Inviting a Monkey to Tea

Discovering lasting contentment

Is Anyone Worth Turning Off Your Phone?

How to shut down to restart relationships.

A friend of mine is separating from her husband because he cannot separate from his iPhone.

These days, when couples go out to eat together, the first thing they do is pull out their devices, if they are not already in their clutches, and place them on the table between each other. There is nothing stranger than watching two lovers in a dark and quiet restaurant, drinking wine, feeding each other treats, while simultaneously checking every few minutes or so until that darkness and quiet are impaled by the light and buzzing coming from one of their devices. And then, even stranger, the person to whom it belongs actually putting down his wine, unraveling his foot from his partner’s calf and pulling his gaze away from his lover’s in order to check that device—perhaps to find out that his Groupon for a pair of sneakers has now expired.

There are no more tables for two; tables for four are our most intimate encounters—two humans and two devices. In the digital age, we no longer give any one person our full attention. When we are together, even in our most intimate relationships, some part of us is not there, not present. We are anticipating, subtly and not so subtly awaiting the next alert, waiting for something else to appear on the screen. The message is that the person in front of us is not enough, or not enough to warrant our turning off what else is possible, the "what else" with which our smartphone constantly beckons.

When our phone or our partner’s phone is on the table with us, it is there, a part of the encounter. We can’t fully settle in to what is happening in the relationship. Some part of our consciousness is on alert for signals coming in. Even when not answering the chime or bugle that calls out for our attention, we often pick up the phone, check what the call was about, place the phone back on the table in its proper place, and only then return to our partner. This whole process interrupts the experience with another person. There is a re-entry into the conversation, and the person who is now returned to feels different with that interruption. At some level, she feel less important, that her company is not deserving of exclusivity.

I notice with my psychotherapy clients that what people do next is determined by their own psychology. Some try to be more interesting so as to make themselves worthy of their partner's turning off his device. Others retreat into insecurity and loneliness. Still others just get on their own device, and find their own way out of the moment and the relationship, thereby balancing the disconnection. At this moment in history, we are changing psychologically as we generate new defense mechanisms to manage our own devaluation in one another’s lives and the downgrading of our place on partners' priority list. However we compensate or don’t, that phone on the table, lighting up, sounding off, and just being a presence, making it a foursome not a twosome, fundamentally alters the relationship and its intimacy. Even when it is not delivering an email, the phone at the table is conveying a message of enormous meaning.

Attention is a profoundly important method by which we show someone that we matter in each other’s lives. The gaze of a person really with us, not distracted, not elsewhere, fully here, is a gift of the most divine substance. There is a flow of energy, an energetic circle that occurs when two people are wholly with each other, undistracted, fully landed. In this circle it is possible for both individual “I”s to disappear, and for us to discover a third entity—the energy and flow of the relationship itself, without separation. This happens when both parties agree to be present and make the choice to close the door to the potential “what elses” and “what’s nexts” that call out from the blinking lights of technology. When we include our devices in our intimate interactions, we disrupt the circle of intimacy and, with it, the possibility of two “I”s becoming one “we.” When our phones are on the table with us, between us, we remain a group of individual entities. We don’t have to risk joining each other, slipping into the experience and our partner, and leaving ourself behind. At the same time, sadly, we don’t get to leave ourself behind, to join the experience and our partner, and taste the real sweetness of intimacy.

Just as we downgrade the importance of our human friends and award equal status to our technological companions, another trend is also contributing to the loss of intimacy and value in our relationships: With the explosion of technology, we have lost the distinction between public and private space. We no longer have places where we are unreachable. There are no longer times and places where the outside world is not allowed, special places that are for the special people in our lives, not everyone, that add to the sense of importance of those private spaces and the relationships within them.

Now, always on, always available to everyone through our devices, always interacting with the public through social media, we don’t assign a special importance to those in our private world. With technology going everywhere with us, the public is now as important as the private.

If we still want private space to feel different from public space, intimate relationships to feel different from non-intimate relationships, it is up to us to separate the two and treat them differently. We need to have times and places where we are not with everyone, but rather, only with those who really matter. The choice to deem certain people and places worthy of turning off the “what else?” button infuses such people and places with meaning. The system delivers what we put into it: If we treat someone as important, they become important. If we treat them as on a par with the public, no more important than any business associate, fundraiser, or acquaintance, they will assume that generic value in our life. Ultimately, our behavior determines the depth of our relationships and the amount of nourishment that we receive from them.

The next time you go out with, or stay home with, someone you care about, turn the smartphone off, turn the tablet off, turn it all off, and better yet, put it away—out of sight. Make the decision to make private time different. Take the risk that for the two hours you will be at the restaurant, you won’t be reached. Ask yourself: Is what I am checking for really as important as this person in front of me? This system, of being in one place with one other person, worked for eons, before technology made it something strange, before it became something that we need to consciously choose, that goes against the social stream. The small act of simply refraining from putting your phone on the table, or dare I suggest leaving it off altogether, has the power to create an entirely different, more intimate experience.

There are so many things that we can do to make our lives better. Some are quite difficult and require a lot of effort. But this one, this tiny choice to put away our devices when with a friend, has the power to improve our life in a way that far outweighs the effort required. The cost-benefit ratio is staggering.

Nancy Colier, LMSW, Rev., is a psychotherapist, interfaith minister and the author of Inviting A Monkey to Tea: Befriending Your Mind and Discovering Lasting Contentment.

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