There is a good, sound argument for how technology can bring two people together. Countless couples have now met, married, forged unions, and had children as a result of a dating website, a Facebook chat, or a bold text message. Technology has provided a new platform for millions of people to take that first step in a relationship. This has been especially helpful to people who are shy, overworked, or just too exhausted to make a consistent effort to get out and meet someone.
Between smart phones and the Internet, the possibilities for flirtation are now endless. This can be healthy when it comes to keeping the spark alive between a couple, particularly one enduring forced separations. It can also be beneficial to two people first getting to know each other; it's much easier to ask for a date by text than face-to-face. The so-called "sexting" that takes place between two people getting together can be positive when the flirtation turns into action, i.e. when the text messaged invitation becomes the actual first date. The trouble arises when devices become a substitute for real relating. When it comes to love in the time of technology, there are four elements (what I call the four D's) that we all should be wary of: Distraction, Disconnection, Desensitization, and Dishonesty.
Relationships are hard work. The baggage each person carries with them weighs heavily on the way a couple relates to each other. Caring for someone deeply can trigger old feelings, memories, and fears. The closer things get, the more obstacles we should expect to encounter. Devices are a major distraction from the real challenges that arise in a relationship. Passing time on our Blackberry helps us avoid major issues or problems that are lying right next to us in bed. When the going gets tough, the tough start texting.
This problem is one that has been explored by Dr. Pat Love, the acclaimed author of "The Truth About Love" and "Hot Monogamy," and it's one I discussed with her recently when we were recording our upcoming webinar, "Love in the Time of Twitter." We wanted to explore how interpersonal relationships have been impacted by new media and explore how love can be preserved in the face of such colossal distraction. As Love recently wrote, "Other than breathing we spend more time streaming technology than any other activity ... This constant state of stimulation leaves little room for contemplation, mindfulness, and deep intimacy, which are all necessary for maintaining relationships."
A damaged connection can lead us to start looking for excitement or romance in other places, like Twitter, Facebook, or exes whose numbers are conveniently programmed into our cell phones. This communication doesn't always lead to deception or infidelity, but the distraction alone inhibits us from repairing the connection we have with our partners. It limits our ability to attune to our partners and be sensitive to their needs and aware of what lights them up. Time spent with devices can keep us from taking the time to talk through problems, resolve arguments, or simply spend time enjoying each other -- actions that would rekindle the spark we initially felt in our relationships.
The trouble with much of the flirting we do via email, text, or live chat is that it can be highly impersonal. Many of the examples we've seen of "sexting," from everyone from close friends to high-profile politicians, seem to cross the line from real relating to total fantasy. The trouble is that people often prefer the intoxicating illusion of connection and sense of possibility to the everyday acts of romance that are available to them. As I said before, relationships bring real challenges that we can easily avoid in a cyber world. The deeper we travel into fantasy, the further we drift from what is really important to us, who we really are, and what we really want. We replace a deep and meaningful connection with surface pleasures that fail to fulfill us in the long run.
Technology has the wonderfully destructive ability to tune us out. The outlets for instant gratification have invaded our homes in the form of apps, online shops, games, videos, social media, and more. We rarely have to face our fears on Facebook or feel our anger over a game of Angry Birds. Technology can numb us from pain, but it also numbs us from passion. Any activity we use to cut off negative emotions has the unfortunate effect of diminishing positive emotions as well. This can be particularly taxing on our intimate relationships. If we use the little energy we have left at the end of a day to return emails or surf the Web, think about what we are sacrificing in the way of attunement, affection, passion, and personal exchange.
One of the most glaring downsides of new media is that, in many relationships, it has bred an environment of deception and distrust. We now not only live in a world where many people think it okay to search through their partner's cell phone, but a world in which these same people often find something that confirms their suspicions. From flirty texts to secret lives, people have used technology not just to escape but to deceive.
This deception can take place when we withhold information from our partner that we fear will make him or her jealous. It can take place when we substitute the excitement of a secret flirtation for the passion we once felt in our relationship. It can even occur when we deceive ourselves that the relationships we forge and people we meet online are perfect or superior to our imperfect, real-life unions. In this sense, we can use varying degrees of "sexting" as a build-up of ourselves or a way to feel dirty or bad about ourselves. In either case, we are avoiding the truth, preferring an illusion of what could be over what we really have.
The solution to the problem of technology invading our relationships is far from hopeless. In each individual case, one must examine how he or she uses technology and whether or not that use is distancing him or her from a loved one. If it is being used as a distraction, what are we avoiding? If it is being used as a desensitizer, what pain are we not facing? The sentiment may be easier said than done, but it holds true that it is always better to do the hard part, challenge ourselves to get close, and fight to have a satisfying relationship. In this journey, we can use technology to get closer as opposed to moving further away from each other. We can use it to ask sensitive questions about each other's day, to plan an exciting night together, or to keep connected in a world where one million distractions are always readily available, if not in the ceaseless streaming of gadgets but the never-ending output of our own minds.
To read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone on Relationships visit PsychAlive - Alive to Intimacy
To watch exclusive video interviews with Dr. Pat Love visit PsychAlive.org