SAN JOSE, Calif. — When you gaze into your partner’s eyes on Valentine’s Day, will they be lit by the warm glow of a candle or the artificial light of a smartphone screen?
While technology has made meeting potential partners and communicating with loved ones easier, mobile gadgets and social networks can distract and cause rifts, especially for high-tech workers who feel the need to be constantly connected to their jobs to ensure everyone else doesn’t lose their favorite service.
“Technology can certainly lead to a lot of distractions, especially in Silicon Valley,” said Amy Andersen, founder and CEO of Linx Dating, a matchmaking service with many clients in the high-tech sector.
The key to avoiding such problems, experts say, is open communication between couples, with special focus on areas that could cause tension. To foster that communication, we developed four rules that couples can follow or at least discuss to keep gadgets and online profiles from interfering with a special relationship.
“The real key is being able to have the conversation and, even if you feel differently about how you use technology, working it through just like you would work through any other conflict,” said Santa Clara couples and marriage therapist Sheila Kreifels, who counsels clients to establish boundaries for technology.
Consider these rules for beginning to establish those boundaries, even though Kreifels acknowledges, “It’s a tough conversation for many couples.”
ASK BEFORE YOU TAG
Social media has become one of the biggest danger zones for prospective paramours, with many couples’ first major discussion about a committed relationship centered on changing their Facebook relationship status.
“In the last few years, different media platforms on the Internet built up different cultures,” noted Robert Weiss, a licensed clinical social worker who has written books on technology’s effect on relationships including the freshly released “Always Turned On: Sex Addiction in the Digital Age.” “Something that I would absolutely post in an IM just to my partner I absolutely would not put up on their timeline.”
Potential issues with social media are rife through the life of a relationship, including differing opinions on posting pictures of children or each other, as anyone who has posted an unflattering picture of a partner can tell you. The rule to avoid these issues is to ALWAYS seek permission before involving a loved one in your social media post.
“Consider photos and information people’s intellectual property, if you will,” Kreifels says. “Just like we need permission to use intellectual property, get permission.”
ESTABLISH TIME WITHOUT TECHNOLOGY
Even if you and your partner are not experiencing issues with technology in your relationship, establishing regular times to put the gadgets away can be beneficial, especially on early dates.
“I tell people, before a date, leave your phone in the car,” said Andersen, the matchmaker. “You can focus on that one person for an hour and then check your phone — not a big deal.”
These tech-free times can be daily — no phones at the dinner table or no tablets in bed, for example — or less frequent, with Andersen noting that many of her friends promise to leave their phones at home on weekly or monthly “date nights” with their spouses.
The most important component of this rule is undivided attention. Kreifels advises her clients to make sure they build in 30 minutes of face-to-face dialogue daily, even if that time is broken up into smaller chunks.
“Truly, nothing really replaces that kind of emotional presence for a relationship, for intimacy to take hold and develop,” she said.
END THE THREAD BEFORE IT BECOMES A FIGHT
The biggest change technology has wrought on relationships is the advancement of text-based communications systems. While an occasional love letter and quick notes were typically the only written communication between couples for generations, now we use instant messaging, text messaging and emails daily.
With text-based communications, however, context is largely absent, which can lead to innocuous comments inflaming a situation and messages that never fade.
“Haven’t we all said things that we really regretted?” Weiss asked. “Well, it’s one thing to say something and then five hours later take it back or apologize, but if its in black and white, it’s a lot harder — that person can read it and read it and read it.”
To avoid these issues, always pick up the phone or get together in person when a conversation takes a bad turn.
“If you’re upset with somebody, put it in a phone call,” Weiss suggests.
Angry messages may not even be enough to signal time for a real conversation, as many people can mask anger or hurt feelings with curt messages.
“In person, you can see all those important cues and come to conclusions a lot quicker than in three hours battling it out over email,” Andersen noted.
DON’T SHARE PASSWORDS
In a long relationship, it can happen so easily — one person needs another’s smartphone passcode to grab a number, or email password to look something up. But having that information can open a Pandora’s box.
“It’s great as long as you trust your partner, but as soon as they’ve shown you that they’re cruising hookers on Tinder — once you have that information, all bets are off,” Weiss said.
Most communications that could cause strife are not as clear-cut as Weiss’ example, however. Even the most bland text or email conversations can be taken the wrong way from the view of a third party, the experts pointed out, and online habits one person may find completely normal could be offensive to others.
While communication can help establish parameters that both members can agree upon, it’s probably better to just avoid the temptation to snoop that sharing of passwords can create. People should be understanding if partners — at any stage in the relationship — are reluctant to pass along passwords, the experts said, and all said they share few, if any, passwords with their own spouses.
“I would never give my personal information about my cellphone to my wife, husband, girlfriend or boyfriend — that’s my business,” Weiss said. “If they trust me, they trust me.”