Jeremy and Christine, two of my oldest friends, will celebrate their eighth wedding anniversary this fall. They’re both only 24, and their relationship — while close — has never been anything but platonic. But they’ve been married on Facebook since our junior year of high school.
Christine worked as a freshman counselor in college. Some of her students were so convinced that she was actually married (to make matters worse, Jeremy and Christine’s prom pictures were also on Facebook, and worse still, she’d worn a white dress) that they insisted on calling Jeremy and asking him themselves. When Jeremy started law school, it wasn’t long before he found himself dancing with a female friend at an orientation event. Visibly upset, a new classmate took him aside. “Why are you dancing with her like that?” he pleaded, “What would your wife think?”
Back in the era of AP classes and college applications, there was no better public declaration of BFF-dom than the fake Facebook marriage. It is, in my experience, most commonly a pairing of straight woman and straight woman or straight woman and queer man. Neither spouse remembers who initiated it, or exactly why. And — then in middle school, high school, or early in college — no one realized that a time would come when someone could reasonably believe that they were, in fact, married. Now, it has.
Watching acquaintances who once exclusively posted selfies transition to exclusively posting photos of their kids (who, in a way, are just selfies made flesh) is a surreal quarter-life rite of passage unique to social media. I remember my surprise when, at some point in my early 20s, my married Facebook friends suddenly outnumbered my “married” Facebook friends.
For most of the “married” I know, their digital wedded bliss began back when you needed an invitation from a college student to join the site, when statuses necessarily began with “Molly Fitzpatrick is…” and when the contents of your MySpace Top 8 were a far more pressing social concern. It’s been a while. Most internet pseudo-relationships fizzled within months, but others have improbably stood the test of time.
Adam and Christina met in 1996, when he was in kindergarten and she was in the first grade. (Full disclosure: Adam and I once had matching Christopher and Adriana Sopranos buddy icons on AIM, another relic of digital best friendship in the early 2000s.) Today, they’re roommates in Brooklyn, and they’ve gone so far as to jointly hyphenate their last names on Facebook. Christina is a writer whose editors are frequently unsure which name to credit in her byline.
Julia and Meryl lived in the same freshman dorm. “It was love at first sight,” Meryl said. Their Facebook non-relationship of three years provided a welcome escape from the “weird place” one of them was in with a guy and the ambiguous labels it invited.
Two more of my high school friends, Maryse and Hina, tied the Facebook knot over their college winter break in 2008. In a sweet (if misguided) gesture of support, Hina’s boss from a summer internship sent her a message congratulating her on her marriage.
But other responses to fake Facebook unions have been far less encouraging. Maryse’s aunt informed her that her apparent homosexuality would ruin her chances on the job market. “It seriously pissed me off and was precisely why I wanted to continue remaining in the relationship,” Maryse said. Likewise, a conservative friend of Meryl’s dad sent him a pointed e-mail asking if he knew his daughter was openly gay.
Though Jeremy and Christine’s Facebook marriage has endured multiple real-life significant others, their relationship has since been hidden from their profiles — though it should be noted that they haven’t undergone a Facebook divorce, never changing their statuses to “Single” or even “It’s Complicated.” As a medical student embarking on residency interviews, Christine worried that her “marriage” could negatively affect her career, with potential employers incorrectly assuming that she’d be unwilling to relocate. Meanwhile, Jeremy’s social media circle had expanded to include coworkers and friends from his professional life. As he puts it, “I was old enough that I could be married.”
Maryse and Hina — concerned that their marriage might be misinterpreted as making light of same-sex relationships — have also made their relationship statuses private.
Even under normal circumstances, Facebook is pretty weird. It’s a forum that allows you to publicly comment on, or even — for the more brazen sociopaths among us — “Like” a breakup. That the term “Facebook official” has emerged as a universally meaningful way of classifying couples is, objectively, insane. The relationship between signifier and signified is never shakier than it is online. Think about how close you are to some of your Facebook “friends,” or the questionable extent to which your more flattering profile pictures actually resemble you.
The vast majority of “married” Facebook users I spoke to believe that broadcasting their very real friendships feels more authentic than shoehorning a legitimate romantic relationship (with all its label-defying complexities) into one of several tidy options on a drop-down menu. In fact, most agreed that they wouldn’t consider listing a real relationship status on their profile at all.
“I’d never put a real relationship on Facebook because Facebook isn’t meant for things that are real,” Adam told me. Or as Meryl explained, “I have never used my Facebook in a serious manner and don’t plan on starting to do so when I enter a serious relationship.”
“Plus, Julia would kill me,” she said.