Here’s an interesting essay arguing that the rise of divorce rates among the elderly is due to Facebook and other social media. The author, Sheri Kirschenbaum, points to data from divorce lawyers suggesting that a growing number of divorces are due to the increased use of “social media.” This is particularly the case among members of the Baby Boom generation who are now engaging in more unplanned affairs with long-lost loves, found through such media as Facebook. Because of a tendency to “romanticize the past,” the desire to revisit one’s youth, and even heightened levels of chemical stimulation that a re-connection with past lovers stimulates, researchers conclude that the of divorces among the elderly are on the increase.

The article further posits that the cause of this increase would have been all but unmanageable without Facebook, that “social media” technology is the main, perhaps exclusive cause of this growing phenomenon. “One force that is helping to fracture those marriages [is that] the people who are now approaching retirement age were unprepared for an altered technological landscape that allows them to reconnect with long-lost love.”

While certainly plausible as a partial explanation, this claim seems overdetermined. If technology makes certain kinds of connections easier, the truth is that divorce was already well-entrenched in our society well before the advent of Facebook. Facebook doubtless makes it easier to wander and engage in the temptations of illicit assignations, but the tendency to divorce one’s spouse was already well-established as a social norm.

Still, it is striking that the kinds of connections that this technology makes easier seems to be assisting in the culmination the logic of John Locke’s contractarian view of the marriage. No less than the State or any grouping of people, according to Locke, marriage is a contract formed between monadic individuals. While the issue of children is a complicating factor – an instance in which one many not simply exit the limited partnership – there is no inherent reason why a couple, having raised their children and seen them enter the age of “nonage,” may not elect to dissolve the bond and pursue other interests.

When the primary understanding of marriage is the dissolution of the self in the formation of something altogether different – a sacramental coming together of two in one flesh – then such a contractual understanding is altogether incomprehensible. Regardless of the available technology, an understanding of family as indivisible would predominate, rendering such technology irrelevant to the current usage.

The transformation of this sacramental understanding of marriage to one consisting of contracting individuals has been aided by, and thereby further reinforced, the atomization of the family. First the family was nucleated, with children and parents, siblings and cousins no longer living in proximity. Correspondingly, because there is a declining experience of the extension of family beyond the nuclear household, today’s elderly largely understand their role and duty as child-rearers to be expired. The sunset years are the time of state-supported leisure (funded on the backs of their grandchildren and unborn future generations), lived in the artificial sun-drenched villages of the dying where one surfs the web for long-lost loves and dreams of what might have been – rather than living daily in the rhythm of child-rearing, teaching, storytelling and preservation of memory among the children of one’s children.

The fault, at base, is not attributable to Facebook. Our crisis is a theological, not technological, and a reckoning surely awaits.

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  1. One of my favorite jokes. 90-year old couple shows up at a divorce lawyer’s office. “We want a divorce.” “That’s crazy,” the lawyer says. “You’ve been married for 70 years, and now you want a divorce?” They look at each other. Look at the lawyer. “We were waiting for the children to die.”

  2. I looked for the button to Facebook-Like this particular article, but couldn’t find it. Nor can I find a place on FPR’s Facebook page. That doesn’t seem conducive to a healthy, long-term relationship between the two.

  3. Harry prins, I’m saying he wouldn’t draw such a sharp distinction, not that there is no distinction at all. I assume he is giving very practical advice when he says, “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to satisfy its desires.” My wife and I get into this argument when she keeps the cupboard stocked with various cookies and crackers. You don’t HAVE to eat them, she says. But when they’re there, I do. I try to explain that St. Paul says the solution is to keep such things out of the house. He doesn’t get all hung up on whether I’m a rotten, weak individual, and tell me that if I was stronger and had a healthier relationship with food that I’d resist those temptations. So I think he wouldn’t say the problem is theological and not technical, even though it is. He’d be practical, and would advise us that if we’re going to use technology to get people into trouble, to not provide ourselves with easy access to that technology.

    Sometimes it helps, and be glad when it does. Don’t demean the use of gimmicks to help us live up to spiritual, theological principles.

    But I also see that a bunch of English translations of that verse from Romans give a very different meaning. I don’t know which are more faithful to the original.

  4. And if St. Paul isn’t a high enough authority for you, consider the verse that says, “If your Facebook account causes you to sin, pluck it out, for it is better to enter the kingdom of heaven with only the Front Porch Republic than to have Facebook, too, and be thrown into the fiery hell of custody fights and probate courts.

    There is no agonizing over whether we should first get the theology right so we can be strong enough to use the technology appropriately.

  5. I agree with you Gorentz. St. Paul and almost any reputable Historian or Sociologist would agree on the importance of Technology.
    The importance of physical things to our spirituality and morality is part and parcel of the sacramental view of the world that Christianity has.

  6. Re: He’d be practical, and would advise us that if we’re going to use technology to get people into trouble, to not provide ourselves with easy access to that technology.

    Then perhaps the Taliban have it right and we should stick women in burkas, and try to keep them at home as much as possible, lest we be tempted by the very sight of them?
    On the main topic here I find myself very skpetical about the notion that elderly people in any significant numbers are falling back in love with old flames they contact on Facebook. A lapse of 40 of 50 years makes very different people out of us, and not just in the physical sense. I am definitely not the same person I was at 21 (just 23 years ago), and I rather doubt I would find my first serious crush all that exciting nowadays. Oscar Wilde once said “No one is more ridiculous in our eyes than someone with whom we used to be in love”.

  7. “Then perhaps the Taliban have it right and we should stick women in burkas, and try to keep them at home as much as possible, lest we be tempted by the very sight of them?”
    Perhaps, and perhaps we should try living with a more reasonable amount of modesty and maybe less consumerism and more goat herding. Either way, the modern world has problems in search of solutions. Nothing around us is permanent. That is a fundamental truth.

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