Digital affair: How smartphones are undermining our relationships

Do you and your partner spend more time gazing at your smartphones than into each others’ eyes? Deirdre Reynolds says we need to unplug in order to reconnect.

WHEN Irish artist Rasher was seeking inspiration for his new exhibition, he didn’t have to look too far.

Entitled ‘Perceptual Space’, the show reflects on the fetishisation of technology, and perhaps the most arresting piece, ‘Facetime’, depicts a professional couple seemingly more in love with their smartphones than each other.

Real-life models, he reveals, were not in short supply. 

“I’ve noticed people in restaurants and they would be engaged more in their phone than each other,” he says.

“They’re having dinner together but they’re preoccupied watching other people doing other things somewhere else around the world.

“It kind of just triggered off the idea that the organic relationship between couples is being [eroded].”

Statistics show that life does indeed imitate art.

Ten years ago, in 2007, internet use — including smartphones — was cited by just four percent of the couples who turned to Catholic marriage care service Accord for help.

By 2015, that figure had more than quadrupled to 17%, while the most up-to-date data for the first six months of 2016 show it has jumped again to 19%, with constant social networking and secretive texting among the biggest complaints.

In his painting, Perpetual Space, artist Rasher depicts a couple having dinner together but preoccupied by their smartphones.
In his painting, Perpetual Space, artist Rasher depicts a couple having dinner together but preoccupied by their smartphones.

“Many uses of phones and internet can be positive, informative and fun and, used appropriately, pose no difficulties to the relationship,” says Mary Johnston, Accord specialist in marriage and relationship counselling.

“Couples can keep in regular contact and check in with one another during the day or when they have to be away from each other for a length of time.

“However, when they are not used in this manner, they can cause hurt, suspicion, mistrust and lead to significant problems between couples.

“When an individual is very secretive with their phone it can result in their partner becoming worried that something is going on that is being kept from them,” she says, “and this can affect trust.

“The issue of constant, even incessant, use of the phone can also be a problem when an individual is frequently checking messages and using the phone for internet access and use of social networking sites.

“A partner in such a situation can feel very much ignored, unimportant and disrespected and this can lead to distance or conflict in a relationship.”

Stateside, the phenomenon has even been given a nickname, ‘phubbing’, or partner phone snubbing, with one study by Baylor University in Texas finding that more than 46% of those in relationships had been ‘phubbed’ by a partner.

It’s an experience that rings a bell with make-up artist Sinead (33) from Dublin, who broke up with her partner of five years earlier this year.

Digital affair: How smartphones are undermining our relationships

“My ex-boyfriend was big into his gadgets, while I use social media a lot for work,” she divulged.

“For the most part, I would say [technology] brought us closer together as we always stayed in touch by text or Whatsapp during the day.

“After a while though, scrolling through Facebook just made it easier for us to ignore each other, and the problems in the relationship. By the time we were going to bed with our backs to each other on our phones, I think we both knew it was over.”

As chief matchmaker at A Table for Six, which sees six singletons meet up for dinner, it’s a balancing act Mairéad Loughman knows all about. 

“Increasingly, our clients are saying that they do not want to meet someone who texts them constantly, all day long in between dates,” she says.

“They would rather talk to them once or twice throughout the day rather than over and back through hundreds of texts.

“On a group date like A Table for Six people can be a little nervous so they use their phone as a social crutch. We advise all of our daters not just to turn off the sound, but to turn off their phone completely and put it out of sight.

“You will get more out of the date and the evening if you are listening to what is going on around you and participating in the evening.”

For the six in 10 Irish who reportedly suffer from ‘nomophobia’, the crippling fear of being without one’s mobile phone, that may be easier said than done.

Although it’s not yet classified as an addiction by US psychiatry bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), an addiction expert here tells Feelgood it’s only a matter of time as the round-the-clock internet access offered by smartphones continues to fuel other compulsions such as gambling and pornography.

Digital affair: How smartphones are undermining our relationships

“Smartphone ‘misuse’ is the word I use at the moment because it hasn’t been classified as an addiction,” says Sean Harty, chairperson of Addiction Counsellors of Ireland, which has more than 600 qualified addiction counsellors throughout the country.

“But I have absolutely no doubt that it is an addiction and that it will become an addiction in the DSM-5.

“I would be in contact with members throughout the year and there is an increasing amount of people presenting for treatment for their misuse or their over-reliance [on] social media.

“The smartphone is just a device — it’s the content of the smartphone that’s the problem. I know many people who are tapping in and tapping out every few seconds.

“There can be withdrawals — not obvious withdrawals like you’d have from alcohol or drugs where someone would be shaking — but anxiety, fear, isolation and loneliness because they have become so reliant on the device as their means to communicate rather than communicate face-to-face.

“With any addiction — let it be alcohol, drugs, gambling — there’s always a fine line,” he continues. 

“If it’s causing negative consequences to your life — to your relationship with your better half or your relationship with family and friends — it stands out [as an issue].

“Any individual will know themselves that they are over-reliant on social media — that they need to pull back.”

Even when it’s not buzzing or beeping, a 2014 study on ‘The iPhone Effect’ led by Shalini Misra, an assistant professor at Virginia Tech, revealed how the mere presence of a smartphone can ruin a real-life deep and meaningful relationship by lowering empathy levels.

Whether it’s a partner or just a pal, unplugging could be the key to reconnecting, says Accord’s Mary Johnston.

“Frequent honest and healthy communication is essential to keep a marriage and relationship thriving,” she says.

“Couples need to make time to give attention to one another, talk to one another, enjoy each other’s company and the company of their children if they are parents.

“Without good communication, a relationship is unlikely to thrive. With good communication, a relationship is likely to thrive and be [in] a place where difficulties can be worked through without damaging the relationship.”

Digital affair: How smartphones are undermining our relationships

In an age of non-stop swiping, it’s advice that hundreds of Irish couples have apparently already started to heed.

Based in Donegal town, Harvey’s Point is just one of the hotels here now offering a ‘digital detox’ package, with the gadget-free getaway proving popular with technostressed partners.

“We started our Digital Detox breaks last January in response to guest feedback,” says hotelier Deirdre McGlone. 

“Guests regularly mentioned how relaxing a visit to our hotel was, so we thought the experience would be greatly enhanced if there were no digital distractions.

“When guests arrive, they have the option of handing in their mobile phone, but it’s entirely up to them. Currently, we have two [digital detoxes] a year, although due to demand, we hope to increase this to four.

“Ironically, many of our guests heard about the breaks on social media. But we have noticed that it’s not only the young professionals or millennials who book, it’s recently retired couples as well.”

After researchers at California State University found that getting a ‘like’ on Facebook triggers the same chemical in the brain as cocaine, however, could it be time for some couples — doped up on this “digital dopamine” — to go cold turkey altogether?

Although he doesn’t quite go that far, addiction specialist Sean Harty asserts that smartphones call for “smart use”, urging a return to old-fashioned “meet and greet”-type interpersonal skills.

“We would call it the harm reduction method,” he explains. “It’s where you literally pass control over to the client to set their own boundaries.

“I would ask them what amount of time they would feel safe with using social media per day. If they’re at six hours, I don’t expect them to go to one hour — you have to be realistic.

“You try to get them to use their smartphone safely — [to] limit the time and limit the use. In extreme circumstances, some clients have asked to return to the old-fashioned phone where you text only.”

He also suggests sticking to a social media timetable and banning your smartphone from the bedroom.

Digital affair: How smartphones are undermining our relationships

Back at his Wicklow studio, ‘Facetime’ painter Rasher has his own simple solution to the problem of ‘technoference’.

“If they’re going out to dinner, people need to initiate whoever picks up their phone first is paying for the meal,” suggested the dad-of-three, whose real name is Mark Kavanagh. 

“If there’s a couple going out, leave one of the phones at home. You only need one phone to ring a taxi

“With the paintings, when people see them, it’s kind of making them look at their own lives and go, ‘I didn’t really realise I’m doing that’.

“Look, I’m on no higher moral threshold here because I’ve done it and I’ve seen my wife doing it,” adds the artist, who’s been married to wife Gillian for 10 years. 

“We’re not enjoying the moment — we’re preoccupied with sharing the moment with everyone else.”

TUNE IN

Start by having an honest conversation about how your smartphone usage is affecting the relationship.

Make a social media schedule and stick to it so you spend less time scrolling and more time snuggling.

Switch off your phones at night, or better still, make your bedroom a technology-free zone entirely.

Keep your phone in your handbag — not on the table — when you’re out on date night.

Spend time together doing things like hiking that make it harder to mindlessly reach for your phone.

Consider returning to an old-fashioned flip phone to help avoid ‘technoference’ altogether.


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