What is the sound of an awkward silence on Facebook? If you have to ask, then you probably don't have friends like James Gower and Ashley Andrews, high school sweethearts from Spring, Texas, who are both 22 and engaged to be married this May.

Gower, a master of the passive-aggressive status update, lobbed this one in January: “How is it my birthday is only one day, but my woman's last a whole damn week?”

Andrews, seemingly not one to watch a ball go by, took a full swing with this comment: ‘GET OVER IT!!! UGH!!!!!!”

Gower replied by calling his fiancee a name that can't be printed here, until the exchange became the social networking equivalent of shattered china at a dinner party.

Eventually, Skyler Hurt, 22, a friend and a bridesmaid, intervened: “Hey, you guys know we can still see this right...?”

Place for couples to cause a scene

It's a question being asked a lot these days as couples, who once had to leave the house to fight in public, take their arguments onto Facebook. Whether through nagging wall posts or antagonistic changes to their “relationship status,” the social networking site is proving to be as good for broadcasting marital discord as it is for sharing vacation photos. At 400 million members and growing, Facebook might just replace restaurants as the go-to place for couples to cause a scene.

As score-settling on Facebook has grown commonplace, sites like Lamebook have begun documenting the worst spats (which also happen to be the most humorous). On Facebook itself, people can join several groups with names like “I Dislike People/Couples Who Argue Publicly on Facebook.”

For most couples, the temptation to publicly slander each other is overpowered by the instinct to prove to their friends how happy they are, reality notwithstanding. But some find that arguing in front of others comes as naturally as slamming doors.

While a hot temper (or two) is often to blame, there are people, like Gower, who view Facebook as an opportunity: How better to show everyone what his future wife puts him through?

“My friends have a biased opinion of her, and her friends have a biased opinion of me,” Gower said. Broadcasting his gripes on Facebook is “a way to get your side of the story out there to everybody. That way, they don't just hear her side.”

Andrews shares her fiance's view. “A lot of people aren't with us if we have a fight at home,” she said. This way, “All our friends can kind of comment on it.”

For the record, both Gower and Andrews say they are happy together and anticipate marital bliss. They find their Facebook parrying hilarious, and are not bothered by any loss of privacy.

Privacy on Facebook is a squishy thing to begin with, as most members know. Not only are there those advertisements from companies that — surprise! — know where you went to college, but there's also the fact that Facebook accidentally sent private messages last month to the wrong people. In one case, a Wall Street Journal editor found his Facebook inbox flooded with other people's pillow talk.

To some couples who fight on Facebook, the battle for public opinion seems to be a driving force. Ryan Stofer, a 19-year-old college student from Hutchinson, Kan., said his arguments with an ex-girlfriend were little more than attempts to protect his reputation.

“She'd be talking to her friends on Facebook about how bad a boyfriend I was, and I would be like, ‘No, I was decent,'” he recalled. Eventually, Stofer's friends became so fed up with the constant sniping that they started a Facebook group to protest it.

Leah Ackerman-Hurst, 34, a soon-to-be nursing student in Alameda, Calif., says she occasionally uses Facebook to vent to her friends about her husband, Caleb. In a recent status update, she called him “Jerky McJerk Jerk” after he insisted she get rid of their pug. She says the comments are meant as jokes (mostly), though friends often end up taking sides anyway.

“I'll say something joking about him, but others will take it seriously,” she said. The situation came to a head a few weeks ago when two friends planning a girl's night out intentionally didn't invite her because “they thought I was disrespectful to my husband on Facebook,” she said with a laugh. “My husband was like, ‘They obviously don't know you.'”

Nothing to LOL about

But some marriage experts say that taking your disagreements to Facebook, even jokingly, is nothing to LOL about. Instead, the urge to make private disagreements public represents a gradual but significant degradation of our regard for marriage.

“From the Victorian era through the 1950s, marriage was viewed as the source of all safety from a predatory world,'' said Michael Vincent Miller, a psychologist and the author of the book Intimate Terrorism: The Crisis of Love in an Age of Disillusion. Striving for that ideal, he said, meant keeping your disagreements private, “to keep a public face of harmony.”

But as the counterculture of the 1960s and ‘70s ushered in a new openness among married couples, ``that ideal of marriage began to pass away,'' he said. Soon, the idea that lovers should present a united front at all times came to seem quaint or even naive, particularly to a generation raised on Oprah and Jerry Springer.

Today, popular representations of marriage tend toward “two very self-protective egos at war with one another,” Miller said, “each wanting vindication and to be right by showing that the other is wrong.” That characterisation has just received some prime-time reinforcement in the form of The Marriage Ref, a new NBC show created by Jerry Seinfeld in which a celebrity panel hears a fight between a married couple and discusses who is right. “For the first time, audiences will be able to look at these fights, analyse them and declare a winner,” reads a description of the show on NBC's web site. But rather than win support, fighting in front of your friends will more likely convince them that you shouldn't be together in the first place, marriage counselors say. That certainly seems to be the case among friends of Facebook fighters, who, like any witnesses to a public spat, are caught in the middle, unsure whether to intervene or mind their own business.

“This is my only exposure to how you two are interacting, and it's not good,” said Hurt, the friend of Gower and Andrews.

She likely spoke for many Facebook bystanders when she said her attempts at peacemaking between her friends — whether online or off — were partially intended to shame them into behaving.

“I'm spending over $200 on apparel to be in this wedding,” Hurt said in a telephone interview. “We're having fitting after fitting and showers and parties. Meanwhile, their whole relationship is falling apart on Facebook.”

Losing the support of friends and loved ones does not bode well for a couple's long-term prospects, said Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia.

“People tend to do better in their marriage when friends and family are supportive,” Wilcox said. “When that support dries up, that can be a really big problem.”

Gower and Andrews both laughed off the suggestion that their relationship was in trouble. They said they are a stable couple very much headed to the altar this May. This, in spite of Gower's recent change in relationship status: from “Engaged” to “It's Complicated” and back again, all in a single day.

“That was just a joke to mess with her,” he said, followed by a pause. “She just gave me a dirty look.” —©2010 New York Times News Service

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