Technology is changing what it means to be “together.” While communication is nearly effortless and instantaneous at any distance, it can be more difficult to connect with others. It’s counter-intuitive that easier access to others can make our social lives more difficult, but there is no denying that living in a networked culture can be demanding and stressful. It is tempting, or even necessary, to use technologies that constrain our ability to communicate clearly and personally. There are no familiar conventions to lean on when it comes to the way we use digital media – and there are many bad precedents being set!

New technologies are often adopted because they offer convenience – systems are offered which circumvent the shortcomings of those that already exist. Unable to gossip on the phone with your friend in class? Text messaging under the desk is an excellent alternative to note-passing, allowing for instant exchange. The problem is that as convenience takes priority and becomes the norm, it’s all too easy to lose what makes communication a moving human experience. It’s all too easy to lose all sense of closeness and intimacy. 

For a romantic relationship, this can be a very big deal. Opting for convenience does not communicate commitment or enthusiasm – and when commitment and enthusiasm are gone from your virtual communication with your partner, problems offline are sure to follow.

It is very difficult to meet each other’s needs for emotional connection through this media, which can easily catalyze mutual negative sentiment override and the erosion of trust.
Here is the reality:

Though it is hard to admit, technology has us in its grip, and its development is progressing at mind-boggling speed. Without addressing the difficulties that it brings into our lives, we risk the destruction of our most intimate relationships. That is a fact.

Any conversation that happens in cyberspace (over cell-phones, online chat, social media, etc) has high potential for trouble. Although it is a tool that can be used in a great variety of positive and constructive ways, even to build certain kinds of bridges, virtual communication can be a hotbed for misunderstanding, in which flying sparks often result in fire. Without the skills to avoid the flames, they are difficult to control, and often almost impossible to put out.

Think about it.

Chances are that you’ve experienced situations in which, while attempting the most innocuous of dialogues  – turning towards your partner to check in about their day on the phone, or attempting to finalize and mutually commit to previously discussed plans via text message – you have found yourself suddenly, unexpectedly engaged in conflict, with no idea how to reach resolution or communicate with your “opponent!”

This happens because the difficulty of identifying and addressing misunderstandings face-to-face (with the ability to exchange facial expressions and nonverbal cues) pales in comparison to the near-impossibility of overcoming misunderstanding in the virtual sphere. This happens because of the difficulty of sharing and responding to bids for attention, or recognizing sliding door moments in this largely alien context. This happens because the emotional connection skills that serve you well in real life can’t always help you in the face of online isolation, or isolation-fueled antagonism.

Most of the time, problems in contact over virtual media go unaddressed: though they are frequent sources of stress, the vast majority of communications technology users believe that the drawbacks virtual media presents are a necessary evil, that you have to pay dearly for such unprecedented convenience, and that sometimes, relatively significant social discomfort in this sphere is inescapable.

When it comes to your relationship with your partner, this is a dangerous perspective!

Luckily, these problems truly are often avoidable, can be understood and addressed in a healthy manner, and don’t have to create so much stress in our lives. In this series, we will show you how.

On Friday, look forward to learning some practical ways to tackle basic problems in virtual communication – general tips about bidding that you can use when interacting with your partner (and others) in The Digital Age!

More in The Digital Age
The Digital Age: The Price We Pay
Ellie Lisitsa

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.