Technology is often painted as the enemy of meaningful relationships. Although this depiction is not entirely false—as technology facilitates phubbing, cheating, and a lack of connection—but technology can also have some beneficial effects on our relationships. It can even help couples fight in more positive and productive ways.
Integrating forms of technology is good for our relationships.
Drs. John Caughlin and Liesel Sharabi (2013) developed a new way to think about how technology plays a role in romantic relationship communication. Since people in relationships tend to use multiple methods of communicating (e.g., phone, text, email, social media), they argue that the way those modes connect with one another matters.
Their Communicative Interdependence Perspective says that if my husband and I are able to easily switch from communicating face-to-face in the morning to G-chatting during the day to communicating face-to-face again at night, our relationship is likely closer and more satisfying. When those switches are not easy or create conflict or negative communication, our relationship will be worse off. They call this negative side of switching between modes interference: when communication using one method makes communication using another method more difficult. For example, if my husband and I frequently miscommunicate when we text, we might end up fighting more when communicating face-to-face.
The perspective also argues that the use of technology to communicate will affect later face to face conversations and vice versa. Some couples engage in mode segmentation, or choosing to talk about some subjects only over technology or only when face-to-face. Drs. Caughlin and Sharabi found that saving some topics for face-to-face conversations only was good for relationships while saving topics for technology only was linked with less satisfaction in relationships.
Therapists are using technology to help couples improve communication.
Research studies have shown that technology can help couples manage conflict better, communicate better, and feel closer to one another. In fact, therapists are using online assessments and videos like TED talks in their sessions with clients and asking couples to use their phones and email to connect throughout the day. They are also recommending couples use technology when angry with one another in order to slow down their response times and give them space to cool off. Therapists are even suggesting couples use “Find Friends” or other GPS tracking apps to regain trust after one partner has been unfaithful (Piercy et al., 2015).
Tips you can use:
Use technology to your advantage. How can your phone help you maintain your relationship?
- Set reminders to check in on your partner throughout the day (without being overbearing).
- Use technology to connect. In obvious ways like calling or texting but in other ways too – comment on their posts online or in person later (let them know you are paying attention to them and care about what they are interested in).
- Set reminders about big deadlines your partner has so that you remember they may need extra support during busy and/or stressful times.
- Integrate the various forms of technology you use so that communication flows from one mode to the next. If there is a certain technology that causes conflict due to miscommunication or jealousy, avoid using that mode to communicate with one another.
- Save some conversation topics for face-to-face time. Keeping some topics sacred elevates them to a level of importance in your relationship.
Caughlin, J. P., Basinger, E. D., & Sharabi, L. L. (2016). The connections between communication technologies and relational conflict. In J. A. Samp (Ed.), Communicating interpersonal conflict in close relationships: Contexts, challenges, and opportunities. New York, NY: Routledge
Caughlin, J. P., & Sharabi, L. L. (2013). A communicative interdependence perspective of close relationships: The connections between mediated and unmediated interactions matter. Journal of Communication, 63(5), 873-893. doi: 10.1111/jcom.12046
Lenhart, A., & Duggan, M. (2014). Couples, the internet, and social media. Pew Internet and American Life Project.
Piercy, F. P., Riger, D., Voskanova, C., Chang, W., Haugen, E., Sturdivant, L. (2015). What marriage and family therapists tell us about improving couple relationships through technology. In C. J. Bruess (Ed.), Family communication in the age of digital and social media (pp. 207-227). New York, NY: Peter Lang.
Scissors, L. E., & Gergle, D. (2013). Back and forth, back and forth: Channel switching in romantic couple conflict. In Proceedings of the 2013 conference on Computer supported cooperative work (pp. 237-248). ACM.