Is technology destroying our relationships?


Sharon Ní Conchuir, a freelance journalist, contacted me with some interesting questions about the impact of technology on our relationships.  It was interesting for me to revisit this subject with a different interviewer and offer some more tips on how we can better manage our online lives.

Q: What exactly is the lure of the internet and the various ways of communicating online? What is it that proves so seductive to people?

The current lures are many, and I’d imagine will not be permanent as online relating becomes normalised. We are still somewhat like children with shiny new toys!

For now though:

1. It’s convenient and perceived as a quicker way to say what we want to say clearly and without all the social rules and time investment that a ‘real’ conversation entails.

 2. It’s easy to avoid responsibility when we communicate online. We can blurt out what we want to say and then hide, waiting for a response (or not). We can also engage with someone online and easily dismiss that relationship as “not real” if we haven’t met them face to face.

This is a real down side of course.

Like now, I can keep typing here. I’m not aware of you taking a breath to ask a question, if your gaze is averting to signal that you’re bored or pondering what I’ve just said. Your body might be shifting, telling me that you need a break, or want to change the subject. Or maybe you’re leaning forward now, showing that this part interests you particularly. Maybe you have a little smile of recognition urging me to go on, or maybe you’re shaking your head, wishing you hadn’t started this… The point being, I don’t know. 

3. It’s easy to whine and whinge about issues and wax lyrical through blogs and Facebook. It allows us to indulge a fantasy that what we are saying is being heard and valued. And for some, to be abusive and to bully. We can do that anonymously now if we choose, if we are that kind of person anyway. As you saw in my other piece, I don’t believe technology causes us to behave badly, it merely facilitates us to be as we already are.

4. It’s easy to celebrate, to educate, to learn, to spread and to access news and the opinions of others.

5. It’s easier to initiate and maintain online relationships for those of us who are naturally introverted and prefer conversing smaller groups of two to four people. And that’s a lot of people. The online community has opened up massive opportunities for introverts to be heard and to participate on society at all levels. This was nigh on impossible before now.

6. Perhaps the most seductive part of online communication is that we can easily hide those parts of ourselves that we deem unattractive or “not enough” and we can exaggerate (or invent) those parts of us that we consider worthy of the approval of others.  It’s easy to add a smilie face to convince someone that we feel a certain way which might not be congruent with how we actually feel. It’s harder to do this in real life.

 The acceptance of others is what most concerns most of us.

Q: In your experience, do you find that couples mostly tend to have separate emails and social media accounts?  Is this better or worse than those who share?

Yes, in my experience couples mostly have separate accounts. Us psychotherapists love to talk about boundaries and for good reason: In real life, couples have separate opinions, likes, dislikes, and while they might share friends, and some opinions or views, most people would like to have heart-to-hearts with their friend “Ger”, not Ger-and-Ger’s-spouse. My personal experience is that I’m aware that I say less to the (few) friends I have with joint accounts online because I never know which of them is receiving my messages. It is somewhat unnerving to not have this information, it feels unsafe somehow. Even if I like them both. Yet many couples do this, some genuinely not seeing how this might effect their social relationships.

It’s important that there is permission to be an individual with in the context of any relationship, and a trust that engagement with other people does not equal betrayal.

 Q: What about passwords?  Do you think it’s advisable that couples share their passwords with each other or keep them secret?

I’m uncomfortable with the word secret. I feel that it can be helpful to share passwords in case you become incapacitated for any reason and your spouse needs access to bank accounts, social media accounts etc.

I’m aware that some partners insist on passwords being shared to engender trust. But of course that very insistence is born of distrust. In situations like this, passwords are clearly not the issue.

Secrets in the strict sense are rarely a good idea. Secrets and privacy are different things.

Q: Why are real world relationships so important to mental health as opposed to those connections you make online?

I’m not sure that “opposed” is the appropriate term. I’m of the opinion that online relationships are best seen as an add-on to ‘real’ ones. For many people online relationships are very real, and often lead to real life ones, but not always. There are people I engage with online and I very much enjoy that contact. With some of them it is most unlikely that I will ever meet them. Without technology I would never had had the opportunity to connect with these people.

Indeed, this very conversation is an example of that.

Online relationships are a life-line for some. In my own practice more and more people connect with me online initially, because for some it is easier. And that online contact can be as meaningful for them as meeting me in person, at least initially.

Invariably, we as humans want more. We are all aware of the constraints of online relating, the things that are missing. What is missing as I mentioned earlier are all those non verbal cues, the nuances, physical contact, smells, the sounds a person makes that cannot be typed. In this way online relating is a precursor to the real things, or a substitute for the real thing when that is impractical or impossible. I think we need to  be careful of dismissing or demonising an online relationship as having no value when clearly for some, it is invaluable.

Q: Have you have seen technology having an impact on couples’ sex lives?  Do people use phones and laptops in bed, making their partner feel ignored and unloved?

Yes. Technology can have an effect on sex lives in two main ways:

First as you say, without an agreement in place one partner can feel unwanted or unloved. This of course will have a negative impact on sex and intimacy. Time given to technology is sometimes time taken from a partner. Naturally that is experienced as painful rejection. If this isn’t discussed a rupture can quickly appear. All aspects of the relationships will suffer if this happens.

Secondly some people in relationships, most men because if how it’s marketed, spend a lot of time watching porn. In my experience this can have subtle effects as well as profound effects on a couple’s sex life. The normalisation of porn is problematic for many reasons but for the purposes of your questions :

1 Women who’s partners watch porn can feel they are competing with the images and idealised and sexualised women that their partners are watching.

2 Women can feel they ought to be engaging in the kinds of acts that are portrayed in porn and might not want to.

3 Equally the men and are receiving faulty messages about what women enjoy from porn- and in some cases the faulty message that women are there solely to provide pleasure during sexual acts. Or that women receive pleasure from acts that are in fact coercive painful and or degrading.

This is unrealistic and damaging to both sexes and can ruin both genders enjoyment of sex. I have worked with men who find it difficult to ejaculate without porn because they have learned to associate pleasure and climax  with porn rather than real sex.

Clearly this is a problem for both genders.

I have worked with women who can’t enjoy sex because they are more focused on how they look rather than how they feel.

As an aside I posted a video on twitter a couple of months ago which referred to a new phenomenon – women imagining the imaginary camera’s point of view of them during sex – this is what I’m hearing in therapy too. Another big problem.

There’s a lot to say on this one, maybe it’s for a future article all on it’s own;)

My bottom line for couples: make the bedroom a technology free zone. Bedrooms are for sleep and pillow talk and love making. In any order. 

Q: What are the rules of engagement regarding the best way to manage use of the internet in the home?

1: Think of everything that you say online as written in permanent marker on a wall so big that the whole world can see it. It has always been true that one shouldn’t put things in writing unless we are certain they are true and will cause no harm. Now, more than ever, that is the case.

2: If you say something, or show something  to someone online, ask yourself would you say the same thing to their face? This is a good “responsibility” censoring quick technique to use when in doubt.

3: Be mindful of your privacy and the respect right of others to their privacy.

4: Be skeptical of everything you read. In the ‘olden’ days, we were trained not to believe all you read in a newspaper. We are bombarded by information on the web, much of it conflicting, and much of it driven by tabloid style drama gurus. One recent study likened the amount of information we process daily to the mental load of an air traffic controller. We must learn to filter out what is more likely true from what is designed simply to sell us something.

(and that’s LOT right??)

5: Familiarise yourself with how to check what your children are accessing and talk to them about it. We need to acknowledge the more sinister side of online communication from deceit all the way to abusive. Pornography exists, misinformation and poor advice is out there and our children are accessing it daily. Educate yourself, and then them.

Q: I’d be interested in hearing about any stats or research of which you may be aware in this area.

There is ongoing research into our new online lives and the various effects on us and on how we think about and relate to eachother. We see links between  aggression and online video games,  pornography and toddlers’ access to same, and there are several studies available on line showing worrying attitudes to rape among young people and uncertainty around consent and the objectification of women following the viewing of porn. I know from my own practice – I work a lot with teenagers –  that teens are now learning about sex from porn and they do not have the skills or knowledge to be able to differentiate between “porn” sex and “normal” sex. Their sense of sexual boundaries has changed considerably as a result of what they are being exposed to, and what they expect of themselves and eachother would shock some of your readers.

Sexualised selfies, sexting etc are not confined to consenting adults who know exactly what they are doing. Here’s a piece I read recently on the subject. Sex education in mainstream Irish schools is appallingly lacking and is not taking into consideration the current internet culture.

We are not teaching teenagers what they need to know in order to be safe. A lot of heads are firmly planted in the sand and yet people are quick to blame and wonder why sexual assault rates are so high.

Because the internet is a recent phenomenon, longitudinal studies are impossible to find – which of course translates into  “there is no longterm evidence that porn/violent games cause problems.” The people who are making a lot of cash from these two things have been able to say that, but I ahve no doubt that that will change as we have more time to do proper studies into the effects, good and bad, of technology.

If you look through @everydaysexism @nomorepage3 , #fem2 and #rapeculture in Twitter you’ll find plenty of reliably referenced studies that explore these issues. Check for direct access to academic papers in psychology and social psychology.

The piece was published in the Irish Examiner here. It’s similar subject matter to a previous piece I posted if you’re interested in the topic and how it might relate to you.

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