Not too long ago, NPR did a series profiling couples and the impact technology has had on their marriages. Technology has revolutionized the way we meet and connect with others. In today's society, it is not unheard of for people to meet their future spouses online. Furthermore, electronic communication makes staying in touch easier than in times past. Gone are the days when you waited by the phone for that special person to call you back. Now, you can shoot off an email or leave a voicemail message and trust that the other person will respond almost instantaneously (assuming he or she is actually interested).
While technology has revolutionized how we communicate with one another, marriage counselors are starting to hear about issues that can emerge. Tara Fritsch, a marriage counselor in Edmond, OK, comments that while the digital age is not responsible for communication problems in marriages, "it does give us a more convenient means of checking out [of our marriages]." Edward Hallowell, a psychiatrist and co-author of Married to Distraction, adds that intimacy depends upon the "rapidly disappearing phenomenon of undivided attention spread over time."
Ironically, social media sites like Facebook, which have been known for bringing couples together, can also lead to infidelity in relationships. To be clear, technology does not break-up couples. People are ultimately responsible for their own fidelity, however, technology can certainly facilitate opportunities for extra-marital affairs. In a matter of minutes, one can connect with an old flame or find a date on one of the dozens of dating sites available online.
In the past, if a person was romantically interested in someone outside of their marriage, there were a number of mechanisms in place that might serve as a barrier to starting an affair. Now, one can carry on an extra-marital affair clandestinely without one's partner ever knowing. True, there are frequently signs a person is having an affair, but with little effort, electronic communications can easily be deleted, thereby destroying the paper trail that decades ago would have been more difficult to hide.
Even if one partner is not carrying on a physical affair with another person, the prolific use of cell phones within a relationship can give the perception of being "checked out." How many times have we been out to dinner and seen that couple next to us - he's frenetically typing away on his Blackberry, while she looks off into space, clearly feeling bored and invisible. It is a pathetic image but one that sadly is becoming more and more common.
So what is a couple to do? Clearly, technology is not going anywhere, however, there are some simple steps all couples can take to minimize the potential pitfalls that derive from technology. The first step is a simple one: Put down your cell phone and talk with your partner! Obviously, we are social creatures and have a need to remain connected, however, in a committed relationship such as a marriage, there is a certain level of respect and consideration that needs to be maintained. Frisch questions couples she works with, "If your boss approached you and wanted to have a conversation with you, would you continue to surf the internet?" The answer is probably not. You would likely show your boss the courtesy of looking away from your computer screen when s/he was talking to you. This same amount of respect needs to be afforded to your partner.
Putting down the iPhone, however, is just the beginning. It is important to take active steps to "unplug" and re-engage your relationships, be they romantic or otherwise. I recommend that busy, overly connected couples consider putting concrete rules in place to ensure that quality time is preserved in their relationship. Just as "You should never go to bed angry," so, too, "You should never go to bed with your cell phone or laptop." Implement certain times during the evening and on weekends when you and your partner will be permitted to use electronic devises and stick to those boundaries. Frankly, unless you are a doctor on-call or a professional expecting an important call from the office, you should seriously consider leaving your cell phone or Blackberry at home when you go out on a date. At the very least, put your mobile device on silence and restrict your usage. There is really nothing more disrespectful than a person who constantly checks their phone when in the presence of others. Whether intended or not, such behavior sends a message that the person who's company you are in is not as important as that email you are choosing to respond to.
It really is quite simple - if you are committed to your marriage, you need to break-off your love affair with your iPhone.
Tyger Latham, Psy.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist practicing in Washington, DC. He counsels individuals and couples and has a particular interest in sexual trauma, gender development, and LGBT concerns. His blog, Therapy Matters, explores the art and science of psychotherapy.