Reflections

Cracking the “complicated” code

By Suntosh Pillay:

Does your relationship status on Facebook create mystery or clarity?

A caller to a TV show quipped that “relationships are harder now because conversations become texting, feelings become phone calls, and arguments become Facebook statuses or tweets”. Our digital age does come with unforeseen hazards that can, quite literally, make or break relationships. A huge influence that Facebook has made to popular lingo is the phrase “it's complicated”.

Your “basic information” on Facebook requires you to choose a relationship status, with the usual options of “single”, “engaged”, “married” or “in a relationship”. The last one requires imagination: “it's complicated”. What does this imply?

Is it a sneaky way of saying “I'm involved with someone but the boundaries are blur”; “I'm chronically breaking up and getting back together so I can't quite tell”; “I'm in a dysfunctional relationship”; “I'm married but act like I'm single”; “I'm complicated”; or “I'm a polygamist divorcing my first wife, married to my second, and engaged to a third”? The possibilities are endless. I wonder if more people now perceive their relationships as “complicated” because the option to name and describe it as such now exists on such a ubiquitous platform.

Perhaps it's the lure – “it's complicated” creates mystery and intrigue. But come on, aren't all relationships a tad complicated? Aren't us humans innately complex social creatures, whose very essence can be described as complicated? Isn't logic suspended in matters of the heart, because the heart has reasons that reason cannot explain?

Or should Facebook just cut to the chase and scrap the political correctness – isn't the real question, “Are you willing to hook up?” And shouldn't the options be:  “yes”; “no”; “not with you”; and “thanks I'll get back to you”. Sure, for a certain group of users, the relationship status option is pretty banal and uncomplicated to answer, e.g. “Yes, I'm married, finished and klaar”. But, research shows, that Facebook is perceived as a legitimate and acceptable way of meeting people, because it uses the “McDonalds model”: it's efficient, economical and predictable (or, as my colleague remarked, is it quick, cheap and lazy?).

Your relationship status instantly implies the necessary boundaries that a potential relationship – platonic or otherwise – might have to exist within. “Complicating” your status allows fluidity which increases the range of options. The vagueness is strategic.

So, are relationships more fluid than they used to be? If so, how are the boundaries drawn and how are they negotiated? For example, would you insist that your partner “update” his or her relationship status if he started dating you? Would you “update” your status from “married” to “it's complicated” if you and your wife had a fight? Or is “married” a static category that doesn't warrant changing until one is divorced or widowed? Perhaps “it's complicated” is the proverbial frame on the wall – it's a conversation starter. Anonymous stranger is browsing through the profiles of friends of friends, sees your good-looking mug shot and checks your relationship status. “It's complicated” allows them to message you a clarifying question – “Hi there … so what does 'it's complicated' mean? Are you single or not”. And so the conversation begins. Subtext: is there the possibility that you and I have a future together should I wish to pursue this further? Deeper subtext: is there the possibility that you and I can hook up and share some meaningful/meaningless cavorting? This is all really speculative, but surely the choices cannot be as administrative as they seem. And surely one doesn't walk into a bar or nightclub without a clear idea of what one's “relationship status” is for that night? Facebook is like a huge online bar, without the seedy musky smell or over-priced liquor.

The virtual sphere offers endless networks of people that one could associate with, at varying degrees of intimacy and depth, and with multiple (covert) intentions. Is technology merely adapting to changing patterns of social interactions; or is technology actively creating and perpetuating these types of interactions based on the way in which the online rules of engagement operate? The answer is most likely a theory of interdependence, whereby each feeds into the other, creating and recreating. This dynamic, complex interplay ensures that relationships, whatever their official statuses, are always, by their nature, complicated.

Suntosh Pillay works as a clinical psychologist and writes independently on social issues. This article first appeared in The Witness.

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