If you're single, Facebook and other social networking sites can help you meet that special someone. However, for those in even the healthiest of marriages, Facebook can quickly devolve into a marital disaster.
The source of this observation is the nation's divorce lawyers, who may be in a position to know. A survey by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers found that 66 percent of divorce lawyers say Facebook is cited as evidence in divorces they are handling.
Also, more than 80 percent of divorce lawyers reported they "have seen an increase in the number of cases using social networking evidence" during the past few years.
"We're coming across it more and more," said licensed clinical psychologist Steven Kimmons, Ph.D., of Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, Ill. "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."
If a marriage is an unhappy, unstable one to begin with, it's not hard to see how Facebook's online intimacy could lead to trouble. But Kimmons says even strong marriages can hit the rocks if one partner succumbs to Facebook's siren song.
"I don't think these people typically set out to have affairs," said Kimmons, whose practice includes couples therapy and marriage counseling. "A lot of it is curiosity. They see an old friend or someone they dated and decide to say 'hello' and catch up on where that person is and how they're doing."
Too much contact?
It all boils down to the amount of contact two people in any type of relationships - including online - have with each other, Kimmons said. The more contact they have, the more likely they are to begin developing feelings for each other.
"If I'm talking to one person five times a week versus another person one time a week, you don't need a fancy psychological study to conclude that I'm more likely to fall in love with the person I talk to five times a week because I have more contact with that person," Kimmons said.
Stories of people whose marriages were destroyed by affairs that began on social networking sites abound on the Internet. Though there are no hard-and-fast rules to follow, there are some safeguards couples can apply to decrease the chance of online relationships getting out of control. For starters, do a self-assessment of why you're using online sites.
"Look at the population of the people who are your online friends," Kimmons said. "Is it a good mixture of men and women? Do you spend more time talking to females versus males or do you favor a certain type of friend over another? That can tell you something about how you're using social networks. You may not even be aware that you're heading down a road that can get quickly get pretty dangerous, pretty fast to your marriage."
Another safeguard is to spell out from the beginning with your online contacts what your expectations are of social networking relationships. Also, it's a good idea to not engage in intimate conversation with someone who is not your spouse.
"From the start tell your online friend that you're not looking for anything more than establishing old contacts with people to find out how they're doing," Kimmons said.
In some instances, couples could share passwords with each other and place the computer in a common area in the house or apartment.
"It's not that people are going to read what you're writing but they'll see what you're doing, Kimmons said. "Then it's not a secret."