THE internet has opened up more channels of communication than were ever available before and it seems that cyber surfers can today use their computers to both make and wreck relationships.
According to the Office of National Statistics, in the 10 years leading up to 2007, there was a huge surge in the number of people aged 45 and over getting divorced in England and Wales.
And one theory for this increase is the sheer number of people aged over 50 who are now accessing social networking sites through the internet.
According to one survey, about 20 per cent of 1,000 divorce petitions filed between December 2009 and June 2010 mentioned Facebook, with Twitter mentioned in a further 10 per cent.
Nowadays it is all too easy to look up old flames on Facebook, start a cyber affair with someone on the opposite side of the world or even stir up jealousy by the amount of time spent surfing on a laptop.
But is social networking really to blame for damaged relationships?
According to Charmaine Parrish, of Olney-based Parrish Family Law, it is often a case that people are already unhappy in their relationships and use social networking as an escape.
“They may stray as a result, but they may also find the courage to make the life changing decision to divorce because of the support and advice they receive from the online community.
“Social networking sites, like Facebook, do sometimes lead to infidelity, whether physical or simply through ‘inappropriate’ postings,” said Charmaine. “But they can actually have a positive impact and help people to take stock and re-evaluate their lives.”
Charmaine commented that older people in unhappy marriages were increasingly less likely to stay in a relationship for a number of reasons. For women in particular, there is far more opportunity to live independently and it is much more socially acceptable than it was decades ago to do so.
She said: “In the past, people frequently stayed in unhappy marriages for the sake of their children or because it was ‘the done thing,’ sometimes resigning themselves to the belief that life held nothing more in store. Nowadays, more and more are realising they can have a life after marriage, even when that marriage has lasted for many years.”
Charmaine said people should be cautious in examining too closely the reasons for the increase in divorce rates among older people.
“While there are many and varied reasons, and it makes a good headline to blame social networking sites or to speculate about changes in society’s values, each relationship is different.
“What is important is to focus upon ensuring both parties are not financially disadvantaged if divorce is the chosen path.”
Relationship counsellor Richard Alexander of The Richard Alexander Partnership in East Park Parade, Northampton, agreed that the internet was opening up more possibilities for jealousy and infidelity in couples, but commented that the motivation had to be there in the first place so there was usually something else going on underneath the behaviour.
He said: “I find it interesting while working with people to note how a relationship via the internet is different from a direct relationship with someone. They can make that person their ideal person.” He continued: “To be able to contact people via the internet might give people more opportunities than they have had before but there must have been a motivation there in the first place.
“If the internet wasn’t there, someone could find other ways to meet people. I would suggest that if someone was motivated (to have an affair) they might meet someone anyway.”