Till Tweet do us part

  • Nation
  • Sunday, 29 Jul 2012

Some couples are discovering that their mobile devices aren't helping them communicate better with each other.

FEW can imagine the world today without smartphones, tablets and notebooks. But for all the communication that these devices were made to enhance, some couples are claiming that it's a bane to their relationships.

In the case of newlyweds Ashley and Andrew (not their real names), these mobile devices have often been a source of frustration and arguments.

“The moment he comes home, he turns on his notebook. When he's not on his notebook, he's either playing with his iPad or iPhone even during dinner. It can be really frustrating, especially when I need to talk to him about something important,” Ashley laments.

Ashley, 28, and Andrew, 35, are both urban professionals she is a communications executive, he an IT consultant. Both work on the go, and rely heavily on their mobile devices. But Ashley feels there should be a line drawn when it comes to their personal relationship.

“We would agree to spend time together, but he would still be busy working on his notebook, and checking his e-mails on his phone. It's really hard for him to put his phone down and not touch it for even 20 minutes. It almost seems like he's addicted to it,” she says.

Andrew, however, retorts that Ashley also spends a good amount of time on her notebook, blogging.

“A lot of what we do is online these days work, banking, paying bills, networking etc. It's all done via the Internet. It's hard not to stay connected,” he says.

Another married couple, Paul and Mae, both 29, say they each have their own pet peeves when it comes to technology.

Paul, who is in the banking industry, is an avid gamer.

“On average, Paul plays his games from 8pm to midnight on weekdays, and on weekends, about half the day. It bothers me because sometimes, he's too engrossed in his game to notice anything or anyone around him.

“I've talked to him about it, but he says it (gaming) helps him destress,” says Mae, an accountant.

Problematic habit

Paul, on the other hand, finds it annoying that Mae constantly checks her phone during meals, but admits to having the same bad habit.

Can such habits actually hurt couple relationships?

According to Dr Johnben Loy, the founder and clinical director of Rekindle International Marriage and Family Therapy Center, it could be problematic.

“Different expectations will increase the stress in a relationship. If one partner wants a more face-to-face connection, and the other one is using technology to avoid that kind of closeness, then you have a problem,” says Dr Loy who has come across such complaints from his clients.

“It's quite often that you have that with couples. The wives will tend to complain about their husbands being behind the machines, whether it's a smartphone, tablet, or computer.

“Before this, people were talking about the television, but now it's the mobile devices. It's more pervasive, in a sense,” says Dr Loy, who is a US-licensed marriage and family therapist with 12 years experience.

However, he is also quick to point out that different families work differently, and what could be a problem for one, might not be for another.

“When a family goes out for dinner, the kids whip out their iPads and their parents are on their smartphones. It's not for me to say that it's necessarily bad.

“My wife and I Skype, check our Facebook, Whatsapp, text and e-mail. But just because you see us texting, it does not mean we're not relating (to each other),” Dr Loy explains.

What is more important, he says, is the state of the relational bond between the couple.

“In a couple relationship, the core issue is whether they are able to live life in a way that strengthens the relational bond. If there are conflicts, how do they manage those conflicts? Do they let it escalate to a point where it can even turn violent? Or do they withdraw, and avoid talking about the issue altogether? It's really about the relational bond and living your life in a way that keeps that bond, or better yet, strengthens it.”

For many couples, tech-addiction is not necessarily the cause of their problems, but Dr Loy says it can “exacerbate the issues that are already present in that relationship”.

Family law practitioner Andy Low Hann Yong agrees.

The lack of communication which can stem from addiction to mobile devices, Low says, is often not the main factor that triggers off a divorce. However, it is almost always an underlying factor.

“Those who come to me almost always have a communication problem. But for a couple to want a divorce, it usually needs a bigger trigger event, such as an affair or domestic violence etc. So many things can contribute towards divorce, but yes, we've definitely had couples complain about technology-related problems,” he explains, adding that about 50% of his clients are aged between 25 and 35 years old.

One example he shares is that of a wife who sought divorce from her husband because of his gaming addiction. The couple has two young children.

“The man was unemployed and would go to the cybercafe every night at about 8pm, and play games until early the next morning. Then he would sleep well into the afternoon, and repeat the routine at night. This continued for about a year.

“Because of his habit, he neglected his family. In the end, the wife wanted a divorce,” Low says.

For Dr Loy, it's not so much technology per se that is the problem but how it is used.

“If it's gaming and they're playing together, that's fine. If they're playing apart and one is not happy, yes, it could be a problem. Or it could also be that they're always doing their own thing.

“When you look at couples, the I do my thing and you do your thing' scenario, it kind of worked for the traditional Asian family. My guess is that it worked because the couple had other social support their family and community. In an urban setting, you're almost entirely on your own, so if the couple is always doing separate things, what enables them to bring their relationship back to the centre?” he asks.

So what can be done?

For starters, setting ground rules. Which is precisely what Ashley and Andrew, and Paul and Mae have done.

“We've agreed to not check our phones when we're eating. It's an ongoing effort by both of us to have face-to-face conversation. We're both addicted to our phones, but we don't want to end up like some couples you see at a cafe, where they just stare at their phones. There's no human touch or communication and it's heartbreaking.

“Now we talk during dinner. When I drive Mae to and from work, we talk. Sometimes, we take a walk in the park nearby before we head home, and we talk then too,” says Paul.

The key, Dr Loy says, is awareness.

“Even if you don't think technology is getting in the way of your relationship, ask yourself, Is it? Could this be better?' Try putting your phones down, and chat over dinner. See if you can do it. Try it out.

“And if you can't, maybe there is a problem there,” he says.

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