Money & Policy

Love in the Time of Facebook Algorithms

A married couple grapples with whether a spouse needs to be a 'friend'

My husband refused to be my Facebook friend. He ignored my friend request, pretending he wasn’t one of the site’s billion members. He didn’t use his real name on Facebook, but I suspected he’d secretly joined when a weird male alias kept popping up under “People You May Know.”

“What are you doing on there, picking up women?” I asked, teasingly.

“Susan, if I ever cheated on you, it would be with pizza,” he said, expressing his disdain for our recent low-carb diet. I wasn’t sated.

“If that’s true, why won’t you be my friend?” I demanded.

“My student signed me up as a joke.”

In 19 years of marriage, I had never worried because we seemed happy, and he’d never deceived me. So why the secrecy?

So it was true, he had a Facebook account. I sensed he was hiding something else.

Anti-Social Media

We were both busy college teachers who received calls and emails from the kids in our classes at all hours. In 19 years of marriage, I had never worried because we seemed happy, and he’d never deceived me. So why the secrecy?

“You do know I had an affair with a professor in graduate school?” I reminded him.

“Come here.” He walked me into his den, a.k.a. The Bat Cave, turned on his computer and showed me his picture-less profile page, under the fake name I’d already found.

“See, it was a lark,” he said, explaining that everyone knew he was a Luddite hermit who hated social media. “My student set up the account without telling me. I don’t even know how to use it.”

“Why did she pick the pseudonym Roger Maris?”

“He’s my childhood hero,” my husband said. “You don’t know?”

“No. Who is he?”

“My favorite dead Yankee of all time!”

“How did she know?”

“I talk about him in class,” he said. “How don’t you know?”

“If you’d responded to my Facebook request, I would have Googled it.”

Social Butterfly

As far as I knew, neither of us had ever perused Match.com, eHarmony or OkCupid. When I was 29, we were fixed up by a human, not an algorithm. By the time the Internet hit, I was faithfully wed, but I embraced social media for work.

I took my students’ advice and promoted my readings and lectures on Facebook. “Connect with everybody who wants to friend, fan, or follow you,” they said. So I did.

In elementary school in Michigan, I’d been a nerdy, unpopular kid who was friendless. Maybe that explained why, as an adult, I’d become a gregarious butterfly who went a bit overboard with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn. My husband, on the other hand, preferred being LinkedOut.

I knew this, and yet the fact that he wouldn’t join my cyber circles hurt. It felt like he didn’t want to be seen with me in public.

Ironically, in my sideline as an amateur matchmaker who’d fixed up many couples, I constantly warned singles not to get too chummy and confuse boyfriends with friends. My main theory of romance was: mystery was more alluring than mundanity.

“Don’t put on makeup in front of him. Shut the bathroom door. Keep some secrets to yourself,” I’d proclaimed, insisting your spouse didn’t have to be your bestie, shrink, life coach and personal shopper. “If you’re happy in the bedroom, don’t kvetch if he won’t join your spinning class or go shoe shopping with you.”

But now here I was, hypocritically freaking out that my other half was hiding behind a deceased sports nom de plume to avoid being my computer pal. Would our bond be better if he perused my Facebook newsfeed, fed every day with literary listings, article links and photos of my nieces and nephews’ birthday parties? Doubtful.

I decided to let it go. While dating off and on for six years, he’d refused to marry me. Until I let it go and moved on. Later, he returned, ring in hand, having made up his own mind.

Knowing Too Much

A few days later he came home confused, asking, “What event are you doing tomorrow?”

“I’m moderating a panel downtown.”

“Are you posting things about it?”

“Yes. It’s open to the public.” Why was he suddenly interested?

“I accidentally pressed a Facebook button and now I think I’m following you,” he said. “I get these weird status updates.”

“So un-follow me.”

“I like when your picture pops up — pretty shot of you,” he said.

“That’s sweet. But following isn’t reciprocal — it’s less commitment then friending,” I explained. “Followers can’t comment on each others’ posts.”

“I’m not posting and wouldn’t want your comments on what I might post anyway,” he said.

“Fine, I won’t ask you again,” I told him. And I didn’t.

Until my computer crashed.

“Use mine,” he offered, setting me up at the desk before leaving for work.

Friends Like These

As I clicked onto Facebook, his page appeared. And I discovered that he had just three friends, all attractive females! Patricia was a colleague I’d never met. Janet was an ex-girlfriend he now worked with. The last was a former student of his I knew but didn’t like. Worse, in lieu of her headshot, she used the cover of a book she’d published as her profile picture.

“Why are you friends with three women but not your wife?” I drilled him that night, my cool who-cares-if-we’re friends façade flying out the window.

“Oh, Patricia hacked into the account and friended me,” he said.

“That sounds implausible,” I responded, though he was so media-un-savvy I actually believed him. He’d never texted, tweeted, Snapchatted or Netflixed.

“If I had something to hide, would I suggest you use my computer while I was gone?” he asked.

Good point. “But Gwen Stefani found out Gavin was screwing the nanny from iClouded texts on her kid’s iPad.”

“Who? Do I know these people?”

“Let me tell you what bothers me most,” I shouted. “By friending your old student who is an author, you’re advertising her book and not mine!”

The Real Deal

The truth is I was worried he was flirting with the idea of emotional affairs online, developing a covert solo persona where he was more seductive without another half. But instead of playing victim, I recalled the advice I’d given to younger women obsessing about men: “When in doubt, do your life.”

I walked away from our first-world argument and went to work.

As I returned from my class that evening, he opened the door for me. “You have too many friends!” he said. “I tried to confirm your request — five times. But Facebook says with 5,000 friends, you can’t have any more.”

In the past, I’d accommodate a new colleague or connection by quickly getting rid of some stranger from India or deleting somebody who’d deactivated their account. This time, I didn’t offer. Now that he was ready to be my virtual friend, I didn’t need him to be. The fact that he tried was enough.

“You don’t have to know what I’m doing all day,” I said, putting my arms around my real-life husband. “But de-friend that student with the book cover.”

“Already gone,” he said.

By Susan Shapiro

Susan Shapiro is the New York Times Bestselling author of Unhooked, Five Men Who Broke My Heart and most recently the novel What's Never Said.


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