flip side, lowering social media use has been shown to reduce loneliness and depression symptoms.
Though these issues are more individualistic than relational, they can bleed into romantic relationships.
It can lead to body image issues
The filtered and edited images you see all over social media can cause insecurities about your own body to surface, Ajjan says.
A person's body image issues can significantly affect their relationships.
In other words, these insecurities triggered by social media can interfere with emotional and physical intimacy and the overall quality of a relationship.
It can make us more narcissistic
Research confirms that addictive social media use reflects a need to feed the ego and an attempt to improve self-esteem, both of which are narcissistic traits.
And different types of social media play into different aspects of narcissism.
For example, people who frequently tweet or post selfies may be displaying grandiosity, one of the common traits of narcissism.
Since you can be narcissistic without having a personality disorder, it's possible to develop these traits over time—and at least one small study has found excess social media use may be a trigger.
And of course, being in a relationship with a narcissist is not healthy and can lead to trauma later on.
Positive effects on relationships
Social media helps single people meet each other
In the digital age we live in, it's not uncommon for people to meet online or through dating apps—in fact, it may be more common.
A 2017 survey found 39% of heterosexual couples reported meeting their partner online, compared to just 22% in 2009.
A later study analyzing the results found that "Internet meeting is displacing the roles that family and friends once played in bringing couples together."
Of the adults who took the survey, 28% say they met their current partner online, compared with 11% of partnered straight adults.
It can keep you connected to your partner
Whether it's sending a funny meme over Instagram or taking a quick Snapchat, social media is an easy way for couples to interact throughout the day in a fun, low-pressure manner.
This is particularly helpful for couples who don't live together and people in long-distance relationships. According to a survey published in the Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking journal, young adults in long-distance romantic relationships13 are better able to maintain them if they're using social networking sites.
You can learn about relationships from experts
"There are plenty of accounts that offer up good information to help develop and maintain a healthy connection," Ajjan says. "There is a lot of good information on social media from relationship bloggers, psychotherapists, and many others that highlight how to improve your relationship."
As long as it's coming from a place of growth and not comparison, this type of social media can motivate you to work on parts of the relationship that have been neglected, she explains.
It's like a time capsule of memories
Social media platforms have practically replaced printed photograph albums as a place to store and share our memories.
In this sense, Page says social media can be used to honor the activities you do and the things you create together.
Unlike a physical photo album, social media has the added component of followers.
"In this way, social media can be an institutionalized way to express love publicly and invite community support," he says, "both of which enhance a couple's ability to flourish."
Tips to manage social media use
- Turn off your notifications. One study15 found that smartphone notifications can cause a decline in task performance and negatively influence cognitive function and concentration. Turn off your notifications to avoid any distractions and focus more on the present.
- Set aside a time to scroll. Whether that be every hour or every few hours, designate 15-20 minutes to getting on social media, answering texts, or taking calls to avoid the constant urge to get on your phone and scroll and focus on quality time with your partner.
- Try a social media detox. Research shows that intentionally refraining from getting on social media can prevent harmful effects and reduce the risk of compulsive social media behavior in individuals. Designate a period of days, weeks, or even months to avoid any social media use.
- Be transparent and communicate. If you are struggling with your body-image or find yourself feeling jealous or insecure, talk with your partner and explain how you are feeling. It may be time to avoid getting on social media altogether and focus on quality time with your significant other.
Scrolling through social media all day is, unfortunately, not a hard habit to pick up.
While these platforms can offer helpful resources, they can also lead to jealousy, mental health issues, and unrealistic expectations in relationships.
On top of that, the act of being on your phone constantly can distract from intimacy with a partner.
"Social media is not all bad," Ajjan says, "but if you find yourself comparing your relationship to what you are seeing online, it may be helpful to unfollow accounts that make you feel bad and focus more on accounts that make you feel empowered in your relationship."
Abby Moore is an editorial operations manager at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine. She has covered topics ranging from regenerative agriculture to celebrity entrepreneurship. Moore worked on the copywriting and marketing team at Siete Family Foods before moving to New York.