Two people sit together in a restaurant. They appear to be a couple sharing a meal, because they order food, it’s served and they eat. But they’re not speaking to each other. Are they together?
“They spent most of their time each on their phones, so much so that I thought I’d missed something, that maybe they’d gotten into a fight when I wasn’t paying attention. They looked so completely disconnected,” Katherine Hertlein says. “And at the end of the meal they got up, held hands and walked out.”
To Hertlein, a UNLV professor and director of the college’s Marriage and Family Therapy Program who has been practicing for nearly 20 years—and to most of us—this is unusual behavior. But also, it’s not. The iPhone has only been around for 10 years, and yet there’s clearly a ubiquitous tendency to ignore everything and everyone, especially spouses and partners, in favor of constant media consumption.
And it’s a problem. “Even if it’s not the thing a couple cites as the problem, talking with them invariably reveals it,” she says.
And the problem isn’t just what couples are looking at while together, but saying to one another when they’re not. “We just communicate differently now,” Hertlein adds. “Couples like using technology to communicate because they can do it quickly and more conveniently, but research tells us those communications have less content and are more task-oriented, very different from the conversations we used to wait to have when we get home and talk about our day.”
When it comes to texting your significant other, more is actually less. Constant contact makes us think we’re better communicators than we are, but there’s little meaning in a steady stream of emoticons. “When you’re trying to solve a problem, asynchronous communication—when you don’t expect an immediate response—can work well,” Hertlein says. “But when couples need to solve a problem, a sense of presence is really important. How many times have you texted and tried to get your partner engaged right away and then you get pissed off when they’re not answering? We have to remind ourselves what the goal is.”
We also share more information about ourselves on social media, mundane stuff that happens throughout the day, but it’s more info that we used to first share with our partners, before we could blast random photos and anecdotes out into the universe. It’s all about specialness. You want to feel like the most important person in the world to your partner, and you want them to feel that way, too, but that little screen is getting in the way. It’s sucking all that specialness right through your face.
It’s easy to vilify technology, Hertlein says. “If I could say, ‘Turn off your computer when you’re with your partner,’ that’d be great, but the computer is everywhere you go. We need to figure out ways to use technology as an advantage in our relationships instead of assuming it’s a disadvantage.”