I am turning 40 this year, so I thought it was only fitting that my wife and I see the new Judd Apatow movie, This Is 40. I thought it was funny and that it captured many of the problems that unfold as we move into “midlife.”
There was one scene in particular that got me thinking quite a lot. We see the wife and mother, Debbie (played by Leslie Mann), standing in a sexy negligee in front of the husband and dad, Pete (played by Paul Rudd). Pete’s lying on the bed with his iPad (which itself plays such a big part in the movie that it deserves a credit line) and fretting about his failing business. Debbie wants to have sex and is ready to go, so to speak. Pete, on the other hand, literally can’t see her because his face is jammed into the iPad. He doesn’t even look up to see what he’s missing.
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The near-ubiquitous presence of i-thingamajig devices in the film is Apatow’s way of commenting on technology in modern life. Debbie wants some physical and emotional connection; Pete is distracted by the iPad and missing out on some good lovin’ with his wife.
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Whether or not we realize it, technology is getting in the way of living a fully engaged life. I might sound old fashioned, and maybe my distain for the technology invasion is somehow quaint. From a relationship science perspective, however, these issues have serious implications.
Look at yourself and those around you next time you’re out and about. Couples are sitting down for dinner at a restaurant and both of them are looking at their electronic devices, or one is talking and the other is texting. Or worse, parents are i-devicing while talking to their kids.
Here’s another example. I teach a small graduate class with seven students. I walked into class one day and sat down about five minutes before we started. I just sat there while all seven students messed with their computers, tablets or phones. Everyone said “hi” or nodded when I walked in. I sat down, resisted my own urge to check my phone, then watched them go back into their e-worlds.
So, what’s the big problem? Well, the students in my class used to spend those five minutes messing around with each other—joking, complaining, laughing, supporting, learning. Now, most of the time, they’re benignly ignoring each other. Maybe they’re just plugged into the things that really engage them. You may argue that technology allows us to do more of what we like. This explanation stinks if you ask me, largely because the ability to relate well to others requires that we engage in real opportunities to do so.
When we’re i-devicing, we miss out on what people sometimes refer to as the “full catastrophe of life.” The more connected we are to our machines, the more disconnected we are to the people in our lives. There’s no way around this fact.
We know from decades of research that the concept of perceived partner responsiveness (PPR) is a key—if not the key—ingredient in intimacy. PPR refers to the idea that you think your partner gets what you have to say, understands how you feel, knows your needs and is available to respond to you when you need support.So many things in life can interfere with PPR. If you text when he’s talking, update Facebook during sex (I’ve heard about it!) or just plain read ESPN.com at the dinner table, you’re dealing death blows to your relationship by destroying the PPR.
Technology affords us many, many ways to be distracted and disengaged. Every time Pete fails to see Debbie in her negligee because of his iPad, he makes a massive withdrawal from her PPR account. At some point, there’s not enough currency to sustain the relationship.
If you want to find out whether or not technology is making an impact on your relationship, try the following things:
- Easy: No technology where and when you eat with your partner. At home, or when you go out to eat. Just talk.
- Harder: No technology aside from e-readers in the bedroom. You can read on your devices, but no email, texting, Twitter or Facebook in the bedroom. Can you do that?
- Hardest: Technology-free weekends, or a digital Sabbath. More time connecting to real people, less time doing it with an electronic intermediary. Don’t text, call. Don’t call, go for a walk or run together. You get the idea.
Please feel free to use the comment section to share your own feelings about and experiences with technology and your love life. Can you relate to what I’ve said above? Do you have personal examples to share? Think of this as our chance to use technology to help solve the problems it causes.