Editor's Note: Strong relationships are at the core of a happy life, but sometimes, dealing with the people in our lives is tricky. That's why Thrive Global partnered with The Gottman Institute on this advice column, Asking for a Friend. Every week, Gottman's relationship experts will answer your most pressing questions about navigating relationships—with romantic partners, family members, coworkers, friends, and more. Have a question? Send it to [email protected]!
Q:How can I build and foster connection with my partner when technology impedes our ability to connect meaningfully? Despite knowing that I need to find and schedule time to disconnect from my devices, I still find it very difficult. —J.M.
A: What’s coming through loud and clear is the longing you have to connect with your partner. And even though you have this longing and you know it’s important to disconnect from your electronics, it’s difficult to do so. What’s going on here?
Let me first say that this is becoming an epidemic for many modern relationships. In her book, Alone Together, Sherry Turkle, the founder and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, talks about the different effects technology has on our brain and our relationships. One of those effects is the seductive quality of all of our devices. Technology can definitely act as an “affair” partner, as it does the following:
Despite knowing that we are indeed bonding to these things, we can’t seem to change the pattern. That’s because our brains have actually become addicted to these devices. And as with any addiction, knowing and even desiring to change this pattern isn’t enough.
When it comes to confronting our cravings, and even when we’ve finally decided enough is enough, our efforts fail. Why? Because we don’t have a good plan. In order for us to make lasting changes, we need desire, commitment, and a plan. If you know anything about the stages of change, then you might remember that many good intentions fail because there wasn’t a well thought out plan in place to challenge weakness and temptation.
So here are a few things to think about that might help you begin to create a plan to nurture connection and decrease the amount of time spent with technology. Try to implement these tips for 30 days (or more!) as you work to create a new habit and strengthen the bonds between you and your partner.
#1) Don't be afraid to use your technology.
This first tip may be counterintuitive because I’m actually suggesting you use technology. It allows you to use your smartphone, but I encourage you to put it on Airplane Mode while you’re engaging in the following or it will defeat the purpose.
Download The Gottman Institute’s free app, Gottman Card Decks, from the App Store. These card decks encourage engagement because they guide you in meaningful conversations. They will also help you to create activities that bind you together and also give you suggestions for talking points. Take them on a date night, at least once a week, and take turns choosing a deck that you both agree on. And then have fun and enjoy each other.
#2) Purchase a lock-box specifically made for your phone or your devices.
You can get one that costs anywhere from $12 to $40. Put your devices in there (some boxes use a key and others are locked via a timer). Then have what we call a stress-reducing conversation. This involves allowing each partner to vent about their day while the other listens, without giving advice. Just listen and empathize. And then switch speaker/listener roles. Do this for only 10 minutes each because venting for longer can start creating a negative spiral. Ten minutes each allows us to vent and gives us some time to process too. This conversation, if done every day, has been proven to contribute to longevity in a relationship.
#3) Set up a "State of the Union" meeting.
Using that same technique of the lock-box, can you take one hour during the week and have what we call a State of Union meeting? Now, this is going to take longer than the conversation you are having every day about your stress, but it’s only going to occur once a week. Start by talking about your highs and lows of the week in your relationship. Celebrate your highs and then agree on one of the lows and really spend some time talking about this low. You’ll want to address your feelings, your subjective reality, your triggers, what might have contributed to this event (lack of sleep, a stressful week, feeling insecure), what you might want to apologize for, and what you’ll both do differently next time.
#4) Keep each other accountable.
Accountability is an important component in helping you achieve success with technology usage. Can you keep each other accountable to work on this plan for 30-60 days? (Although it may take longer to create permanency, one to two months is a good start and can create significant change.) Take turns initiating these interactions each week. You might also want to schedule a time for each interaction at the beginning of each week and sync your calendars. And, make sure you have alerts that will remind you a few hours ahead of time so you both can be in a receptive state.
Do these four exercises and in time, you’ll stop missing your devices and instead you’ll look forward to the rituals you’ve created with your partner. According to psychologist Barbara Fredrickson in her book, Positivity, another way to create desired change is for the brain to associate new behaviors with positive moments. That is what you will be doing if you utilize these tips. And, soon these times of connection will become so sacred, you won’t want to miss them.
These exercises, and more, are found in The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by Dr. John Gottman. In this book, there is also additional information on the impact that technology addiction can have on our relationships and when we may need to seek extra help.