Smartphones, the internet and email have changed a great deal about the way in which we communicate and relate to each other. We’re much more accessible and connected to the rest of the world, even when we’re sitting in our lounges. As a result, technology can encroach on what has traditionally been family and relationship time. Here’s how to leverage the benefits of your smartphone and other devices in your relationship and avoid some of the pitfalls.
Words Dr Alice Boyes
Protect the Magic Five Hours
There’s a concept in couples’ therapy called the Magic Five Hours. The idea is that if you prioritise certain routines that add up to five hours per week, your relationship is more likely to thrive. The concept refers to “partings” (e.g. leaving for work), “reunions” (e.g. coming home from work), a 20-minute conversation each day for checking in with each other and debriefing about the day, and having a couple of hours of dedicated time together in one block, once a week. During these times, it’s critical to give your partner your undivided attention. If this seems unachievable, it doesn’t need to be. Mindful partings and reunions can be very quick and you don’t need to do a formal date night. There are plenty of other options for spending a block of time together: if your modus operandi is to be tethered to your laptop or phone you can incorporate this in positive ways, whether it’s looking at family photos together on your computer, browsing the internet for photos and blog articles about potential holiday destinations, singing along to YouTube together, or laughing at SNL clips.
Still mentally connected
Research has shown that couples who are still extremely happy after 10 years of marriage think about each other a great deal when they’re not physically together. This is where technology can benefit your relationship. When you can email, text and send photos, it’s very easy to communicate that your romantic partner is on your mind during the day. For example, if your other half has a big meeting at work, message him or her afterwards to say you hope it went well, or before, to say good luck. If your partner had a headache when they left for work, message them and say you hope they’re feeling better. This type of connecting doesn’t need to be something you do every day. You only need to do it enough to show that you’re thinking about what emotions your partner is experiencing and that they’re not ‘out of sight, out of mind’.
Remain considerate and courteous
It’s all too easy to fall into a pattern of treating the person you love the most worse than you’d treat a stranger. For example, not looking up from your phone or not responding when they speak to you. Even when you’re super-comfortable with each other and can more or less take one another for granted, try to keep up basic courtesies. Another example would be not making the other person wait for you to finish an email, especially when you’re on holiday together. Value one another’s time and attention.
Use technology to express positive feelings
A fantastic barometer of both relationship and personal emotional health is your ratio of positive to negative communications.
If you’re not naturally the most enthusiastic and positive person then you can use technology to help you communicate any positives that you find yourself feeling. For example, if your spouse made brownies and you took them for lunch, you might text after lunch and tell them how much you enjoyed them. If you complained about your day when you were leaving for work, email your spouse if your day ends up turning out better than expected.
Know whether you’re an abstainer or a moderator
Happiness writer, Gretchen Rubin, talks about the concept of abstainers vs moderators. Abstainers find it easiest to stop doing something completely e.g. they can abstain from checking their emails while on holiday. Moderators find it easier to limit behaviours rather than cut them out completely. If you’d like to limit your technology use, identify whether you’re an abstainer or moderator and work with that natural tendency.
Alice Boyes, PhD, is author of The Healthy Mind Toolkit and The Anxiety Toolkit.