So we connect a lot through social media. I’m a digital immigrant and yet I sport a Facebook site, accounts with Twitter, LinkedIn, and Pinterest, a phone and of course Skype. That’s a small list compared to app-happy millennials who are digital natives.
Some critics praise social media for bringing us back together in the 2000's after television confined us to our living rooms from the 60's to the 90's. Now grandkids can chat with Oma up north cheaply and full-screen. Yet others point at the casual language of Likes, posts and comments and say we’ve lost the art of significant conversation, even if we call everyone a Friend.
My reading this week dug into that place where social media and relating meet, and I discovered a few myths that need debunking.
Myth 1: Using social media cheapens communication and leads to less satisfying relationships.
Actually, just the opposite. We know that technology doesn’t shape relationship quality, but that quality of relationships determines our use of social media. For example, people who are highly connected offline are highly connected online, but people who struggle in real-world relationships tend to use social media less. Also, even “thin” social media such as email and texting can draw us close if we say the right relational things and use emoticons well.
Myth 2: People are fake in their profiles and routinely lie to make themselves look good.
Part of this is right—we use social media to manage impressions people have of us. But except for a small percent of crooks, most people describe themselves in accurate terms on Facebook and even on dating sites. The ‘fake’ part is that we tend to post the happy, positive, beneficial aspects of our personality or accomplishments—which are true—but tend to avoid posting the negative. It’s like a big cocktail party—everyone’s putting their best foot forward. But we can’t get away with too much gloss, because some digital environments allow others to post comments and keep us in check. Also, knowing we might someday meet an online acquaintance offline keeps us honest.
Myth 3: The more Friends you have on Facebook, the more popular you seem to others.
Sorry, but the more Friends you have over 500, the more likely people will perceive you as needy, and their perceptions may be right. Self-esteem has been shown to predict the high and low end of how many Friends we keep online: people with lower esteem tend to compensate by Friending tons, or, conversely, shy away and Friend under 100 people. The sweet spot is the 150-300 range where most people fall who generally feel good about themselves.
Of course we all know people who don’t fit these trends, or who fit them for other reasons (like celebs attracting tons of Friends.)
Social media seem to be an extension of our emotions, identities and offline friendships. This prompts the idea that if we invest in good friends face-to-face, we can enjoy rich virtual connection too.
Source: Chambers, Deborah, Social Media and Personal Relationships: Online Intimacies and Networked Friendship (Palgrave-McMillan, 2013).
All four sat in silence waiting for their meals to arrive. One couple was to our right, the other to our left in a popular lunch spot in town.
Shelaine and I were debriefing an event of the day, and then I whispered, “No one nearby is speaking”. She nodded; she had noticed too.
Each couple was in their 60s; each seemingly married; each looking past their spouse to other patrons or out the window.
And then their food arrived.
More silence. This time with justified reason—it was time to chow down.
Meanwhile earlier that day we had learned that a saintly man at our church had passed away unexpectedly. While his health was not good—he suffered from Parkinson’s since 1993—his wife of fifty-four years had just visited him the day before and said he was in good spirits.
We attended a gathering to commemorate the deceased and support the family. After others had spoken, and hymns sung, the new widow stood and gave testimony of their life together. “There were good years, and there were difficult years, but overall, it was good.” Heads nodded in understanding as people likely recalled his twenty-three years of declining health and her faithful care during it all.
I was reminded of research that shows that couples married over forty years typically refer to lifetime commitment, loyalty, commitment to sexual fidelity, and commitment to spouse and marriage as reasons for their longevity. Three cheers for commitment and fidelity. I am sure the church couple were committed and faithful.
But there we sat, in the restaurant, with another picture of what long-term unions might look like—that grin-and-bear-it version. Perhaps these two couple stuck it out for the kids, or to protect their assets, or because they had no better options.
And then, after their table was cleared, the gentleman on our right reached his hands across the table, open-palmed. His wife smiled and said, “What?” He smiled back, and soon she reached up and put her hands in his.
Speaking of long-term relationships, have you seen this photo?
Book Summary: Relational Masks: Removing the Barriers That Keep Us Apart (Russell Willingham, IVP Books, 2004)
Russell Willingham serves as executive director of New Creation Ministries, Fresno, California, an organization dedicated to helping people heal from sexual addictions and relational brokenness. Based on decades of individual and group counselling experiences Willingham provides an insightful proposal of how the wounds from our youth show up as ‘masks’ in Christian circles.
He builds his typology around seven hurtful beliefs we often carry into adulthood:
1. God can’t be trusted.
2. The Bible doesn’t apply to me.
3. I don’t need other people.
4. Intimate relationships bring only pain.
5. Romance or sex will meet my deepest needs.
6. I must do everything perfectly or I am worthless.
7. If I am honest I will be abandoned.
Willingham thinks these twisted beliefs, in various combinations, are the root of relational masks. Those masks include:
1. The Avoider: because of so much hurt the avoider believes it best to check out of life. The avoider doesn't address problems, avoids people, and procrastinates from getting at anything important. Believes they can’t help the way they are.
2. The Deflector: ignores deep pain by becoming a jokester who keeps conversations superficial, stays busy with work or children, and avoids talking about their emotions. Prone to say “Sure, I have my issues, but what about him?”
3. The Self-Blamer: sees childhood wounds as deserved because of their own incompetence or sin and carries heavy guilt and self-condemnation. Believes God is the critical parent who is mad, disappointed or disgusted with them.
4. The Savior: succumbs to “idolatry of serving” through workaholic activity for others and the church. Prone to take on too much responsibility ‘saving’ needy others, boasting of ‘service’ on the surface yet prone to bitterness down deep.
5. The Aggressor: hides deep hurt through high activity, controlling others, and dogmatic expression of their ideas. Likely to think building a successful church program is more important than worshiping or knowing God intimately.
6. The Spiritualizer: baptizes everything in Christian terms, holds “right beliefs”, and has strong us-and-them ideas about who makes up God’s kingdom. Thinks human problems are solved by more prayer and Bible study, confession of sin, and a closer walk with Jesus. Knows a lot of information, but is slow to share personal problems with others.
The author concludes with two chapters: The Secret to Life with God and The Secret to Life with Others to underscore God’s primary work among us right now is to restore us to intimate, trusting, loving relationship with himself, and among His people. In doing so he shows ways the avoider, deflector, self-blamer, savior, aggressor, and spiritualizer may know God’s sufficiency, and genuine healing through the church community.
For readers who are acquainted with the ideas of attachment and wounds, you will find Russell Willingham’s Relational Masks a welcomed Christian perspective to the conversation.
Available through IVP Books.
Why do I favor windows for a site dedicated to close relationships?
If I went with people pics I would be tempted to use straight-teethed, model-types found in iStock. Life’s not like that.
Windows show character. The ones on this site are simple, functional, worn, and in need of some putty and paint. They are unlike cathedral windows, ship portholes, and those double-layered barriers you speak through to officials at airports. When people interact with us they experience what we’re made of. Will they come to know us as pretty yet fragile, strong yet small, or maybe impenetrably closed off?
Windows come singularly, in pairs, in groups, and sometimes in waffle-iron rows and columns. Their numbers make statements from “I’m doing well and fine all by myself” to “I feel like I’m one-in-a-thousand and easily replaceable.” I’ve chosen a two-some image to represent the partnerships we knit together with friends, colleagues, spouses and children—social bonds that give us meaning in the larger edifice of our lives. Despite Facebook promoting otherwise, we need and manage well only four to five meaningful ties, and usually one at a time.
Windows provide a vision of life for people inside the building as to the world on the outside. When windows face north we see less sun, more darkness, and shadows stretching east and west. Windows that become opaque from dust or moisture may hide what’s outside for ill or for good. People from or in hurtful relationships struggle to see the world in positive terms, while others in supportive and mutual ties have reason for hope and peace. Both offer insight to the human condition.
Windows also show a creator’s craftsmanship—the effort, skill, and creativity required to assemble glass and frame into something beautiful and functional. For the kid in her tree house with hammer and nails, a piece of Plexiglas may be all that protects against wind and rain. It’s not quite the Pantheon’s oculus or Bernini’s dove window at St. Peter’s, but even simple windows can be artful and practical when we craft them with care. My conviction is that people and relationships flourish when approach them with effort, skill, and creativity.
When I was young I read The Adventures of Silly Billy, a story of a boy whose parents thought him not serious so he set out to find others truly silly. He came across people racing in and out of a windowless house with large flat metal pans. “Why?” asked Silly Billy. “To bring in the light! But it’s not working!” lamented one man. Billy sat them down, explained how windows worked, and got everyone renovating. Soon the house brimmed with brightness.
How are your windows?
Bill Strom, Author
I am a believer by faith, a professor by vocation, a husband by choice, a father by blessing, and a friend by hanging out. Along the way I have learned about close relating through my experiences, biblical models, and social science research. Hopefully my ideas and encouragement show up here in ways meaningful to you.