Why You and Your Partner Need to Unplug
The research on couples and technology use, even in bed, is stunning.
Posted May 29, 2015
Preoccupation with electronic devices undermines essential aspects of our lives, particularly those that strengthen and enhance physical, emotional, and spiritual health and wellbeing. These aspects tend to be the first things that get back-burnered in favor of "technoference"—our growing dependence and preoccupation with electronic technology.
If you’re a regular reader of our pieces, you’ve probably read about “technoference” before. We’re trying to emphasize the insidious dangers and risks involved in developing an addictive relationship with technology, and to provide encouragement to take steps to become less compulsive in this area.
It is difficult to interrupt or diminish technology's influence due to powerful cultural influences. None of us exist in a vacuum; like it or not, we are all subject to the expectations and norms held by the communities in which we live and operate. If the people in your network of friends, co-workers, and relatives operate under the expectation that they and everyone else need to be available 100% of the time, 24/7, then you follow suit. If you are not reachable, you are obligated to respond to the caller, e-mailer, or texter immediately, like within the next 90 seconds. Failure to do so in a timely manner may, as many know from experience, result in dire consequences for the "transgressor" (a.k.a. you).
Cecile Andres, a leader in the Voluntary Simplicity movement, reports in her survey that North American couples spend an average of just 12 minutes a day talking together. A relationship is a living organism that requires adequate attention, care, and nurturance to thrive. Most committed partnerships are barely surviving on starvation rations.
Sarah Coyne, who coined (no pun intended) the term “technoference,” is a professor in Brigham Young University’s Department of Family Life. In 2014, she conducted a study sampling 140 women in committed partnerships and found that more than 75% reported that cell phones had a significant negative impact on their ability to connect with their partner. Those women also reported that they found themselves getting into increasingly more fights with their partner, leaving them not only feeling badly about the relationship, but less satisfied or depressed about their lives overall.
Coyne is not alone in her conclusions. A growing body of psychology research examines how increased reliance on technology affects our closest relationships, particularly when used during meals and intimate experiences. In a Harris Interactive poll, one-third of adults interviewed reported having used their phones while on dinner dates. In the poll, titled, “Americans Can’t Put Down Their SmartPhones Even During Sex," nearly 20% of smartphone owners ages 18 to 34 reported having used their phone while having sex! (Exclamation point added.) Many couples report that electronic devices cause arguments when there is a hope or expectation that there will be an opportunity for meaningful interpersonal relating.
Women are not the only ones complaining. Christine Leggett and Pieter Rossouw, in the International Journal of Neuropsychotherapy (2014) report, “This era of enhanced digital connectivity allows humans to engage and disconnect continuously during face-to-face interactions." In their study sample of 21 couples, they found that members' sense of safety, control, and attachment was lowered. Due to excessive use of electronic devices, the couples were more likely to perceive the relationship negatively.
Fortunately, there are ways to deal with the drift toward technical overload. We do not have to become slaves to social expectations, or risk grave harm to our health and wellbeing. Unfortunately, we often don’t recognize the crisis until we’ve been in it long enough to become entrenched; fixed habits are much harder to break than those that are newly formed.
One antidote is for couples to strategically plan “device-free time” with each other. Engaging in activities like going on hikes or bike rides, during which all electronic devices are left at home, makes a big difference. Planning parts of each weekend in which all devices will be off-limits can help break the compulsive need to be online, 24/7. Many couples have learned the hard way that radical steps are needed to avert possibly more dramatic outcomes, including divorce.
Each couple may negotiate how to ration their screen time in ways that work for them. They can decide how to make time available for the kinds of connection that will keep their bond strong. Don't just consider what you’re “supposed to do” or what everyone “expects you to do," but what is necessary to keep your relationship healthy and worth keeping alive. If things deteriorate too far, the motivation to reduce technoference may dissolve. Once you get to that point, you’ve probably waited too long.
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