Love in the time of Tinder: why you can’t blame technology for a rise in affairs.
CEO of Relate, Chris Sherwood, discusses on ‘Wired’ why our dependency on technology is blurring the boundaries between digital and non-digital relationships:-
“Technology has revolutionized our relationships, changing how we find, organize and even finish them. As a 36-year-old gay man living in London, I’ve had a front row seat in this revolution. I started my dating life in the 1990s, responding to personal ads in my local newspaper. In the 2000s I started exploring internet dating. More recently apps like Grindr and Scruff have become a dater’s best friend.
My day job is CEO of Relate, the UK’s largest provider of information and support around relationships, so you may think I have all the answers. In fact, Relate is encountering new and different ways that technology impacts out relationships every day, so we, too, are learning how to navigate this new digital world. Technology is one of the top reasons people come to us for counseling, whether it’s the couple where one partner’s had an affair via Facebook or the individual who’s struggling with an addiction to online porn.
It’s interesting that 62 per cent of our counselors say technology has had a negative impact on relationships, compared to just 13 per cent of the public. However, we also see that technology has brought huge benefits to relationships, from the serving members of our armed forces who can now rely on video calling and email to stay connected with home, to young gay people who can much more easily connect with one another in less liberal parts of the world – something I discovered myself recently whilst traveling through Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
“”One of the challenges we see in this ‘swipe generation’ is the commodification of people””
Chris Sherwood, CEO of Relate
There’s no denying, though, that technology is disrupting our relationships in ways that previous generations could never have imagined. There are more than 1,400 dating sites in the UK alone and finding a partner online is the fourth most common way to start a new relationship. Could this be changing how much value we place on our fellow daters? One of the challenges we see in this “swipe generation” is the commodification of people. Research tells us that the key ingredients to a successful, long-term relationship (something that the majority of us continue to aspire to) are honesty, commitment and communication – characteristics that are hard to deduce from a Tinder profile picture. Quite simply, if we don’t like what we see in the first few seconds, we swipe left and it’s gone. It’s easy to forget we’re talking about real people with real feelings.
We’re also navigating this new digital world without a roadmap. People used to date, become girlfriend and boyfriend and get married. Today, announcing your relationship on Facebook or agreeing to take down your dating profile are new staging posts on this more complex relationship journey. We know from the counseling room that many of these staging posts only become clear when an unspoken rule has been broken.
Couples tell us that they like being able to send romantic and flirty messages to one another. But are we becoming too dependent on technology? Can we turn it off? According to a survey by the Science Museum in 2012, four out of five under 25-year-olds report feeling lost without the internet and the vast majority of smartphone owners reach for them within 15 minutes of waking up. The 2013 Mobile Consumers Habit survey in the US found that nine per cent even admitted to checking their phone during sex.
This “dependency” could also be affecting how we form intimate relationships in the real world as the boundaries between digital and non-digital become increasingly blurred. A study by Essex University in 2012 found that: “Merely having a phone visible in the room — even if no-one checked it — made people less likely to develop a sense of intimacy and empathetic understanding during meaningful conversations.”
Technology is additionally changing the nature of affairs and blurring the boundaries. We used to think of an affair as an intimate or sexual encounter between two people. Does sending sexualized and flirty images to another person count as an affair even if the people don’t meet? What about watching livecam porn, using remote-controlled sex toys with another person, or, in the future, sleeping with a sex robot?
“”Does sending sexualized and flirty images to another person count as an affair even if the people don’t meet?””
Chris Sherwood, CEO of Relate
There’s a danger in this debate that we end up blaming the technology but that isn’t necessarily the problem: it’s how we use it.
We can’t stop the digital revolution but we can learn to better integrate technology into our lives, in ways that enable us to form and sustain loving and supportive relationships as well as to better navigate the dangers out there. For example, we’d encourage people to talk to their partners and family about how to handle the technology in their lives. Work out whether you need regular tech time out, like no phones in the bedroom or turning all screens off an hour before bed. There aren’t any hard and fast rules but communicating what works for your circumstances will make it easier for you to stay in control of technology and not the other way around.