Author: Katherine M. Hertlein, Ph.D
Let’s face it: even before the pandemic, we were all living in digital spaces. Between email, text messaging, social networking, and video calls, and options for communicating via technology affect our day-to-day lives. Its accessibility and affordability facilitate work, provide access to resources, enable us to gain information on a wide variety of topics, create entertainment opportunities, and connect us with others from across the globe. In relationships, it enables us to problem solve in creative ways and connect with those important to us frequently.
These same characteristics of accessibility and affordability introduce problems into our lives, specifically within our emotional and relational health. Smartphones can lead to distraction in daily task completion, interfere with conversations, and allow people both known to us and unknown to us to cross our personal boundaries. Communication over mobile technology can be ambiguous and lead to misunderstandings in communication.
The pervasive nature of technology demands that, rather than eliminating it from our lives, we use it to both maintain and engineer ways to enhance growth in our relationships. So how do we use the core concepts and knowledge thus far about technology to move toward better health? Below are five strategies to apply to better adapt your relationship in healthy ways to our digital environment.
Embrace the freedom that comes with new roles in digital spaces.
The Internet creates opportunities to branch out and get to know more about who we are, what roles we wish to hold in our relationships, and opportunities to establish new roles. In fact, it is within these new roles that we identify what we want in relationships. Texting, social media, and Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games allow people to accommodate roles they would not be able to perform in real life. In addition, research into online identities has found that often we then integrate these online identities into our offline lives. It is a great space to try out different elements of our identity to be able to shape who we are in our lives.
Negotiate rules in your relationships that apply to technology usage and clarify how the rules will be enforced.
One of the more common issues for people in relationships is the lack of clarity around relationship rules and phones. In fact, much of the research on couples and rules in phone usage indicates couples think that there should be rules about social media and Smartphones in relationships for other couples but do not want rules applied in their own relationships. For parents and their youth, the enforcement of the rules is often more problematic than the rules themselves. The constant wave of new apps and other technology advancements presents a myriad of opportunities for families to have conversations about rules, rewards, expectations, and develop creative enforcement strategies.
Use technology to develop clear boundaries between your personal and professional spaces, or even within your personal relationships.
Technology invites people both known and unknown to you into your relationships. For example, while those in a couple relationship may have clarity around what kind of behavior is appropriate with others outside of their relationship, the definition of boundaries around social media posting, texting, and other online communication behavior is often less clear. Once the boundaries of who can access you and when are established, many apps can be employed to support established boundaries. In addition, smartphones can be used to easily communicate those boundaries in appropriate ways to others.
Accept new people you would not have met before.
The benefit of online communication is that we can expose ourselves to a wide variety of people we would not normally meet. The greater the pool of people, the more opportunities are present create supportive networks. The development of this pool will further enable us to make choices about those we invite closer to us.
Engage in more self-disclosure with those close to you online than acquaintances.
A primary reason technology facilitates relationships with others is that the level of self-disclosure between those exchanges is often higher within online than in offline mediums. In other words, we do more self-disclosure of our emotions in mediums where the other receiver cannot see our expressions, thus fostering greater degrees of commitment and closeness. As a result, relationships may be challenged when the primary communication with one’s romantic partner is primarily offline and communication with others outside the relationship online. Develop creative ways to share your emotions and feelings with your partner, peers, and family members via texting throughout the day to increase feelings of commitment and satisfaction.
Technology is here to stay and will continue to evolve and change. Keeping these basic strategies in mind will be sure to help your relationships grow, no matter what the next generation of technology brings.
Katherine M. Hertlein, Ph.D., is a licensed marriage and family therapist and clinical supervisor. She is a Professor in the Couple and Family Therapy Program in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health in the School of Medicine at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. An alumnus of the Fulbright Core Scholar program, she writes and lectures nationally and internationally on technology and relationships.