Is Technology Short-Circuiting Your Relationship? This Emotional Life - PBS

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Relationships / Blog

    Suzanne Phillips, PsyD

Suzanne Phillips, PsyD's Bio

Dr. Phillips is a licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomat in Group Psychotherapy and Co-Author of Healing Together.

Is Technology Short-Circuiting Your Relationship?


A day before the announcement of one of the latest iphones, a New York Times article addressed the mental price of our involvement with technology. It reported that scientists are finding that the high use of technology -- e-mails, cell phones, i-pads, text messages, i-messages, blogs, tweets, internet alerts, facebook etc. bombard us with such an instant stream of information that they make us hyper-alert to new bits of information but less able to sustain focus on the task at hand. It suggests that technology can change how people think and behave.

What about the impact of technology on relationships?

• Does the technology that matched you with your spouse, now keep you apart?

• Are you able to “be in the moment” with your partner without checking an e-mail or answering a call?

• Are text messages from your partner a welcomed hint of intimacy or a dreaded source of stress?

Dr. Kimberly Young in her research on the addictive nature of online technology suggests that technology, like food, is an essential part of daily life – but necessitates moderation and controlled use.

Can you use technology in a way that makes use of its advantages and limits its disadvantages to your relationship?

Detachment -- Advantages

The response to technology, be it talking on a cell phone or reading e-mails, demands at least some partial detachment from reality. For partners, this can feel particularly wonderful because for a few minutes you can reach outside of your reality to connect or be connected to the one you love. The job, the train station, the airport recede. The cell phone call offers instant connection between partners.

Detachment -- Disadvantages

When technology disrupts the reality shared with one’s partner it can undermine the very benefits it affords. Turning on the laptop to check your emails or answering a call during time together – be it dinner, the walk in the park or the late night sitcom, is an emotional disconnect. It replaces the connection with the partner with an alternative connection.

When this type of disruption is a rare event, most partners just pause and re-connect. When it's chronic, it erodes the sustained attention needed to feel known and special to each other.

“When she stops talking to me to answer a call – it’s worse than when she's out of town because she’s there but I’m invisible.”

Off-Line Exclusivity

Reducing the 24/7 disruption that technology can cause takes recognizing the impact on you and your partner and prioritizing your right to an undisturbed exclusive connection. The more effort you make to protect your time together – the more special it will feel.

• “We don’t answer our cell phones on the boat.”

• “We have agreed to be unavailable to everyone but an emergency call from our kids while we watch our favorite show.”

• “Neither of us will answer our cell phones during dinner.”

Regulating Feelings

A common answer I have received when asking men and women what they do to reduce stress is “being online” – surfing the net, shopping, checking emails, responding to Facebook etc.


• Use of technology is a viable and valid stress reducer. Physically and psychologically it shifts one’s attention, provides distraction from pain, postponement of worry, a reason to laugh, a place to connect, an arena to compete, and so on. It has the potential to positively transform feelings, to reduce anxiety and stress.

• We may have experienced it and certainly have seen enough romantic comedies depicting couples side by side with their laptops to know that the mutual use of technology can be enjoyable to couples.

• Cosmopolitan magazine’s April 2010 issue reminded men to come out of the cave because many female partners actually want to play video games with them.

Ultimately, the advantages to a couple hang in “the balance.” If they both use technology as a stress reducer that is great -- especially if they agree when to turn the laptops off.


• Technology can be used in a negative way to reduce stress by partners. The continued calling, texting or emailing by a partner to feel connected, exert influence or maintain surveillance is a misconceived attempt to feel better.

• Texting someone in the middle of a work day to continue a fight or make one more point – is an intrusion that does little for resolution, love or connection. If your partner feels stressed when your caller ID flashes or your text appears– something is wrong.

• Technology also becomes a liability when online use is an excessive attempt to escape feelings. As such, it not only fails to regulate anxiety and stress, it can become an addiction that jeopardizes personal functioning and relationships.

• Running into cyberspace (gambling, porn, video games) rather than feeling or dealing- leaves both you and your partner out. Real life becomes too risky and real relating - less and less possible.

Recognition that a problem may exist and having positive attitudes about seeking help become crucial for both.

Information Seeking

Technology has opened a world of information never before accessible at a speed never thought possible.


• Couples have not only used technology to find each other; they have maintained long distance relationships, reached across deployments and soothed each other from miles away.

• Most couples have benefited from the vast pool of information technology provides. They have found each other jobs, passed on jokes, checked out medical issues, planned weddings, posted pictures, sold houses and much more.


• As we have become increasingly efficient at researching and finding information, we have become increasingly impatient with human exchange and process.

• Why ask your partner’s opinion about a recipe or the name of that old movie you saw in high school when you can find it online in less than one moment?

Intimacy has to do with the process between two people. The chance to guess together at the wrong or right name of the movie, remembering the pizza you hid in your coat that night, realizing that you have the right actress but the wrong movie -- is information you will never find on any website. It is information only available in mutual exchange.

If technology gives you and your partner the world but disrupts your relationship – there’s a short circuit somewhere you need to find and fix together.