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The New Menage a Trois

Between the boundlessness of connectivity and the potential for secret experience—read: porn—smartphones have become the stealth saboteurs of our most intimate relationships. It's your job to take back control.

Photo by Art Strieber

You're with your other husband, again," Marilyn Suttle's only husband would say every time she turned to her cellphone while the two were driving to dinner. She thought he was just being his witty self. Then his words began getting under her skin.

Suttle, who runs a Detroit-based professional training company specializing in customer service, always asks clients to look at their business through the eyes of the customer: "What's the experience like, and what could make it better?" It was just after she had given the keynote talk at a leadership conference when it hit her: "Maybe this applies to me."

"I thought we were having 'together time' in the car," she recalls, "but my husband didn't see it that way. He felt disconnected and left out." And that's not what she wanted, not for herself, not for her 32-year marriage. Actually she wanted two things: "I wanted a loving, close connection between us. And, as the owner of a business that is always with me, I wanted to check out Facebook to get that instant charge of discovering what's happening and what people are saying about the company."

Suttle isn't the first to discover that the two goals are increasingly in conflict. Couples everywhere are stumbling over what research is now documenting: Technology, and especially networked mobile technology, while expanding our cultural and social worlds, is crushing our private one. Despite the huge boost smartphones give couples in coordinating their everyday activities, they're delivering a double hit to romantic life—on one side from the intrusion of the outside world and on the other from the new possibilities for the exclusion of a partner. As one researcher puts it, quoting the French philosopher Paul Virilio, "When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck."

Requiring effort and self-control, the human powers of attention, it turns out, are no match for devices that promise instant access to everyone and everything, along with real-time responsiveness. As MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle observes in Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, "The Net teaches us to need it." It also challenges couples to reclaim life's lulls, the unstructured moments of reflection and openness to each other on which feelings of closeness are built and sustained—the ones most prone to digital intrusion.

A Dearth of Disclosure

"I've been in practice for 15 years," says Chicago psychologist Nicole Martinez, "and technology has become a significant issue for couples only over the past five years." In one study of young married women, 70 percent reported that face-to-face conversations were stopped in their tracks by a partner's phone use or even active texting. "Technoference," family researcher Brandon McDaniel calls it—"everyday intrusions or interruptions in couple interactions or time spent together that occur due to technology."

McDaniel, a newly minted Ph.D. in human development from Penn State, along with Sarah Coyne of Brigham Young University, found that the women who experienced technoference in their relationship also encountered more couple conflict over tech use and diminished relationship satisfaction. Such dissatisfaction affects young adults trying to form relationships as well as people of all ages in established relationships. According to a 2014 Pew Research survey, 42 percent of cellphone-owning 18- to 29-year-olds in serious relationships say their partner has been distracted by a mobile device while they were together, which is more than the 25 percent of all couples reporting such problems. And 18 percent of young adults argue over the amount of time spent online.

Photo by Art Strieber

It's not just that we have only so much time and attention. Smartphones actually transform interpersonal processes. In a much-discussed 2014 study, Virginia Tech psychologist Shalini Misra and her team monitored the conversations of 100 couples in a coffee shop and identified "the iPhone Effect": The mere presence of a smartphone, even if not in use—just as an object in the background—degrades private conversations, making partners less willing to disclose deep feelings and less understanding of each other, she and her colleagues reported in Environment and Behavior.

With people's consciousness divided between what's in front of them and the immense possibility symbolized by smartphones, face-to-face interactions lose the power to fulfill. Mobile phones are "undermining the character and depth" of the intimate exchanges we cherish most, says Misra. Partners are unable to engage each other in a meaningful way.

On or off, smartphones are also a barrier to establishing new relationships, observe Andrew Przybylski and Netta Weinstein of the University of Essex in England. When they assigned pairs of strangers to discuss either casual or meaningful events, the presence of a smartphone, even outside the visual field, derailed the formation of relationships—especially if the participants were asked to talk about something personally significant. Smartphones "inhibited the development of interpersonal closeness and trust and reduced the extent to which individuals felt understanding and empathy from their partners," the team reports in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Subversion of the conditions of intimacy, they believe, happens outside of conscious awareness.

Absent Presence

Misra argues that smartphones fragment human consciousness. The lower quality of conversation in the presence of smartphones and the diminished empathy come about through our habitual use of the devices. They come to embody distant relationships and networks—social nuclei, Misra calls them—and, acting as environmental cues, they make other relationships and interests more salient than those directly in front of us. "In their presence, people have the constant urge to seek out information, check for communication, and direct their thoughts to other people and worlds," she says. They divide consciousness between the immediate and the invisible. Feeling less connected to a face-to-face partner, we avoid self-disclosure.

The ability of a partner to be physically present but absorbed by "a world of elsewhere" was first described more than a decade ago, in 2002, by Swarthmore College psychologist Kenneth Gergen. He called it "absent presence." That, however, was before smartphones multiplied the power of mobile phones to remove us from the local.

In the realm of relationships, smartphones turn conventional understanding of vulnerability on its head—for it is the best couples that seem to be hit the hardest. The closer partners start out, the more irked they become by the presence of devices, says Misra; they expect the attentiveness of their nearest and dearest.

If there is a soundtrack of the new plaint, it's less the gentle prodding Marilyn Suttle got than "Put down that damn phone and talk to me," which captures the pain and frustration of being ignored rather than engaged by a partner—at least in an established relationship, where time together is especially important and, usually, precious. (Rarely would anyone dare to be so direct in the getting-to-know-you stages of dating, researchers find, without courting the label "needy" or "controlling.") It's the sound of expectations being violated.

No longer accessories, smartphones, by their very embeddedness in our lives, bring the expectation of constant availability to everyone in our social network. But we also generally expect a partner's interest and involvement when we're together. And so smartphones, ipso facto, set us up for a clash of expectations and outright conflict, especially during intimate moments.

It's less clear what expectations for accessibility are when partners are just hanging out together—riding in the car, relaxing in the living room. Nevertheless, as relationship researcher John Gottman has documented, the unstructured moments that partners spend in each other's company, occasionally offering observations that invite conversation or laughter or some other response, hold the most potential for building closeness and a sense of connection. Each of those deceptively minor interludes is an opportunity for couples to replenish a reservoir of positive feelings that dispose them kindly to each other when they hit problems.

"Clinically we hear a lot of partners complain, 'I feel neglected. You're always checking your email, or surfing the web, or checking the news, even during dinner,'" says Gottman. Attention takes effort, and software capitalizes on distractibility. "The real danger is that people are checking their devices so often they're not noticing a partner's bids for connection."

Photo by Art Strieber

Missing bids for connection is not the only effect of absent presence. In a study of technology use in classrooms, Jesper Aagaard, a Ph.D. candidate at Aarhus University in Denmark, observed men and women ages 16 to 20 and then interviewed 25 of them in depth about non-classroom tech use. Technoference misaligns partners emotionally, he reports in AI & Society.

Their communication is marked by delayed responses, mechanical intonation, and lack of eye contact; all result in an unintentional misattunement. Gone are the rhythms of responsiveness and synchronicity of feelings that flow between partners, hallmarks of satisfying relationships. What comes across is indifference, says Aagaard. In the face of perceived apathy, partners keep restricting their responses, setting in motion a downward spiral of interaction.

Microflights From Intimacy

Love may lurk in the lulls, in the interstices of everyday life, but those are now the times we are most likely to turn not toward a partner but to our devices. No one such moment may be grand enough to finger as a culprit, but collectively "the microflights from intimacy land couples on an icy couch," observes New York psychotherapist Ken Page. They are stealth saboteurs of intimacy.

Andrew Blazer* is a physician on the internal medicine faculty at a major medical center and a digital health innovator. He plumbs big data to discover and develop better ways for doctors to practice medicine and for patients to safeguard their health. In other words, he's tech-friendly. But he is wistful about the subtle moments of connection that technology tends to obliterate.

"The way my wife winds down before bed is to look at Facebook," he says. "For me that's such an important time for talking and sharing the moments of the day, and for intimacy, physical and otherwise. She says, 'Just ask me and I'll put it away,' but that doesn't feel very satisfying." It carries little receptivity to the kinds of probing conversations they used to have when they were getting to know one another, the kind of talk that comes unbidden, bubbling up from the depths through comfortable, warm silence—too fragile to rise to the level of significance demanded by a declarative "Let's talk."

"Technology is like a third party in the relationship," says Blazer. His only consolation is the suspicion that couples everywhere are wrangling with the same problem.

The Question of Porn

There's another problem that's increasingly troubling in relationships, that of porn use: videos and images often delivered to a portable device and viewed by one partner in secret from the other.

Complaints about porn use constitute the number-one problem walking in the door of many, if not most, couple and sex therapists today—a direct measure of the power that privacy afforded by handheld devices has to disrupt intimate relationships. In 2015, more than half of porn users polled regularly accessed it via their phones, and the number of porn videos viewed worldwide was estimated at 88 billion—10 billion more than the previous year, according to research conducted by Pornhub.

About 90 percent of young men report using pornography with some regularity—as do 34 percent of young women. But if there is a stereotypical situation, it's this: A woman finds her boyfriend or husband accessing erotic images or videos on the Internet. The images bear little resemblance to what she looks like or to what she and her husband do in bed, explains Michigan psychologist Joe Kort. She feels hurt and betrayed, almost as if she had found him in bed with another woman. She is ashamed of his interests, afraid of what they imply about her, and, given the distorting lens of sexual secrecy, concludes that his desires are proof of perversity. "I think he's a sex addict," she says. "Fix him." Ashamed of his secret use, he often agrees.

It's difficult to overstate the impact: Discovering porn on a partner's computer can be an unnerving way to learn about a spouse's sexual fantasies. But it's often the only way. Couples almost never discuss their sexual desires. And both sexual appetites and sexual interests tend to be highly divergent between heterosexual partners.

For a number of reasons, a man may not be able or willing to talk to his wife about his sexual needs, says David Ley, a clinical psychologist in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the author of the forthcoming Ethical Porn for Dicks: A Man's Guide to Responsible Viewing Pleasure. He may be ashamed of his sexual interests, have a secret desire that he feels he can't share with his wife, or find something arousing—say, anal sex—that is unacceptable to his partner. Or he may want more sex than is available in the relationship. "A lot of men report that what makes pornography appealing is that the women enjoy the sex," he says. The tragedy is that a woman may not even know she's not meeting her partner's needs, because he's not telling her what they are.

Compounding a woman's distress in discovering a partner's secret porn use are the conclusions she is likely to draw about herself. Data on the universality of porn viewing by males across the globe suggest that its use is entirely impersonal, but a woman is apt to experience it as a personal reflection on her. "I'll never look like that." "Why am I not enough?" Or "Why is he masturbating instead of having sex with me?" A woman's self-esteem and feelings about her body are often potent indices of her reactivity to porn, experts report.

"Porn is never really the issue," says clinical sexologist Claudia Six of San Rafael, California. It's usually erotic differences between the partners. Most often, couples are clueless about their sexual selves. "They think there is one certain way to be sexual. With sexuality there is more variation than people give themselves permission for." The secret use of porn is a symptom of the great sexual silence in many heterosexual relationships.

Photo by Art Strieber

Another Name for Shame

If viewing erotica is ubiquitous among males, why do so many men and women regard Internet porn use as pathological? Being labeled "porn addict" by a partner, or even by oneself, has nothing to do with the amount of porn a man views, says Joshua Grubbs, assistant professor of psychology at Bowling Green University. Instead, it has everything to do with religiosity and moral attitudes toward sex. In short, he says, "It's shame-motivated."

Grubbs and his colleagues studied over 1,000 men and women to assess their religiosity and moral stance on porn use; their personality factors, including their sense of self-control; the frequency of their porn use; whether they believed they were addicted to Internet pornography; and the degree of effort they put into accessing it. In the face of guilt over pornography use, transgression becomes addiction, the team reports in the Archives of Sexual Behavior.

Grubbs calls it "perceived pornography addiction." "It functions very differently from other addictions. If it were an actual addiction, one would expect to see some correlation between perceived self-control and porn use." But among those who designated themselves porn-addicted, actual rates of use were all over the map—from one or two views in six months to daily watching. "Perceived porn addiction is independent of actually being dysregulated," says Grubbs.

Whether imposed by a partner or oneself, the label of porn addict reflects an impoverished understanding of human sexuality, says David Ley. People who believe themselves to be porn addicts need help understanding what their use of porn means. "They need help unpacking the conflicts between their own sexual desires and the moral/religious society around them," he adds. Men as well as women need to be educated about their own sexuality and explore why they respond to particular visual images.

A Crash Course in Sexuality

Pornography is a scapegoat for all the conversations couples aren't having, and it's an easy target, says Ogi Ogas, a computational neuroscientist and co-author of A Billion Wicked Thoughts, a groundbreaking study of sexual interests revealed through Internet usage. Labeling porn use as pathological all comes down to one thing, Ogas insists: Men and women have very different sexual tastes, sexual preferences, sexual interests, sexual fantasies. They are aroused by different things, prefer different kinds of sexual stimulation. "But we each look at our partner and want his or her behavior to be more like our own. When it is not, we get upset, and that leads to accusations of 'porn problems.' We are not properly educated about the nature of sexual taste and sexual preference."

The male brain is particularly responsive to and stimulated by visual imagery, first and foremost by pictures of anatomy that cut directly to the sex act. Women prefer dialogue and seduction—everything leading up to the sex act. Men and women do share one big sexual calling, reports Ogas, now a visiting scholar at Harvard's Graduate School of Education—an interest in dominance, submission, and power themes. "In fact," he says, "it is the only universal sex interest shared not only by men and women but by gay and straight, young and old. Everyone is turned on by one person being dominant, the other submissive." It's also the primary theme of "romantopia"—the hundreds of thousands of romance novels that constitute women's erotica, which our culture deems healthier than male erotica, or "pornutopia."

Your husband's Internet browser is loaded with images of men being bound, spanked, or otherwise humiliated by women clad in black leather and bearing whips? Relax, says Ogas: "He's not a pervert. His interest is deeply rooted in our animal nature." All mammals have very specific parts of the brain devoted to the physical postures of dominance and submission during sex, and along with the physical patterns come psychological responses.

We may live less in hormonal thrall than rats and rabbits, but we're all likely to tap into a preference for dominance or submission. A third of straight men and two thirds of gay men prefer to be sexually submissive, while a small minority of straight women prefer to be dominant.

Photo by Art Strieber

"This Is for Me"

Porn is not about a relationship. "It's not about his wife or his partner," says Kort. "It's about the freedom to be self-centered. Porn never says 'no,' carries no opportunity for rejection. And no negotiation is needed." Men choose to watch porn because it is easy and quick—and they can escape the burden of pleasing a partner.

"It's a way for a man to relax," adds Ley. "That is one of the main reasons a man can get an erection more easily with porn than with a partner. He doesn't have to focus on her needs. You have to relax in order to get an erection."

By itself, porn use does not negatively affect couple relationships—only when it's done by one partner in secret, and 95 percent of the time that is the male partner, says Brian Willoughby of Brigham Young University. In a study he and colleagues conducted of a nationally representative sample of 1,755 heterosexual couples, only male use of pornography in the absence of female use was linked to relationship dissatisfaction. "If she sees porn use as degrading, that drives him to secrecy and the couple to conflict," says Willoughby.

Acceptance of pornography by both partners actually helps their relationship, the team reports in the Archives of Sexual Behavior. When females watch porn, with or without their partner, couples do well. "Female porn use has benefits because it is proxy for bringing partners' sexual expectations together," Willoughby explains. It is also an indicator of greater sexual knowledge, sexual openness, and communication. Other studies show that couples who view pornography together as partners find it easier to discuss their sexual desires and fantasies.

"Communication is key," says Willoughby, who joins a chorus of researchers and clinicians urging couples to communicate better about sex and particularly to describe, nonjudgmentally, what they like, what turns them on, the fantasies they harbor. "The conversation between partners needs to include: 'What is the role of pornography in our relationship?' Of course, it's not a first-date discussion. But a lot of women think men stop watching porn when they get married and are surprised to find that they don't."

A high level of porn use, notes Ley, typically accompanies a high libido. "A man with a high libido needs to learn how to negotiate a relationship with a high level of sexual activity." If he chooses a partner who's not terribly interested in sex, then it might be wise to negotiate the acceptance of porn as an outlet.

Joe Kort invites couples to talk openly about the differences between their erotic identities. Once partners take the mystery out of their sexual interests, they open the door to understanding and compassion for each other. "Often," he notes, "a woman can live with a partner's porn use as long as she sees that it is not a mark against her." As it always does, understanding short-circuits the judgment and potential disgust at the discovery and keeps porn use above ground as shared knowledge.

It may be that Internet erotica will not pose a problem to future generations of couples the way it does now. Clinicians report that women under 35 are increasingly open to viewing pornography with their partner as a means of exploring their sexual interests. On the other hand, the impending technological advances of virtual reality may so intensify the pornography experience, making men more participants than voyeurs, that it may become even more compelling than it is now. Either scenario calls for a willingness of both partners to be open about their sexual fantasies and drop the secrecy that now drives so many to their own devices.


No matter if you're an established couple or not, it's wise to consider whether you and your partner have the same view of what is, and isn't, fair game for posting about your life together.

Technology changes the boundaries of couple life in new ways, says Katherine Hertlein, associate professor of psychology at the University of Nevada Las Vegas and co-author of The Couple and Family Technology Framework. But most couples don't realize it until one person feels there is a transgression—say, the other adds an old flame as a Facebook friend.

She urges couples to have an explicit conversation about how to manage tech use. The ideal time to do it is when two people become serious about their relationship. Since technology is always changing, however, it's necessary for all couples. Here are discussion points:

  • What are your expectations about tech use by your partner and by you?
  • Exactly what kind of contact does each partner regard as cheating?
  • What is appropriate to disclose about the relationship; about your spouse?
  • Do you exchange passwords or not?
  • Do you tell your partner whom you are texting?
  • When is it OK to be anonymous online?
  • What, if any, places in the home are off-limits to electronic devices?
  • What are rules for use in the car?
  • When is it OK to post photos of your children?
  • How much checking on each other is OK?

When you need support, Hertlein advises, it's best to text.

But if you're having a fight or otherwise trying to solve a problem, better to do it via email.

Technology facilitates frequent but brief communication—not enough to get at core issues. Set aside time at the end of the day for old-fashioned face-to-face talking.

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