A candlelit dinner for two was long considered the ultimate romantic scene, with couples holding hands or smiling at each other across the table. However, this scene has been updated with a new addition to the table, the smart phone. In restaurants all over the country, couples are now texting, tweeting and “Instagram-ing” their food and private moments are just as likely to be shared publically.

But with Relationships Ireland citing the “devastating consequences” technology is having on many Irish couples, is it time to ask what’s really at stake with our increasing reliance on technology and where do you draw the line before your relationship is damaged irrevocably?

Today’s couples increasingly sit side by side, but worlds apart.  Photo Credit, Marco41034 (Flickr)

Today’s couples increasingly sit side by side, but worlds apart. Photo Credit, Marco41034 (Flickr)

The 21st century love affair

Ireland has become a nation of digital device lovers, with the latest Eircom Household Sentiment Survey revealing that over two million people in Ireland are now using smartphones – a 15% growth since last year alone. In addition 86% of us now have access to an internet enabled device that can be used ‘on the go’ And avail of this accessibility we have, with the 2013 survey revealing that for 1 million of us, checking our emails is the first thing we do the morning.

This habitual usage of technology is leading to more and more couples turning to professional help as their relationships begin to breakdown as a result. Tony Moore, a counsellor at Relationships Ireland, says that 50% of the couples they see are now citing technology as a factor in their relationship difficulties, with 30% presenting solely for technology related issues.

Technology can be a source of distraction for couples, eating into quality time together. This impact on quality time is something that Nicola and Joe* a married couple from Dublin have noted in their own relationship. “The worst thing is that it distracts us from us. Quality time together is not quality time together, because we have little electric devices beeping or flashing little lights to tempt us”.

This distraction is one of the biggest sources of frustration for couples according to Tony, with couples spending more time on their phone or tablet than they are talking to their partner. This is something Joe admits he can be guilty of “sometimes when you should be engrossed or a least focusing on what your partner is doing, you end up getting involved in what somebody else is doing online”.

“Rudeness” is another of the most commonly cited bugbears with technology usage. Marissa Carter, creator and owner of Cocoa Brown, shares this annoyance telling me that for her, someone looking at their phone while engaging in a conversation is “as rude as if they were looking over my shoulder for someone better to talk to”. Technology she notes has become “like an uninvited third wheel in a relationship”.

The link between increasing infidelity and social media

But it’s not just lack of communication we should be worried about; technology usage is also being increasingly linked with adultery. While it’s true that ultimately it is people that break up relationships not the technology itself, what it has done is offer increased ease and opportunity.

Where once when you were interested in someone you had to arrange to meet or phone them, now an illicit suggestion is just one click away. This speed, access and often seemingly innocent first step has made crossing the line easier than ever.

Relationships Ireland has seen a massive increase in issues around infidelity, which according to Tony is directly linked with technology. This he explains is because “It’s so easy and people think it’s much harder to get caught doing it this way”. However he adds a note of caution to those who believe that, adding “but in the end you’ll get caught”.

However getting caught is something technology has tried to help us out with, seen in a rising number of “anti-social apps”. Some of these apps, like “Cloak”, use location tagging on smart phones to pinpoint the location of your contacts, plotting them on a map that also shows your current location. This is done to let you know where your ‘friends’ are “so you never have to run into that special someone,” explains its App Store listing.

Technology has been increasingly linked with divorce, Photo Credit, Jewellery Monthly (Flickr)

Technology has been increasingly linked with divorce, Photo Credit, Jewellery Monthly (Flickr)

However as Tony noted, in the end many do get caught and research has shown that technology is now commonly cited in divorce petitions. A survey by a UK divorce website revealed that in 2011, 33% of divorce petitions contained references to Facebook. The most common reasons were inappropriate sexual behaviour online, with messages found on social media like Facebook increasingly used as evidence of unreasonable behaviour.

Citing evidence found online, in divorce petitions has increased dramatically with a US survey finding that four out of five lawyers reported an increase in the number of divorce cases citing evidence derived from social networking sites in the past five years, with Facebook being the primary source.

This link with infidelity involving technology and marriage breakdown, is also evident in the Irish couples seen by Relationships Ireland according to Tony. He estimates that about 10- 15% of those who present with a technology issue involving infidelity will end up splitting up.

Technology might be just as addictive as alcohol and drugs

Tony attributes the increasing number of relationship breakdowns involving infidelity not only to the accessibility of technology but also to its addictive nature. An increasing body of research on the addictive potential of technology has led to it becoming officially recognised as an addiction. British researchers created the term Nomophobia in 2008, to identify people who experience anxiety when they have no access to mobile technology.

Research has shown that many users, suffer genuine withdrawal symptoms when they are cut off from technology and that the social authenticity we receive when someone ‘likes’ or ‘retweets’ our posts releases a shot of the addictive neurotransmitter dopamine, this fuels our desire to spend more time on these websites.

Not only is technology addiction now a recognised condition, it is in fact “very similar to the heavy addiction seen in drink and drugs” observes Tony. This observation is backed up by research which found that social media can even be more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol. In addition, the study found that not only were these cravings stronger, but that our ability to resist the desire to use technology was significant weaker than with other urges.

Technology addiction is “a notoriously difficult issue to tackle “ according to Tony, and while there are an increasing number of treatment centres in the UK and the United States offering treatment, the prevalence of technology in every aspect of our lives, makes treatment extremely challenging. As Tony explains, while “you have to go to a bar or club to get a drink, technology is available instantly, twenty four hours a day seven days a week”.

Finding Harmony between Relationships and Technology

For many couples, regulating their technology usage has proved to be vital to ensure healthy relationships. The importance of not being “constantly on” is something that Marissa, who spends a lot of time online for work, has found to be essential in her family life. She explains that to ensure her personal family time is not compromised “I sometimes go as far as to delete the Twitter and Facebook apps off my phone and re-download on Monday morning”.

According to Tony Moore, couples are increasingly spending more time on their phones than talking to each other, Photo Credit, Ernesto De Quesada (Flickr)

According to Tony Moore, couples are increasingly spending more time on their phones than talking to each other, Photo Credit, Ernesto De Quesada (Flickr)

The importance of having some technology free time for your relationship is also shared by Relationships Ireland, however while this discipline may be hard, there are rewards to taking time out. Speaking on his own technology free stint during a trip to Asia, Joe describes how with no access to the internet he was forced into living in the moment rather than through his phone.

“The first few days were strange and disconcerting, but after a while it was uplifting, invigorating and actually a relief. I could live the moment to the full, not worried about having to tell people something that they didn’t need to know, probably about somebody they didn’t even care about”. The benefits of taking a step back from technology is also shared by Edel*, a designer who having learnt from the pitfalls of technology in previous relationships, credits her strict technology policies with the health of her relationship today.

This space from technology and being connected to your partner in every conceivable way she explains means that “he comes home and tells me all about what’s been happening and gives me a re-connect. Things we’ve both seen we can chat about and also share opinions and jokes. It’s a much healthier thing now. I put that down to my rules”.

Technology undoubtedly can be an incredible resource, but like anything else it requires that we exercise good judgement. So with evidence seeming to suggest that our judgement is increasingly lax does technology have any merit in our relationship?

For some like Nicola and Joe, social media can still be a source of fun. Laughing at a video or a joke together, but as Tony notes for most people the problem is the increasing lack of “self-discipline” and knowing when to stop. So more often than not these positive associations are being outweighed by the negative. As Facebook itself would say, “It’s Complicated”.

**Names have being changed