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Digital Rules for Relationships

Technology gives new meaning to the term power couple. Here’s how to keep these devices from eroding your intimacy.

| August 29th, 2012
Digital Rules for Relationships

Technology, like most things in life—food, TV, super powers—can be used for good or for evil. Our beloved on-the-go gadgets can be a boon for relationships: They help us find each other in a crowded room; send a sweet message when we’re too busy to talk; and see each other’s faces when we’re half a world away. But as much as our devices can help bring us together, they can also drive a wedge in the strongest of relationships.

“Mobile technology makes it easier than ever to be distracted from your partner's needs. It’s important to make an effort to get disconnected from school, work, and social media and just be present with our partners. This is hard to do when our gadgets are buzzing and flashing all the time,” explains David A. Sbarra, Ph.D., YouBeauty Relationship Expert and a psychology professor at the University of Arizona.

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Marriage therapist Rachel Sussman, LCSW, author of “The Breakup Bible,” hears this complaint all too often in her practice. Technology, it seems, creates a competitive atmosphere where significant others often lose out to their partner’s Twitter and Facebook feeds. “The instant gratification of someone reaching out to you can, in some ways, be more enticing for the brain than your regular interpersonal relationships.”

Research bears this out. A recent survey of mobile phone users by Telenav found that 33 percent would rather give up sex than their smart phone for a week. What’s more, 28 percent said they'd go a week without seeing their significant other before forfeiting their iPhone.

Luckily, we don’t have to choose between our mate and our gizmos; relationship experts like Sussman believe ditching our digital devices isn’t the answer especially since they help us manage the more mundane aspects of our relationship to make room for more quality time together.

MORE: Creative Ways to Rekindle Your Romance

Using Technology for Quality Time

Editor Melissa Milrad Goldstein likes to joke that she and her husband rarely have time to coordinate their calendars so they send each other Outlook invites: "Dinner with your wife, tonight: accept or decline." Though some people may cringe at the thought of using a meeting request to book a romantic date with their spouse, it’s an example of how technology can facilitate intimacy, says T. Scott Gross, author of “Invisible,” and a consumer research expert who studies the habits of Gen X and Y. “We’re redefining intimacy. It doesn’t mean we’re less intimate. It just means this is the technology that we now use to communicate,” he explains.

Gross cites an example from a recent focus group he conducted. “A woman in her 30s said her husband isn’t the talkative type, but he does like to text. Two or three times a day, he’ll say, ‘I love you, babe.’ That’s intimate for him and she’s learned to make that intimate for her,” says Gross. 

When Digital Opposites Attract

But what if what works for one half of the couple doesn’t work for the other? Technology has given us so many different ways to communicate—Facebook, texting, instant messaging, phone calls, email— that we’re bound to butt heads when our partner doesn’t use our preferred method.

Susan Maushart, Ph.D., journalist and author of  “The Winter of Our Disconnect,” suspected a burgeoning relationship wouldn’t work out when she realized her partner’s idea of staying in touch was sending a quick text. “I’m more of the one-hour-minimum phone call-type,” she says.

You don’t have to be on the same page digitally if you’re compatible in other ways, says “Take Back Your Marriage” author William Doherty, Ph.D., professor of family social science and director of the marriage and family therapy program at the University of Minnesota. “Accept that people have preferred and uncomfortable ways of connecting.”

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“Digital incompatibilities don’t have to be a real problem if we accept each other’s differences and find a middle ground,” says Doherty. Instead of saying, “I don’t know why you can’t do this,” ask, “how can we compromise in some way?” For the spouse that dislikes the phone, perhaps that solution is keeping calls brief, or having your partner ask if now is an OK time. 

In fact, says Doherty, digital incompatibility can actually be a good thing if it gets couples to lay down some laws on how and when it’s appropriate to use your devices. If both people are buried in their phones and neither has a problem with it, “there will be less tension, but they may also slowly drift apart. Complaining is actually a good sign,” he says.

Digital Rules to Live—and Love—By

While Sbarra, Doherty and Sussman all concede that what works for one couple isn’t going to work for everyone, here are a few digital ground rules they believe can help establish the basis of a healthy digital duo:  

  • Impose tech-free zones: Keep gadgets out of the bedroom and off of the dinner table. Never keep your devices out when you’re on a date or in the company of guests. If you’re waiting on an important call, explain when you first sit down why you may need to leave it out, but don’t look at it otherwise, says Sussman.
  • Keep multitasking to a minimum: Train your brain to be content with one distraction at a time. If you’re watching TV, put away the laptop, iPad or phone.
  • Disconnect daily: Maushart, who pulled the plug on her family for six months, suggests carving out time together. Find a routine—something you can count on—for disconnecting with your gadgets and reconnecting with your partner or spouse.
  • Stifle your Pavlovian response: Don’t automatically react to your phone, says research psychologist Larry Rosen, Ph.D., author of “iDisorder.” From a neurological point of view, if you’re checking your phone 20 times a day or responding to it every time someone comments on your status, it’s going to over-activate parts of your brain, so that you’re thinking about it even when you’re not logged on.
  • Work out disagreements in person: It’s too easy to shoot off an angry text that you might later regret, says Sbarra. It’s a cop-out that keeps couples from having real discussions. “By avoiding them, you’re not fostering change that would bring you closer as a couple,” says Sussman. Gadgets encourage superficial exchanges, and only by digging in deeply can you forge meaningful connections.

MORE: How to Fight With Your Partner – Without Ruining Your Relationship

Digital Rules for Relationships

Technology, like most things in life—food, TV, super powers—can be used for good or for evil. Our beloved on-the-go gadgets can be a boon for relationships: They help us find each other in a crowded room; send a sweet message when we’re too busy to talk; and see each other’s faces when we’re half a world away. But as much as our devices can help bring us together, they can also drive a wedge in the strongest of relationships.

“Mobile technology makes it easier than ever to be distracted from your partner's needs. It’s important to make an effort to get disconnected from school, work, and social media and just be present with our partners. This is hard to do when our gadgets are buzzing and flashing all the time,” explains David A. Sbarra, Ph.D., YouBeauty Relationship Expert and a psychology professor at the University of Arizona.

COLUMN: Solving Your Relationship Problems

It’s Not a Competition, But Facebook Is Winning

Marriage therapist Rachel Sussman, LCSW, author of “The Breakup Bible,” hears this complaint all too often in her practice. Technology, it seems, creates a competitive atmosphere where significant others often lose out to their partner’s Twitter and Facebook feeds. “The instant gratification of someone reaching out to you can, in some ways, be more enticing for the brain than your regular interpersonal relationships.”

Research bears this out. A recent survey of mobile phone users by Telenav found that 33 percent would rather give up sex than their smart phone for a week. What’s more, 28 percent said they'd go a week without seeing their significant other before forfeiting their iPhone.

Luckily, we don’t have to choose between our mate and our gizmos; relationship experts like Sussman believe ditching our digital devices isn’t the answer especially since they help us manage the more mundane aspects of our relationship to make room for more quality time together.

MORE: Creative Ways to Rekindle Your Romance

Using Technology for Quality Time

Editor Melissa Milrad Goldstein likes to joke that she and her husband rarely have time to coordinate their calendars so they send each other Outlook invites: "Dinner with your wife, tonight: accept or decline." Though some people may cringe at the thought of using a meeting request to book a romantic date with their spouse, it’s an example of how technology can facilitate intimacy, says T. Scott Gross, author of “Invisible,” and a consumer research expert who studies the habits of Gen X and Y. “We’re redefining intimacy. It doesn’t mean we’re less intimate. It just means this is the technology that we now use to communicate,” he explains.

Gross cites an example from a recent focus group he conducted. “A woman in her 30s said her husband isn’t the talkative type, but he does like to text. Two or three times a day, he’ll say, ‘I love you, babe.’ That’s intimate for him and she’s learned to make that intimate for her,” says Gross. 

When Digital Opposites Attract

But what if what works for one half of the couple doesn’t work for the other? Technology has given us so many different ways to communicate—Facebook, texting, instant messaging, phone calls, email— that we’re bound to butt heads when our partner doesn’t use our preferred method.

Susan Maushart, Ph.D., journalist and author of  “The Winter of Our Disconnect,” suspected a burgeoning relationship wouldn’t work out when she realized her partner’s idea of staying in touch was sending a quick text. “I’m more of the one-hour-minimum phone call-type,” she says.

You don’t have to be on the same page digitally if you’re compatible in other ways, says “Take Back Your Marriage” author William Doherty, Ph.D., professor of family social science and director of the marriage and family therapy program at the University of Minnesota. “Accept that people have preferred and uncomfortable ways of connecting.”

QUIZ: Discover Your Love Style

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