Facebook, Sharing and Intimacy

Many years ago, I counselled an anxious young woman who felt that the magic was going out of her marriage. Her husband used to say the sweetest things to her in intimate moments but didn’t any more. His extraordinary emotional vulnerability at the moment he proposed marriage had brought a tear to her eye, as it had to her mother’s, her friends, her mother’s friends, her friends’ friends and all the other people she told about it. Once showered with compliments about how lucky she was to have such a romantic husband, she was now disappointed that he never seemed to whisper the sweet nothings that had once got her so many “you lucky girl!” plaudits from her social network.

I raised the obvious question:

“Does your husband know that you tell everyone about all the intimate things he says to you?”

“Oh yes, why at Thanksgiving dinner last year my mother repeated the story about how he cried on our first anniversary because he was so happy. Everyone laughed because it was so sweet.”

I said “Hmmmm….” (which is what many of us headshrinkers do when we are thinking “Jesus Tapdancing Christ”).

But then I recovered from shock and said something like “If you want your husband to say things to you that are special, that he would only say to his beloved wife, why don’t you treat them as if they were special, instead of something worthy of general consumption? If he realizes he’s always effectively talking to a big audience, he’s probably not going to be as vulnerable and intimate as he would be if he knew he were just talking to you.”

I think of that woman when I read about all the Facebook users who have a gazillion friends. Specifically, I wonder what happens to specialness and quality of friendship when what you would normally share only with one or two people becomes something you share with a larger number. At some point do people feel less like they have a true relationship with someone and more like they are one of hundreds on a mailing list, akin to recipients of a mass-printed annual holiday letter? I recognize that technically, you can set different levels of intimacy in Facebook, but I also recognize that many people don’t bother to do so. Over time, will you lose interest in the Facebook sharings of dear friends once you understand they are sharing the same things at the same time with people they may barely know?

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.