Modern men and women use cell phones for practically everything today, and romantic relationships are no exception. For many of us, our phones have become the primary method of meeting and communicating with significant others, and the apps we use for romantic communication live right alongside the ones we use for news updates, work emails, and social media accounts. Since our lives have become so connected to our phones, many researchers are starting to wonder how this technology affects our romantic relationships. Today, we’ll take a look at a wide spectrum of scientific opinions on the topic. There’s still a lot of uncharted territory for social scientists to cover, and the list of questions we need to ask grows longer with every new technological advancement, but experts in psychology and communication do have some observations that can help each of us make healthier, more informed choices about our phones and our relationships.
One of the most obvious relationship benefits that cell phones have created is the ability to find partners through dating websites and apps. Thanks to cell phone technology, it’s easier than ever to discover people who share your interests, hobbies, religious beliefs, and more, and joining communities of relationship-seeking singles has never been simpler or more streamlined. In addition to ease of access, Sarah-Rose Marcus, a PhD candidate in Communication at Rutgers University, believes that use of dating apps may actually be improving people’s self-presentation and communication skills as well. In her research, she found big differences based on user age, and her findings suggest ways that Baby Boomers may be able to learn from Millennials when it comes to using technology as a tool in romantic relationships:
In my 2016 interviews of 31 mobile dating app users I found that those who were 18-26 preferred the “casualness” of the apps, which allowed them to chat about more natural topics (such chatting about a puppy in a picture, as opposed to whether the person believes in marriage). My findings suggest that people in the Millennial age group are using dating apps as a form of romantic exploration—a mindset which allows them to present themselves in a carefree manner. Older respondents who were ages 33-45 were more specific about the qualities they were looking for in a prospective partner, which could lead them to alienate other dating app users if they were too rigid in their profiles about what they were looking for.
In other words, the new dating paradigm created by cell phones and dating apps requires us to take ourselves less seriously. People don’t expect to meet their One True Love right away through an online dating site, and they expect a period of trial and error during which they meet new people and learn about themselves. Though many older adults may struggle with the more casual rules of tech-driven connections, this more free-form approach to relationships could take some of the pressure out of dating, allowing people to authentically talk and connect without as many looming expectations of long-term commitment.
Additionally, in spite of the challenges involved in integrating technology into new and ongoing relationships, most users seem happy to have it as an option. In 2013, two of the biggest religious dating sites in the market, JDate and Christian Mingle, commissioned a study that investigated the ways that cell phones have changed (and continue to change) the standards and strategies for modern dating. Based on interviews of 1,500 smartphone users, the researchers discovered that “55 percent of singles feel their mobile devices make it easier to meet and get to know people they may be interested in dating” and that “64 percent of singles feel the quality of relationships with those they are dating or interested in dating has improved due to their mobile devices.”
Unfortunately, not all the news is good. As we all know, cell phones can become something of an addiction, and your screen cravings can cause serious relationship tension and disruption. Julie Spira is an award-winning dating coach, author, and relationship expert whose entire career focuses on helping singles and couples navigate the relationship challenges of the digital age. For Spira, people using cell phones at inappropriate times is one of her biggest professional pet peeves. When you’re with your partner, she explains, “keeping your phone on the table creates a love triangle. It sends the message that your partner is more interested in something other than you and can remove the spark in what could be a romantic moment.”
Additionally, Sarah-Rose Marcus’ research shows that cell phones are probably connected to the a huge upswing in “ghosting” to end a relationship (cutting off contact with a person without any warning or explanation) instead of explaining, as in a traditional breakup, why you no longer want to have contact with the person you’ve been talking with or dating. Both of these trends demonstrate a preference for digital interaction over human interaction, which can lead to serious relationship consequences. Whether people become too enamored of the endless, shiny profiles and content they can find online or whether they grow too comfortable with the impersonal shield of an online profile, cell phones are full of dangerously enticing distractions that can take us away from real relationships that require attention, investment, and intimacy in order to thrive.
Not Better or Worse, Just Different
Many effects of cell phones on relationships remain unclear, and more research is necessary before we can reach solid conclusions about how technology shapes our romantic lives. Scott Dehorty, LCSW-C, a licensed clinical social worker, marriage counselor, and Executive Director at Maryland House Detox, points out that the vast majority of phone-related changes are not inherently good or bad, but depend instead on how individual people use them. He writes, “A study in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture found that use of phones wasn’t necessarily the problem … how much dependency someone had with the phone was the problem. They found the more someone feels like their partner was dependent or needed their phone, the less relationship satisfaction they experienced.” That isn’t the only gray area, either. Sarah-Rose Marcus’ research has revealed that many Millennials today are meeting and breaking up via technology, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In the same way, people are spending much more time in front of screens than they once did, but they’re also using those screens to meet new people, get involved in new communities, and expand their horizons in a way that was impossible before cell phones came around. Like so many other elements of our busy modern lives—from our dietary choices to physical fitness to our work schedules—the problems lie not in the things themselves but in the way that we prioritize, manage, and interact with them.
Until science catches up with our rapidly changing social realities, the best and healthiest way to proceed is with our eyes wide open to the way cell phones fit into our lives and especially our romantic relationships. By exercising awareness of our own habits and setting limits on technology that are reasonable and authentic, we can learn to make better, more mindful choices about how technology fits into our daily lives and our love lives.