I recently had the chance to sit in on a day-long seminar at the fall meeting of the North Carolina Psychological Association. The topic should interest most anyone concerned with keeping families together in today's electronic information age: it was "Technology in Intimate Relationships."
Katherine Hertlein, associate professor and program director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, led the session. Hertlein, who is widely published in an under-researched field, provided an overview of issues facing couples when the pervasive availability of electronic communications is thrown into the mix.
Online activities can interfere with a couple's relationship in a variety of ways, including engagement in online infidelity (whether emotional or physical), involvement in social networking, or participation in online gaming. The amount of time devoted to such activities is not as important as whether it interferes with healthy communication and intimacy between the partners.
Engagement in some form of cybersex is a natural threat to intimacy, though what is considered troublesome can vary between partners. Cybersex can range from flirtacious or sexually charged texts, emails, or chats to masturbating while viewing online porn or engaging in virtual sex by means of a digital avatar.
But cybersex is not the only online behavior that can lead to jealousy or a breach of trust. Social networking through sites like Facebook can also be threatening, not only if it becomes time-consuming, but because it puts personal interactions with other people besides one's partner on display for a wide audience of "friends" and may leave the primary partner feeling like one among many.
Online gaming, especially role-playing games that involve teaming up with other people, can pull someone away from his or her family for extensive periods of time. Hertlein cited statistics indicating that in 2011, 72 percent of American homes had at least one person who played online or computer games. While it's widely assumed that adoloscents and young adults make up the bulk of gamers, Hertlein said, the average age of online gamers is 37.
With the rise in popularity of cell phones and the increasing use of computer-like smart phones, the potential for electronic-based communication to interfere with a couple's intimacy becomes even more ubiquitous.
Hertlein's presentation was as fascinating as it was far-reaching: she not only surveyed the field, but also dealt with common mistakes and specific therapeutic techniques for psychologists, much of which was beyond my level of understanding. Hertlein is a pioneer in the field of "Couple and Family Technology" studies, employing communication theories, social theories, and developmental theories to investigate both the challenges and potential benefits that technology introduces into relationships.
A few things stood out, though, that I could grab onto and pass along. One is the reminder that each member of a couple "is accountable for his/her own behavior related to using electronically-based communication to interact with others outside their relationship," as well as how one relate's electronically to one's own partner.
Hertlein noted ways in which both partners and parents could benefit from talking about technology rather than simply using it: mutually agreed upon rules and boundaries for cell phone or Internet use can be helpful in maintaining relationships.
And, while the inherent challenges that technology offers relationships appear obvious, there are also potential benefits. Electronic-based communication can provide easy access to one's partner, for example, especially when separated by distance. This can aid in the maintenance of relationships through frequent communication. And, in some cases, one or both partners may be able to share emotions, engage in greater self-disclosure, and develop deeper levels of intimacy electronically than in person.
At the end of the day, I was reminded that communication remains the key to developing and maintaining healthy relationships. Whether we use electronic-based communications or speak face-to-face, we are responsible for what we say, how we say it, to whom we speak, and how well we listen to those who should be most important in our lives.