Last week on The Gottman Relationship Blog, we wrote about the necessity of making time for yourself in this increasingly busy-making (and often crazy-making!) age of technology. We discussed the many benefits that self-exploration and the simple act of taking a break can confer on your relationships with yourself and others. We shared ways of disconnecting from technology, to reflect on and reconstruct healthy social dynamics and escape destructive loops in a climate which has changed and complicated the nature of our social lives. In doing so, we hope that we have begun to inspire you to focus on and start to tackle solvable problems that the digital age may be creating in your relationships.

In the coming weeks, we want to address the specific relationship difficulties you may be experiencing in The Digital Age. It is our intention to explore the reasons for their existence, and use this understanding to help you better navigate or avoid them when they come up! We hope that this knowledge will guide you in strengthening or rebuilding bonds that may be compromised by the digital world. 

To begin with, we ask you to consider the following:

As a multifaceted corporeal human being trying to learn and grow in the world which has been irreversibly (but flexibly) divided in two, there comes a point at which you have to make a decision: which one of these worlds feels more real to you? Which is more important? Most likely, given the demands of our current reality, you would like to strike a balance or overcome the split between the online and offline parts of your life, but in trying to achieve this balance or close this gap, you must first accept and consider the ways in which both make serious demands on your time and energy.

As prominent social media researcher Sherry Turkle observes in her book Alone Together,“Always on and (now) always with us, we tend the Net, and the Net teaches us to need it.” But the truth is that many of us are addicted to the Net. And this addiction affects our choices in real time, without our even noticing it – a point of view with which Zach Brittle, our recent guest blogger, would most likely agree.

Turkle explains that, although “we may begin by thinking that e-mails, texts, and Facebook messaging are thin gruel but useful if the alternative is sparse communication with the people we care about, we become accustomed to their simple pleasures – we can have connection when and where we want it, and we can easily make it go away.”

But the more we leave physical organizations and meeting places, the more we avoid physical gatherings, the more difficult it becomes to extricate ourselves from social media. Isolating ourselves from others in an effort to more effectively dive into our gadgets has long-term consequences as a self-fulfilling prophecy – a prophecy of a lack of social fulfillment. We use and increasingly rely upon the Net as this cycle continues. We turn down invitations to spend time with family and friends and then wonder why the frequency of invitations decreases.

Why aren’t we fulfilled? When we don’t take the time to connect in conventionally intimate ways – making time to be completely present in the same physical location and show our full attention to the other person, we may convey a lack of real commitment to the relationship. And when a feeling of commitment erodes and bids for connection, attention, and care are not responded to, rifts in relationships are inevitably created. The unwillingness of one partner to make time for the other can feel like turning away from or against the an invitation to spend time together. And when turning away becomes the norm – when the “I’m sorry, I’m busy” response begins to feel hollow, whether or not it really is – people begin to feel shunted aside, unappreciated, and rejected.

But what if someone is truly busy? Can’t that be understood? Isn’t it totally reasonable to not be able to accept invitations when others try to plan a meeting “in real life?” Of course it’s reasonable. People are busy. But the difference between maintaining a healthy relationship through stressful, busy times and allowing distance to develop is to remember your commitment to the relationship – and to treat your friend or partner with care. If you genuinely can’t make time to meet, try to reschedule. Agree upon a time in the near future that works for both of you. This is the difference between turning away and turning towards – communicating that the other person is important to you, that you do want to give them your time and attention as soon as you are able, and that you are dedicated and appreciative of them and of your relationship.

We don’t pretend that this widespread predicament is an easy one to overcome, or that it’s possible to entirely resolve or escape from it in the digital age. We do believe, however, that there are several significant issues underlying the pickles in which we find ourselves – namely problems of self-esteem, trust, and mental or emotional stress. Finding balance and keeping perspective is a difficult but by no means insurmountable undertaking –the importance of doing so cannot be overstated for the health of our relationships. In our next few entries, we will explore and share some strategies for combating the problems enumerated above. Stay tuned!

More in The Digital Age
The Digital Age: Two Realities

Ellie Lisitsa is a staff writer at The Gottman Institute and a regular contributor to The Gottman Relationship Blog. Ellie is pursuing her B.A. in Psychology with an emphasis on Cognitive Dissonance at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.