Picture this scene: A couple is out for dinner. Their faces are deadpan; their voices are silent; their heads are down. They’re looking at their phones.

Now imagine the same couple out for dinner. Their faces are smiling; their phones are silent; their heads are up as they look into each other’s eyes. Their phones are nowhere to be seen.

It’s fairly obvious which one of the above situations is preferable.

And while it’s easy to let out a sigh when you spot the virtually distracted couple, it’s also easy to overlook the potential for technology to help you connect as a couple.

Think about that couple out for dinner, but now imagine both their heads leaning over a smart phone as they show amusing photos they snapped during the day or a funny video someone sent them. What if they use it to look up something on Google to settle a petty dispute about whether tomato is a fruit or a vegetable? What if they’re video messaging a mutual friend or saying goodnight to their kids who are at home with the sitter?

While it may be tempting to think life was easier back in 1985 when home phones were the only way to contact someone and letters were still handwritten, the reality is there is a lot you can do with the technological tools you have at your disposal – and ample opportunity to forge new pathways of connection with your spouse. After all, those devices and all that they hold are a tool like anything else, and a tool can be constructive just as easily as it can be destructive – it’s all in how you use it.

How not to use technology

It may feel as though technology is driving us and our relationships, but a Pew Research study found that 72 per cent of couples say the Internet has made "no real impact at all" on their relationship. And of the 27 per cent of Internet users who have said the Internet has made an impact, a surprising 74 per cent of them have said the impact was positive.

But what do you do when you find yourself paying more attention to Pinterest than to your husband? Or how do you deal with the lure of a never-ending Twitter feed? Or the guilt you have when there’s an unanswered text, email or phone call? There are some basic ways to make sure the impact technology has on your marriage is positive.

  1. Don’t let it be a distraction. When you’re with your spouse, be sure to be present with your spouse. If you hear them speaking to you, put your phone away. If they’re trying to have a conversation with you over dinner, turn your phone on silent, put it to the side – or even leave it in another room if you have to. One couple has made it a rule that their phones don’t come with them to bed, allowing for a chance to end their day with real, uninterrupted conversation and connection.
  2. Don’t let screen time diminish face time (and no, not that FaceTime®). Even if you are one of those couples who texts each other all day, don’t use that as an excuse not to engage in face-to-face conversation. According to the study, "25 per cent of text messaging users who are in relationships have texted their partner while both were home together." Never underestimate the power of eye contact.
  3. Give your spouse the benefit of the doubt. During their first year of marriage, Lily* woke up at two in the morning to see the glow of her husband’s cell phone. "Mind racing, I imagined all the awful, sneaky things he could be doing," she says. "I was livid, preparing to pounce on him, his phone and his reputation as a wonderful, committed, godly husband . . . I sprung from my pillow only to realize that his phone was on the nightstand and the glow was nothing more than his low-battery light." Learn from Lily, and don’t jump to conclusions before you learn the truth.
  4. Take an extra second and ask yourself, "Is this okay to text/post/message?" With so many social media platforms and messaging options at our fingertips, there’s a temptation to send out a text, post a status or message your spouse at the speed of thought – with obvious ramifications. As another study on the use of technology in relationships explains, "Since verbal and facial cues are an incremental part of communication, and these cues are missing in nonvocal types of communication, such as texting and emailing, partners may misconstrue messages and attribute emotional meaning that is absent, because emotional cues are often intuited from vocal inflection." Stop and ask yourself how you would feel receiving that text – and maybe reconsider.

How to use technology well

The question, then, is how can technology be a constructive tool in your marriage? Researchers noted how the ability to "instantly share videos, music, photos, and other links . . . can enhance the development of intimacy and the progression of a relationship." Further adding that "the use of texting with cell phones can increase intimacy by making partners more available and expanding their repertoire of connection."

The different ways to positively impact your marriage with technology and new media are endless, but here are a few real-life couples getting the most out of technology.

  1. Photograph your day. Lily* and Doug* found that one way to have a fun chat in the evening was to take photographs of things they saw throughout their day and then share those small moments with one another. It’s simple, but sometimes the simple things bring you together.
  2. Watch a show together. For some people, watching some TV at the end of the day is a great way to unwind, but hunkering down on the couch needn’t be a distraction to your marriage – it could bring you together. For Mike* and Holly*, working their way through television series they borrowed from the library was something they could share. They got invested in the characters, laughed at the storylines and shared the fictional ups and downs – as a couple.
  3. Share your days throughout the day. When Chris* and Anne* welcomed their daughter into the world, they knew it would be hard for him when he went back to work because of all the things he’d miss out on. As a result, Anne would send Chris videos, photos and little texts of things their daughter did so that he could feel connected and she could feel supported. It can also be as simple as sending a flirty text or a "home in 20 minutes" message to keep the lines of communication open.
  4. Keep in touch when separated by distance. Some couples may have to deal with jobs that take a spouse out of town. For James*, his job has taken him to Texas, Alaska and even as far as Thailand, sometimes for weeks at a time. With two kids, his wife Katie* would have felt overwhelmed had it not been for the daily video chat she and James made time for. Every night when he travels they still sit down together and talk through their day; he spends time with their kids and the distance isn’t quite so hard.

What are some ways technology has positively impacted your marriage? What are some ways it’s been a negative presence? Talk with your spouse to find out ways to use it well – and reap the benefits of closer intimacy.

*Names changed to protect privacy

Reference to the individuals and organizations quoted does not constitute a blanket endorsement of either the individuals’ external work or their respective organizations.

Amy Van Veen is editorial manager at Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2014 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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