The digital revolution is also changing what happens in the therapist’s office. Consider these three situations I encountered in the past week:

  • A couple married three years came in for help because he was having a cyberaffair.
  • A husband came to his appointment alone because his wife had asked for a divorce…via text.
  • A couple in their 60s described their stalled sex life because the husband can’t go to sleep without his iPad.

If you recognize yourself in any of these scenarios, you are in good company. With all of the benefits that come from having more technology in our lives, it is important to weigh the costs. According to the Pew Research Center, 26% of adult Internet users who report that the Internet had an impact on their relationship said the effect is negative. If you’re among them, consider these Dos and Donts.

DON’T do conflict online

Recently, a couple described an argument to me that took place completely via Google chat. They were cheating –themselves. Couples must learn the art of managing conflict. The Pew study suggests that only 9% of  users report having an easier time resolving an argument via text rather than in person. That means the vast majority of couples actually prefer engaging face to face. It’s harder, but better. Engaging conflict in person allows you to interpret nonverbal cues.  And since nonverbal communication makes up most of the message, saving hard conversations for when you’re in the same room can help you avoid misinterpretation when reducing an argument to words on a screen. If you feel things are starting to get tense as you chat digitally with your partner, stick a pin in it and communicate that you’d like to continue the discussion in person.

DO use technology to turn toward each other

The Pew Research study reports that 21% of cell phone owners or Internet users in a committed relationship have felt closer to their spouse or partner as a result of online or text message conversations. In these cases, couples have learned to use their devices to turn toward each other. Turning toward is an essential skill to master. To bridge the separation created by the constraints of a work day or a long-distance relationship, send text message or emails conveying support at a key moment, complimenting your partner for something that pleased you or to provoke a shared chuckle.

DON’T mistake ease for empathy

Empathy is the essential skill for human interaction. For couples it’s especially important. The ability to identify and connect with your partner’s emotions is absolutely critical to a sustainable, satisfying relationship.  Our devices make it easy to join joy and enthusiasm by clicking a “like” button, but that does not replace the attunement that comes from actually celebrating with someone. Similarly, a frowning emoji or even an “I’m sorry” tapped out in response to a perceived sorrow, does not equal actually grieving with your partner. Empathy is like any other relationship skill. It must be practiced with consistency over time, face-to-face.

DO partner against the device

Your phone, your laptop, your television…they’re all begging for your attention. They’re designed to isolate you from your surroundings and from your partner. In that regard, your devices are an enemy of your relationship. Research suggests that relationships thrive when surrounded by friends of the relationship. More importantly, relationships thrive when partners recognize a common enemy. In this case, recognizing (together) that your phone is an obstacle to intimacy is half the battle. The other half is choosing (together) to overcome the enemy….in this case, the device. Decide on times when you’ll put the phones out of sight — at meals for instance, or when enjoying time together outside. Gently signal each other when those rules are being violated — or any time you feel you need your partner’s undivided attention. And consider a no-devices-in-the-bed rule, even if you have to get out of bed to answer your smartphone.

One of the kindest stories I ever heard in my office was when a wife was describing the anxiety created by her smartphone one evening while she was spending time with her husband.  She was receiving a flood of emails about a school auction she was leading that usually would have prompted her to respond with a sense of duty and obligation totally segregated from her relationship with her husband.

That night her husband asked her: “Would you like me to hide your phone for you?”

He offered genuine empathy, understanding the ambivalence created by her obligation. He turned toward his wife, choosing to engage her frustration head on. In his own way he was saying, “This device isn’t more important than us.” He wasn’t rebuking. He was attempting to help her choose their relationship over the perceived urgency created by her phone.

When couples learn to put technology aside in order to turn toward one another, they can reclaim the kind of marriage where empathetic communication and engaged intimacy come first.

Zach Brittle is a couples therapist in Seattle, WA where he lives with his wife and two daughters. He is a Certified Gottman Therapist and author of the book, The Relationship Alphabet, available at Amazon. You can reach him on Twitter @kzbrittle.

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