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HomeAngerConnected Yet Alone – How Social Media Corrode Relationship

Connected Yet Alone – How Social Media Corrode Relationship

One of my favorite quotes (from Pete Pearson) is that good communication is an unnatural act.  And unfortunately, as I have to remind my couples all the time, technology is conspiring with our instincts for connection, but at the cost of disconnection from the person in front of us.  Texting, email and other social media (you know who I’m talking about!) have flattened the geography of communication – or even worse, tilted it in favor of the distal over the proximate.  And all the little rushes we get from these communications and social-media-bites are adding up to major addiction (see the video below for why).  I recently stumbled across this brilliant op/ed in the New York Times which nails many of these hazards in some really lovely, pithy sound bites (which is good since our collective attention span is dwindling!):  How Not To Be Alone.

I sent that article out to my couples therapy cohort, and a colleague sent back this terrific, equally deep, but differently faceted TED talk by Sherry Turkle:

Both of these pieces deserve some serious contemplation and integration. For couples I think there are two huge takeaways. One, really work on your awareness of how you divide your attention between machines and the person or people you are with.  I routinely see people get incensed with their partners for getting caught up in their phones, computers, etc.  Once I witnessed a woman carrying her baby, running across a grassy park towards her partner, and screaming at the top of her lungs in distress.  She was protesting his absorption away from her and the baby, while he talked—head bent from the world—into his cellphone. Two, don’t try to communicate about emotionally laden issues electronically. It’s hard enough on the phone, where you still have voice intonation but lose the rest of face-to-face nuance. But in text, the opportunities for misunderstanding multiply exponentially (not to mention other effects, such as the disinhibition of hostility).

Now, I know there’s at least another side to the woman-complaining-about-the-man-on-the-cellphone story.  (And of course the gender roles are not always in that order, but very, very often!).  How many times have I heard one partner complain about the other being on the phone “all the time” only to have the other partner come back about how essential it is they be available “all the time” for their crucial work duties.  And certainly there is an unfortunate work culture that has become especially pronounced in the tech/startup/finance world, which can be completely consuming and also dismissive of family concerns and interests.

Nicholas Carr is another really incisive observer of this social-tech landscape, whose seminal 2008 Is Google Making Us Stupid Atlantic article should also be required reading.  Among other things he points to the prioritizing of efficiency over relationship that grew out of the industrial revolution and has been pushed to the extreme with the computerization of society and communication.  I’m going to say that efficiency is a male-energy attribute (by which I mean it can be embodied by either men or women but it’s a value that tends to be emblematic of the masculine).  The problem is that “efficiency” and “work” become easy justifications for this kind of disconnection that can be so damaging (in addition to more general withdrawal through work).  I’m not saying we don’t all have work obligations that need to be honored.  And sometimes those can be intense and demanding.  However, what I am saying is if you want to feed your relationship, become super-conscious of how machines (smartphones, tablets, computers – they’re all computers) get in the way.

At a minimum, it pays to be apologetic and reparative of machine interruptions.  Conversely, your partner should have the feeling that most of the time—and especially when it’s important—he or she is the far stronger attention-magnet in relation to the machines.  In the middle ground, try to segregate machine interactions into relatively discrete time segments so that they don’t become chronic and ubiquitous competition with the humans in front of you. And at the even more relationship-centric end of things consider building in extended black-out or screen-free periods (evenings, weekends, vacations).

In a similar vein, the scariest part to me is how quickly and effortlessly these machine-modes of communication become unquestioningly threaded into the fabric of society, and especially how they are being woven into the being of our little ones. Not only do children these days all too often see their parents modeling the primacy of distant communications over the immediate, but they directly suffer such neglects at the hands of their parents.  Moreover, they are learning to fill every void with machine presence instead of human presence (either their own self-company or another’s). Witness any number of kids out with their parents at a restaurant, absorbed in smartphones and tablets rather than each other and the real world.  To paraphrase Jonathan Foer, the emotional work of relationships is hard and takes ongoing practice to master. Many of our parents were not so great at that emotional work, but each of us has the constant opportunity to improve ourselves, and better yet, our children (which of course requires improving ourselves in the process). Make no mistake: avoiding or bypassing that emotional work via interactions with machines will take its toll on the human fabric of families and society.

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