If the title of this blog resonates with you, know that you are not alone. Many couples are currently navigating how to adapt to new technologies in a way that balances with their relationships. I have personally pondered this issue for a long time in my own experience with my husband. Our relationship began long before the advent of emails and texting. Like most couples in America, we acquired our first smartphones several years ago. We were thrilled at the ease of instant availability and connection. Then, our relationship subtly began to change. Often after a long day at work, we found ourselves mindlessly checking texts, playing a game, or messing with Facebook. We started to notice moments of irritation and even sadness seeping into our time together. What was happening? There was nothing wrong with playing a harmless game or checking work emails, so why did we find ourselves feeling frustrated with each other?

Around that time, I listened to a podcast where Sherry Turkle described the new challenges devices bring into the interactional patterns between partners, as well as parents and children. My husband and I began to take notice of the subtle impact our phones had on our interactions. We were not as attentive to each other, a little distracted, during down times and unstructured moments. We decided to experiment with ways to balance our technologies within our relationship in a way that protected the closeness we desired.

What are interactional patterns in relationships?

An interactional pattern happens when we make “bids” for connection, and those bids are either received or missed by our partners. A successful interaction happens when partners are emotionally responsive to each other’s bids. These unsuccessful interactions, these “missed bids,” begin to create little nagging insecurities and uncertainties about the relationship that can build over time.

What is a bid?

“Bids” are the active ingredient in a relationship. Gottman shows how people make bids in the fine grain of everyday life, often without knowing they are doing it: “Did you hear about…,” or “You’ll never guess what my sister told me today.” Much is happening all the time in the form of these signals that partners are often unaware they are sending. These signals—these bids—are nonverbal as well as verbal: a wink, a smile, a shoulder rub, a gentle shove, or a mutual look of understanding about a friend’s quirks. What matters, Gottman suggests, is not depth of intimacy in conversation, or even agreement or disagreement, but rather how people pay attention to each other no matter what they talk about or do. What matters is the quality of attention.” (Dan Wile, 2010)

What is emotional responsiveness and why is it important?

According to Sue Johnson, the key indicator of a secure bond is the presence of emotional responsiveness. In essence, emotional responsiveness is the ability to respond to our partner’s bids for connection. We need to know that our significant other is available and willing to be there when we need them. A useful tool to understand emotional responsiveness is the acronym A.R.E:

Accessibility – Can I reach you? Are you there for me?

Responsiveness – Can I rely on you to respond to me?

Engagement – Do I matter to you? (Johnson, 2008)

relationships with smartphonesThe fabric of our relationship is built on a consistent flow of checking in, often in tiny unstructured moments. Is my partner accessible? Can I count on him/her to be there when I need them? Do I matter? Our devices can impede the interactional flow between bids for connection and emotional responsiveness. We miss the subtle shifts in tone and nonverbal facial gestures that offer vital information. Relational interactions get out of sync when bids for connection are missed. Over time partners experience missed bids for connection as indifference and may stop bidding altogether. Multitasking connection can lead to disaster. Relationships thrive on full presence.

Smartphone Interference 

Smartphones are not going anywhere, and they serve many important functions in current life.  However, I am reassured that my husband and I are not alone in navigating this new relationship with technology. Over the past couple of years, research has validated the potential problems that phone use can create with our emotional responsiveness to the people we love.  

The most recent issue of Psychology Today explored some of the current challenges couples and families are facing in relationship with their technological devices; technoference, Iphone Effect, Absent Presence: 

  • Technoference (term coined by Sarah Coyne) – 70% of couples report that face-to-face conversations were stopped in their tracks by partner’s phone use or even active texting. 
  • IPhone Effect (term coined by Shalina Misra): The mere presence of a smartphone degrades private conversations making partners less willing to disclose their deep feelings and develop understanding.
  • Absent Presence (term coined by Kenneth Gergen): smartphones fragment human consciousness and lower quality of conversation. The diminished empathy comes about through our habitual use of devises. Communication becomes marked by delayed responses and lack of eye contact. The rhythms of responsiveness and synchronicity of feelings degrades. What comes across is indifference. (Psychology Today)

How can I create balance between my relationships and my devices?

Smartphones may pull our attention, but we can implement changes that create the balance and closeness we desire. In my own relationship, we have found that it is essential to maintain awareness between the use of our phones and our ability to be available to each other. We continue to negotiate changes as needed any time we notice we are out of sync in our relationship or with our children.

I have also taken some time to talk with friends and family about their own challenges with balancing their relationships and technologies. I have learned some terrific ideas of things to try:

  • Implement “cell free” zones at family meal times, running errands, and coffee time. My husband and I love our “cell free” coffee time every morning. We start off the day connected and in sync.
  • Tech Sabbath (http://www.onbeing.org/program/tiffany-shlain-growing-up-the-internet/8545) – Take a day off each week from checking emails. Enjoy cooking together, folding laundry with the kids, running to soccer games, etc.
  • Vacation responder – Set vacation responder while on vacation to protect the time with your partner/family.
  • Airplane mode – A friend of mine who is a medical doctor set her phone on airplane mode during her family vacation. She was able to turn work off and soak in her time with her husband and children. When she turned her phone back on, she was inundated with texts and emails. But, she said it was worth it to be free of distractions and feel connected again with her family.
  • One of my friends told me that he exchanged his smartphone for a flip phone for a couple of years. After time at work all day on a computer he wanted to create a break from emails and Facebook at home. He found that his time away from a smartphone now helps him use it when he needs it and set it aside more easily.

A great way to experiment and implement changes is to talk openly with the people you love. Psychology Today has a helpful list of discussion points to get you started on creating balance in a way that best fits your relationship:

Discussion Points:

  • What are your expectations about tech use by your partner and by you?
  • Exactly what kind of contact does each partner regard as cheating?
  • What is appropriate to disclose about the relationship; about your spouse?
  • Do you exchange passwords or not?
  • Do you tell your partner whom you are texting?
  • When is it okay to be anonymous online?
  • What, if any, places in the home are off-limits to electronic devices?
  • What are some potential times to set tech free zones?
  • What are the rules for the car?
  • When is it okay to post photos of your children?
  • How much checking on each other is okay?

Some people, friends or coworkers, might not understand why you would turn your phone off or set aside times to be unavailable. That is okay. You are setting a protective boundary around those little moments of emotional connection with the people most precious to you. Remember you are not alone. These technologies are new and all of us are navigating how to adapt in a way that balances our relationships with the precious people in our lives.


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