Today's moms are exhausted and overwhelmed. Sure, the pace of the world today leaves all of us feeling some level of stress from time to time, but research clearly shows that mothers suffer from chronic low-level stress. The current standards of perfection by which women measure each other, and themselves, suffocate, create anxiety, and are certainly a key factor in the increase in diagnoses of depression and anxiety in women and the reliance on alcohol and even drugs that mothers have experienced in recent years.
After a long-enough period, chronic stress becomes burnout — burnout from their jobs, significant others, and even their children. While burnout has become a buzzword of the day, there are sneaky ways it can manifest itself and damage relationships. A less destructive vice that some women use to seek comfort is social media. Certainly, social media doesn't have the same effect as routinely drinking too many glasses of wine at night before bed or overspending — but what feels like a mindless way of zoning out can, in fact, become dangerous when social media becomes a portal to another life.
In the not-too-distant past, before Facebook and Instagram, in order to flirt with someone or pursue a relationship outside of your marriage, you would have to take the risk of actually meeting with that person, taking the chance of being seen in public by prying eyes. This typically meant sneaking around, lying about your whereabouts, and covering your tracks. Today, all you need is a smartphone and a social media account, and the world is your oyster. You can reconnect with old flames or start flirting with total strangers, all from the convenience of your own home. You can be feeding the baby and texting your ex heart emoji; you can be driving your kids to music class and feel your heart skip a beat because "Jane" aka Scott from your CrossFit class sent you a message; or you can be lying in bed next to your spouse and telling the new person at work how you can't wait to have lunch tomorrow.
The phone offers a free, easy way to feel good about themselves again by "harmlessly" flirting with someone who isn't their spouse.
I hear stories like these over and over again from women in my private practice. These are women who are burned out in their real day-to-day lives and have found an escape in a constructed one. They are mothers under the incredible pressure of being the "perfect" modern mom who don't have time for self-care and haven't had sex with their spouses in months because they feel unhappy, disconnected from them and possibly resentful, and downright exhausted. They tell me they can't remember the last time they had a manicure and their hair is way overdue for a color. They feel unfulfilled and stuck, whether working out of the home or in the home, and ashamed to share their feelings. And there are never enough hours in their days for the kind of self-care they need to feel better. But what they will make time for is a private escape via their smartphones. The phone offers a free, easy way to feel good about themselves again by "harmlessly" flirting with someone who isn't their spouse, someone who makes them feel exciting and interesting again.
These moms tell me that the thrill they feel when they receive a text or private message from that other person is something they haven't felt in years. These women do not realize that the fatigue, resentment, stress, and lack of connection with their spouses they feel on a daily basis is a reflection of something much bigger, and that the escape hatch they've created via their social media accounts is just a Band-Aid on a wound. These women are experiencing classic mommy burnout, something that an online crush won't cure.
Women share with me that they fantasize about having intimate and exciting sex again with someone other than their spouses, sending their kids away for the week with grandparents, or just going away all by themselves to a tropical island with drink in hand.
Burnout can manifest itself in so many ways, but at its core, it is about women allowing themselves time for self-care.
For most women, these are just secret thoughts. They come and go and are not acted upon. But, when a woman who is a mother and wife experiences stress long enough to the point of burnout, she has easy access to other men or women who may also want to escape their realities. By tunneling into a relationship that isn't real, they are redirecting the love, time, and affection they could be giving their partners or kids. They are also cheating themselves of addressing what is really happening in their relationships and the possibility of improvement.
Take the time to evaluate that communication for what it really is. Burnout can manifest itself in so many ways, but at its core, it is about women allowing themselves time for self-care. A person on the other end of a text message just isn't going to fix that for you.
So what do you do when you find yourself escaping into technology to "talk" to someone who isn't your partner? How do you take steps to break away from what feels like an innocent flirtation before it becomes more complicated and causes real emotional stress and hurt? Here are some tips:
- Replace the time you have been spending escaping your reality with time communicating with your spouse. If you can take the time to text or message on technology, you can take the time to talk to your significant other about how their day went, plan a night out, or even see a couples' counselor.
- Make your spouse a priority in your life — yes, even above your job or your kids for a little while. If you feel the need to escape but still have a desire to make your marriage work, look for ways to shift your work schedule or limit the amount of work you need to do at home. Put your kids to bed a little earlier, ask family to watch the kids so you can plan a night or an afternoon out, or schedule sex. Put your relationship at the top, not the bottom, of your to-do list for a change.
- Break up the routine! One of the major complaints women have about their marriages is the monotony. Make an effort to mix things up, whether it is how you dress, what you talk about, what you do in the bedroom, or even what you cook for dinner. It does wonders for a relationship when you change things up — variety is the spice of life.
- Detox off of social media in your life for a bit and see how it feels. When social media or technology play a major role in your escape plan, you need a clean break to find new methods of self-care. Pay attention and see how you feel. How much time do you get back? Which of your online-only friends will keep in touch offline? How is your mood? What do you do at night? What effect does this have on your marriage? If it is positive, then you know you have done the right thing.
Dr. Sheryl Ziegler is a doctor of psychology and licensed professional counselor. She is the author of Mommy Burnout: How to Reclaim Your Life and Raise Healthier Children in the Process (out Feb. 20).