Your Facebook Relationship Status: It's Complicated

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JONATHAN ERNST / Reuters / Corbis

For many people, the manner in which they present themselves on Facebook has come to mirror how they see themselves in real life. Photos broadcast the fun they're having, status updates say what's on their mind and a change in relationship status announces their availability, commitment or something in between.

Of these mini-declarations, relationship status is the only one that directly involves another person. That puts two people in the social-networking mirror, and that, to borrow a Facebook phrase, can make things complicated. (Read "How Not to Be Hated on Facebook")

There are six relationship categories Facebook users can choose from: single, in a relationship, engaged, married, it's complicated, and in an open relationship. (Users can decline to list a status, but Facebook estimates that roughly 60% of its users do, with "single" and "married" the most common statuses.) The first four categories are pretty self-explanatory, but when should you use them? A Jane Austen of Facebook has yet to emerge, let alone a Miss Manners, and no one seems to have a grip on what the social norms ought to be.

"You change your Facebook status when it's official," says Liz Vennum, a 25-year-old secretary living in Chattanooga, Tennessee. "When you're okay with calling the person your girlfriend or boyfriend. Proper breakup etiquette is not to change the status until after you've had the 'we need to talk' talk. Then you race each other home (or back to the iPhone) to be the first to change your status to single."

Not everyone agrees, of course. Some couples are together for years but neglect to announce their coupledom to their social network. "Some moron tried to convince me that [my relationship is] not legitimate because I don't have it on Facebook," says Annie Geitner, a college sophomore who has had the same boyfriend for more than a year. "So that made me even more determined to not to put it up there." Others, like Trevor Babcock, consider the Facebook status a relationship deal-breaker. "I'm not willing to date anyone exclusively unless she feels comfortable going Facebook-public," he says.

One common theme among romantically inclined Facebook users is that there are almost infinite ways for the Facebook relationship status to go awry. There's the significant other who doesn't want to list his or her involvement (causing a rift in the real-world relationship); the accidental change that alerts friends to a nonexistent breakup (causing endless annoyance); but worse than both is when the truth spreads uncontrollably.

Lesley Spoor and Chris Lassiter got engaged the night before Thanksgiving. The couple thought about calling their families immediately, but instead decided to wait a day and surprise everyone at Thanksgiving dinner.

The problem, of course, was Facebook. The morning after the big night, Spoor changed her relationship status. "I got all giddy since I'm old and engaged for the first time," says Spoor of her switch from "in a relationship" to "engaged." "I thought it had to be confirmed by [my fiancé] before it would update, though. Apparently not."

The wife of a guy who went to high school with Spoor's fiancé — a woman Spoor barely knew — was the first to post a congratulatory message on Spoor's Facebook wall. Spoor realized her mistake and deleted the message, but by then it was too late; her future in-laws had seen the message, and the status update, and called to ask what was going on. How do you explain to your family that you told the Internet you just got engaged before you told them? "It caused a huge fight," she says.

But relationship status doesn't have to be a source of confusion and despair. Emily and Michael Weise-King were in complete agreement about their status: they decided to change themselves from "engaged" to "married" in the middle of their February 2009 wedding reception.

"It was after cocktails but before the first course at dinner," says Mrs. Weise-King. Still in their bridal attire, the couple whipped out their iPhones — they'd done a test run ahead of time and determined that they had to use the web browser and not the simple iPhone app — and switched status in front of bemused wedding guests. (They also uploaded a photo.) Throughout the rest of the night, Weise-King would occasionally glance down at her Facebook profile, "the way I'd glance at my ring when I first got engaged." Their status has not changed since.

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