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Technically Absent

One of the biggest modern challenges for couples and their attempts at maintaining intimacy, or at least regular contact, is technology – more specifically, our plugged-in world.

As discussed in the August issue of Psychology Today, the ascendency of what we call smartphones has created “a lower level of conversation in (their) presence” as well as “diminished empathy” due to their habitual use. It’s worth reflecting on this evolving reality: “they make other relationships and interests more salient than those directly in front of us”.

Have you ever had an experience at the counter of a retail store (or a similar service situation) wherein the person you’re dealing with takes a phone call in lieu of completing your transaction? Isn’t the immediate response one of ire that the disembodied voice takes precedence over the person there in person, not to mention that you were there first?

Such intrusive traits have mushroomed into becoming a staple of techno communication culture; moreover, sadly, they are extending to personal relationships.

More than ten years ago the term “absent presence” was coined to describe those of us physically present but absorbed in ‘a world of elsewhere’. This condition has been exacerbated by invasion of the mobile phone, making it even easier to remove our focus from where we are.

When it comes to relationships, the impact is in direct connection with how close couples are, or perhaps recently were. “The closer partners start out, the more irked they become by the presence of devices…” Expected attentiveness takes a back seat.

Nowadays, smartphones “by their very embeddedness in our lives, bring the expectation of constant availability to everyone in our social network”. Thus, when together with a partner, a clash of expectations, if not conflict, is ready made.

Even unstructured settings, such as a car, offer opportunities for interchange to build closeness and connection. When one partner disrupts the interlude to check email or surf the web, the other may well resent the infringement. Delayed or mechanical responses and lack of eye contact disrupt “the rhythms of responsiveness and synchronicity of feelings that flow between partners”. The impact of such indifference contributes to “a downward spiral of interaction”.

Suggested ‘rules of engagement’ for coping with tech intrusion include:

  • Expectations about tech use by each partner, and what kind of contact is deemed ‘cheating’
  • Ascertaining what is appropriate to expose about the relationship and one’s partner
  • Whether or not to exchange passwords
  • Whether or not to identify recipients of texting, and what rules apply to photos
  • When anonymity on-line is O.K.
  • What ‘rules’ apply in-home, or in-car, to the use of electronic devices

While email allows for easier problem solving, resolving core issues is best left to ‘old-fashioned face-to-face talking’.

After all, technology is supposed to be a servant to make our lives better, not the other way around.


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