YOU CAN’T LOVE YOUR CELL PHONE (OR CAN YOU?)
How can a gadget have the power to threaten our ability to build and maintain relationships?
A young patient of mine wants to enter the NYC dating scene. Uncomfortable with dating apps, she decides to try an in-person approach and attends an under-30 event at a local community center. She hopes it will be better than bar hopping or swiping for a date. After the program (which she enjoys) she discovers that instead of socializing with each other, everyone’s heads are buried in their cell phones. It is impossible to have a conversation with anyone. No eye contact with the cute guy in the corner. No face-to-face communication. No possibility for connection.
In couples therapy, a married couple complains that they have lost their connection to each other, emotionally and physically, and feel increasingly annoyed by petty grievances. He complains that she is constantly on her cellphone which makes him feel ignored and unappreciated. She says he is distracted by work emails and online newspapers and magazines instead of engaging with her and the family. They both admit that cellphones have made them irritable and stressed and damaged their relationship. On a recent vacation without their phones, they both relaxed and re-discovered their connection, but upon returning to the city, they fell back into old patterns.
How can a gadget have the power to threaten our ability to build and maintain relationships? Smartphones are more than just gadgets. They can gratify our most basic human need for comfort, companionship and approval, and as a result, we can become overly attached to them. They simulate connection, impart a feeling of control and provide immediate gratification, which diminish our ability to tolerate the frustration of real life. When a constant companion is in the palm of your hand, there’s a human impulse to take comfort in it and even grow to prefer it at times to actual human relationships.
What we want may be a click away, but what we need we have to work to achieve. We need real relationships with other humans who love us imperfectly but provide the physical and direct emotional conveyance of warmth and understanding we need to be happy. If we accept that our devices satisfy a universal human need then we can explore and hopefully find ways to identify and satisfy those needs in our real relationships. We have to learn to love our cell phones less so we can relearn how to love each other more.