It was 10 years ago in Italy when I first noticed the phenomenon. I was on vacation with my family, seated at one of the most charming restaurants in the romantic seaside town of Portofino. My table happened to be next to a young Italian couple. Silhouetted against a gorgeous sunset, sipping wine, and sharing a candlelit table for two, the pair should have been filmed for an ad released by the Italian Tourism Board. That is until the young woman picked up her cell phone and proceeded to spend the entire two-hour dinner shouting into the device, while her bored companion meekly ate his dinner. Never once did the couple speak to each other, much less meet eyes. We enchanted and phoneless Americans were, needless to say, shocked by the scene.
Flash forward 10 years, and the same scene can be witnessed almost daily in any restaurant we enter in the United States. What’s worse, I am, on occasion, that woman. Aren’t you? Cell phones are not just phones anymore. They’re devices fueled by the forces of modern technology to keep us “connected” in every way possible. Yet, how much does technology that, in seconds, allows us to share “FaceTime” with a friend in India create distance between a loved one across the table?
It’s no small statement to say that too often logging in means tuning out. Technology is coming between us and our closest relationships. But before we blame the laptop or sell the TV, it’s important to consider our own relationship to technology. How do we use it? Why? And when? Is it to relieve stress? Unwind after a long day? Stay on top of work? Keep in touch with friends? Play board games? Flirt? Argue? Sext? Upon closer look, most of us would agree that it isn’t technology that is to blame, but how we use technology that really hurts our closest relationships.
An Aug. 2 CE Webinar I am hosting featuring Dr. Pat Love, the acclaimed author of The Truth About Love and Hot Monogamy, will explore “Love in the Time of Twitter.” The Webinar will look at how interpersonal relationships have been impacted by new media and explore how love can be preserved in the face of such colossal distraction. In an interview with Dr. Love that I did for PsychAlive.org, she explained that there are four basic keys to loving. Each of these factors is compromised when our attentions are taken up by “likes,” tweets, smart phones and “Angry Birds.”
The first key to being loving, according to Love, is that we have to “show up.” It may sound simple, but as she explains, “You’ve got to be present; you have to be under the same roof. You’ve got to log some hours with each other. And you don’t just show up for what’s fun for me. If it’s important to you, it becomes important to me.”
The second key is to “tune in.” Tuning in means setting our focus on our partner and setting aside distractions. As Love explains, “You cannot be intimate when you’re multi-tasking. So, during those important moments when I look at you, I really see you. And you can tell when I look at you with soft eyes that I really hear you, and I’m present.” Tuning in allows us to be fully there with our partner, not just taking actions out of form or habit, but paying attention to those actions. As Love said in her interview, “[There is] such a difference in taking someone’s hand and holding their hand and feeling their hand.”
Love’s third key to showing true tenderness involves “tuning in long enough to understand our partners,” to see how they are different and to pay attention long enough to understand them. This understanding facilitates the fourth key factor, which is to ensure that “my behavior will be congruent with that understanding,” meaning essentially that our actions will match our partner’s real wants and needs.” We love people who love us. It’s pretty simple. But we really love people who get us. And their behavior shows it in those subtle little ways,” said Love.
It is easy to see how these steps illustrated by Love are vital to improving and sustaining an intimate relationship. However, it is equally easy to see how we allow ourselves to be too distracted to take the time to complete these steps. This is not to say that it isn’t difficult to make time; careers, kids, and countless complications get in the way. However, all of these distractions make it all the more important to carve out time in which we can closely relate to our partner.
Intimacy itself triggers a range of complex, and not always pleasant, emotions, such as jealousy and anxiety. Along with the natural toll of stress and schedules, the issues that arise between one’s self and one’s partner can make it easier to go to Facebook than go face-to-face with the emotions that being close can trigger. When the going gets tough, many of us unconsciously seek out excuses to avoid intimacy and ways to tune out the negative thoughts and feelings that flood our minds.
TV, the Internet, and technology in general can present the perfect platform for escape, the perfect avenue through which to distract us from emotions. Losing ourselves in mindless activities not only disengages us from our partners but from ourselves: our own wants, needs, and feelings. By becoming aware of times we may be using these devices to disconnect instead of to connect, we gain valuable insight into our own compulsions to cut off.
Once aware of this tendency, we can ask ourselves what we are avoiding and show integrity in facing these issues head on. We can make an effort to decrease our time online and instead spend these minutes and hours forging, strengthening and repairing our real relationships. Through this process, we can shift our focus to what lights our partners up and bask in the positive effects this has on our own happiness. In making this effort, we not only reconnect to loved ones but to ourselves. A fulfilled couple knows the importance of spending time thinking about who each of them are, what brings them joy, and getting to know the 140 characteristics about each other that cannot be contained in 140 characters.
To read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone on relationships visit PsychAlive - Alive to Intimacy
To watch exclusive video interviews with Dr. Pat Love visit PsychAlive.org