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Social media can’t be your couples’ therapist

From “red flags” to “emotional load,” popular terms on platforms like TikTok can warp our IRL relationships.

Allie Volpe is a senior reporter at Vox covering mental health, relationships, wellness, money, home life, and work through the lens of meaningful self-improvement.

If, in 2017, you were first alerted to the term “emotional labor” — then incorrectly colloquially defined as “the unpaid work women take on to keep their family’s lives running smoothly” — maybe you are already well acquainted with the term’s more recent counterpart: mental load. (Emotional labor, as first defined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild, is actually the work required in customer or public-facing jobs to manage your own emotions.) Like its misunderstood predecessor, mental load describes the cognitive labor women need to do to keep track of the chores, schedules, and emotions of those in their household. On social media, mental load has become the umbrella term for nearly every responsibility in adulthood.

Users on TikTok love to discuss mental load: The chagrin that comes when one’s partner replies, “Sure, just tell me what to do” after she asks him to pick up more of the mental load (“That in itself is obviously a mental load,” one clip claims); how men can lessen the mental load for their partners; and women’s dejection after realizing their partners may never pick up the slack.

In the real world, some couples of all ages, primarily heterosexual, are bringing the mental load conversation into counseling. Therapist Israa Nasir has recently heard a flurry of “He doesn’t carry the mental load,” from her female clients and “I don’t know what this is, but she keeps bringing it up,” from their male partners. They’re also discussing weaponized incompetence, red flags, feminine/masculine energy, gaslighting — all terms they first encountered on social media.

“I understand the frustration that both parties have right now,” Nasir says. “This influx of this kind of content, I think, is really creating a gap between the worlds [of men and women], even though they’re meant to bridge it.”

These social media clips have given people a standard to measure their relationships against. Recognizing others are experiencing the same frustrations with their partners can be validating, but pronouncing certain personality quirks as “red flags” can be counterproductive, according to experts. While the inundation of relationship content has undoubtedly empowered people to leave abusive or dysfunctional relationships, the bar is now set extremely high: many videos suggest common aspects of relationships, like ghosting, may be toxic or even abusive. However, bringing the language of TikTok into your relationship can breed constructive conversations, if done correctly.

Social media can warp how you view your relationship

Media has always aimed to define the markers of a “good” relationship through advice columns in magazines and self-help books. On social media, anyone with a smartphone, regardless of expertise, can peddle the same well-meaning advice, but without the credentials to back up their claims. Over the last year, videos referencing relationship-related terms, like “mental load,” “red flags,” and “gaslighting” have grown exponentially on TikTok, in particular: Clips using #mentalload have seen a 186 percent increase in total views over the last year, according to TikTok trends data shared with Vox. #redflags has 11.7 billion global views with a 107 percent increase in total yearly views; #beigeflagsa person’s odd habits or quirks that aren’t quite deal breakers, but head-scratchers — had a 7,832 percent increase in total yearly views, according to TikTok.

Algorithms shape what content users see, often elevating posts similar to those they’ve engaged with in the past. If you felt validated by a post about narcissistic partners, your feed may become populated with clips further influencing that perspective. “What you find is someone telling you things that you agree with all day long,” says Sanam Hafeez, the director and neuropsychologist at Comprehensive Consultation Psychological Services. A deluge of content suggesting your partner is taking advantage of you or is mistreating you might convince you this is your reality — something you might never have considered without the nudge of social media creators, Hafeez says. This “social media courage,” Hafeez continues, could lead people to act impulsively in ways they may come to regret: cheating, insulting a significant other during an argument, passive-aggressively sending a clip to their partner, or even breaking up.

Validation can quickly morph into confirmation bias, Nasir says, where every post supports your belief that your partner does not respect you, is exhibiting red flags, or is gaslighting you. If you watch enough videos where men are painted as toxic or manipulators or women are said to seek constant validation from social media, you may not feel as compassionate toward your own partner when they make mistakes. “How can you have empathy for your partner even though you’re being inundated with this content that is telling you that your partner is wrong and you are right?” Nasir says. “That’s the worst thing that people want to hear in my sessions.”

Rather than cast your partner as the villain in your story, consider a time when you made missteps in your dating life, says Isabelle Morley, a licensed clinical psychologist. How would you hope to be treated in the face of those mistakes? Try having some grace for a new person you’re dating if their having an opposite-sex best friend raises a “red flag.” Maybe you had a very close opposite-sex friend in the past, too.

Simplistic social media posts encourage black-and-white thinking, when, in reality, relationships are complicated. “Good people in good relationships can behave very poorly,” Morley says. “They can even engage in behaviors that we consider emotional abuse,” she says, like stonewalling — shutting down during a conversation — or even gaslighting. However, an abusive relationship is one that has a cycle of abuse, or a pattern of abusive behaviors that repeat over time, Morley explains. People can exhibit abusive behaviors from time to time and not be an abuser, a nuance that some social media content about abusive relationships may overlook.

It’s important for people to manage their expectations of romantic relationships, Morley says, and accept that some periods of discord or disagreement will occur throughout their relationship. When you do fight, acknowledge you weren’t at your best, apologize, and commit to change in the future, she says. Everyone has red, beige, and green flags, and can maintain healthy relationships in spite of them. “It’s not finding somebody who’s a perfect fit or has done all the work,” Morley says. “It’s about finding somebody who’s going to do the work with you, who is open to that and invested in that.”

How to get the most out of social media relationship content

Relationship-centric social media posts can be springboards for insight and constructive conversations. The scenarios depicted in online content, whether about household labor or red flags, can be a part of a shared language for discussing your relationship. (Though experts would advise against using terms like “narcissist,” “gaslighting,” or “boundaries” and instead utilize more descriptive language to outline how you feel.) “I’m all for people talking openly about things,” says Vanessa Marin, a psychotherapist specializing in sex therapy, and co-author of Sex Talks: The Five Conversations That Will Transform Your Love Life. “The more ways we have to open up these kinds of conversations, the more data points that are out there, the more conversations people are seeing, the better.”

Before bringing up something you’ve seen online with your partner — or DMing them a video — take a beat to consider why the content resonates with you, Nasir says. How does it make you feel? What do you believe about your significant other that is being proven in the post? Is this actually true about your partner? Do some further research into the terms creators use, Marin suggests, to ensure you have a complete understanding of the concepts you believe describe your relationship. Be sure everything you read or watch comes from a reputable source, like a trusted news or psychological organization, a peer-reviewed study, or a credentialed mental health professional. Although someone with a podcast can seem like they have authority, they may not have a nuanced understanding of specific terms.

Then, decide if you want to discuss the post with your partner. Maybe, after taking a pause, you decided a confrontation isn’t warranted over the sound effects your partner makes while watching a movie. However, if there is something within the relationship you’d like to address or to change, you’ll want to initiate a conversation. “The onus is on the person who is experiencing an emotion and a desire for change,” to make the difficult first step, Nasir says. “If something’s not working for you, you reaching out to your partner is not you ‘doing the emotional labor.’ It’s you standing up for yourself.”

Before having a conversation, write down three goals you’d like to achieve, Nasir says. Do you want a specific change in behavior? Do you want validation? Do you want an apology? Try leading into the discussion by saying, “I want to talk about something that’s been on my mind. I know we’ve been having issues with division of chores. I saw this video about that and I wanted to get your thoughts on it.”

If your partner is resistant to discussing a video on social media, explain why the post was helpful for you initially. The two of you can then negotiate on how to move forward: Why do they resist the behavior you’d like them to change? What would it take to fix it? “Why do you leave your socks on the floor?” Nasir says. “Is it too far away? How can we facilitate ease? Can we get a mini laundry hamper close by so you can just dump it in there?”

Remember to have an open mind and be understanding of your significant other’s perspective — and to accept some responsibility as well.

Avoid using accusatory language like, “I watched this video about mental load and I realized you don’t do anything for our family.” “Your partner is going to be taken aback and defensive off the bat if you approach them with an accusation and they have no idea where it’s coming from,” Morley says.

However, if you fear that initiating a conversation with your partner would not be emotionally or physically safe for you, talk to a therapist, faith-based counselor, family doctor, or a neutral third party. The National Domestic Violence Hotline has a database for finding counselors and other services.

You can show your therapist the post to get their professional opinion on the terminology used and strategies for how to move forward. “If it’s something that feels really serious or very heavy,” Marin says, “I would recommend starting therapy if you want to have those kinds of conversations.”

Sometimes, though, a dirty sock left on the floor is just a dirty sock — and not indicative of a larger problem. While social media has allowed for increased awareness of dysfunctional aspects of relationships, every single conflict or point of contention doesn’t warrant a deep analysis, Marin says. Relationships require both parties to accept the other’s flaws as they are — or walk away.

“Your partner is going to act in a way when you’re arguing that you’ll never like and that may never change,” Morley says. “So you’ve got to figure out how much you can tolerate, what you can manage with them, and what things you need to change.”

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