(This article is an excerpt from A Couple’s Guide to Happy Retirement and Aging: 15 Keys to Long-Lasting Vitality and Connection by Sara Yogev, PhD.)
Studies have yet to investigate if technology has a different impact on retired older adults’ marriages than on marriages of people of different ages. But frequently, as a couples therapist, I’ve seen that technology can cause serious friction between retired spouses.
For instance, I recall a couple where one spouse liked every new application that became available and acquired any new device that came on the market, while the other used the cell phone mostly for making and receiving phone calls and had limited internet and email activity. After they retired, the non-technological-savvy spouse increasingly asked the other for technology help. After a short while, this became a huge nuisance to the tech whiz.
When Spouses Aren’t Equally Technologically Proficient
In addition, there were a few times when the less technologically proficient spouse messed up the computer and the computer-savvy partner had to fix it. As a result, resentment started to build and became a huge source of frustration and disappointment to both of them.
The issue was somewhat resolved after a good and open conversation took place and after the technologically deficient spouse agreed to take some computer/word processing classes to rely less on the other partner.
A Problem With Passwords
Another couple came in to see me initially with complaints about passwords. While both were proficient technologically, the husband used to change passwords frequently (concerned about internet security and privacy), often forgetting to let his wife know he made the change and what the new password was. This resulted in the wife’s inability to access certain sites and once even not being able to get into her own email. Technological control and surveillance had become so intolerable that it brought them to my office for marital therapy.
It was clear to me that they needed help in restoring mutually acceptable boundaries and a sense of autonomy.
The wife felt her autonomy and technological self-control was being compromised and her sense of privacy invaded too often by his reading her emails and checking her internet activity. She wanted to stop sharing access to emails, not let her husband know what her new email password would be and make him commit never to change a password on their joint accounts without consulting with her about it first.
He felt that if there was nothing to hide, what was the problem with having access to each other’s email accounts without having to ask permission? He agreed that he should have told her about the change in passwords, apologized again for this mistake and promised to inform her of changes immediately in the future. At the same time, he was reluctant to agree to her new demands.
The marital therapy helped them resolve a problematic gap in their expectations and feelings about control, privacy and autonomy that had been negatively impacting their relationship for many years, even before technology and retirement made it unbearable.
The Importance of Tech Boundaries
They realized that technology and passwords were not to blame for their problems; the real issue was control, connection and mutually acceptable boundaries.
Email, cell phones, text messaging, webcams, Facebook, Twitter and iPads can be invaluable tools for keeping relationships and marriages together. However, these devices and applications can just as easily be destructive when we allow ourselves to be ruled by them.
Researchers from Oxford University found that couples who use five or more electronic channels of communication on a regular or frequent basis reported 14 percent less satisfaction in their relationship than couples who were less electronically connected. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to become intimate and connected emotionally when technology is interfering and people are not fully focusing on each other.
Often, retired spouses feel lonely when they are together because their partner is focusing on a device or screen instead of engaging with them. Being ignored is one of the worst feelings one can experience; it leads to self-doubt, rumination and a diminished self-esteem and confidence.
Technology: A Distraction From Marital Problems
Technology offers an easy distraction from facing problems in relationships. Instead of talking face-to-face about difficult topics, sharing eye contact and reading each other’s facial expressions, body language and tone of voice, partners text or email. The potential for intimacy is then negatively impacted.
Many arguments occur because of something that was shared by text or email, yet got misunderstood and misinterpreted. Instant messaging can be convenient, but may come at the cost of closeness and understanding. We lose a vital piece of communication — the emotional connection — when we don’t have the sounds of the voice and body language. These missing cues may cause us to misconstrue messages and attribute emotional meaning that was absent.
Another potential hurtle is that technology makes it easier to “fight dirty.” We can impulsively shoot an angry email or text in a nasty manner, since it is so simple to click “Send” before we have time to calm down, rethink what was annoying us and find a more tactful response.
Before emailing or texting your spouse or partner, take an extra second and ask yourself these questions: Is it okay to text or post this message? How would I feel if I received it? Is it at all true, or maybe I’m misunderstanding something in the message? Is it necessary I respond or post my reply now? And if yes, is this being done in a kind manner—the correct way to do it?
9 Tech Recommendations for Retired Couples
I would like to offer nine recommendations for retired couples to establish boundaries in order to let technology play a healthy role in their relationships:
1. Make time to unplug. Set apart, on a regular basis, appointed times to turn off all screens — a time when no devices are allowed, only old-fashioned conversation, providing you the opportunity to give your partner your complete attention without technology crowding the intimacy of your relationship. For example, no screens — including TV — at the dinner table. Dinner should be reserved for face-to-face conversations.
2. If your partner is asking you to disengage from the screen you are using at the moment, get off it as soon as you can. Make it possible to become a time for connection to happen.
3. Praise and promote your spouse on social media. This helps reassure your partner about your loyalty.
4. Do not permit phones or other devices to come to bed with you. Never.
5. Similarly, shut off the bedroom TV before rolling over to fall asleep. This allows for a chance to end the day with real, uninterrupted conversation and connection, maybe even a physical one.
6. No texting or emails about really important personal issues with your partner. This communication should be done face-to-face so there is less room for misunderstandings and more time for clarifications.
7. Share videos and short texts with your partner. This way, he or she can feel included and connected. I’m talking about things like a video of your grandchild playing or a photograph of a flower in your garden that you enjoyed.
8. Determine whether you’re becoming addicted to your technology. If you can’t live without a gadget or a device, it absorbs a lot of your time or you have to check your emails, Facebook or Twitter too often, you are becoming addicted and you need take steps to deal with this problem.
9. Have a conversation with your partner about what it means to be unfaithful in a relationship while respecting each other’s points of view. This discussion should also include creating mutually acceptable rules about privacy, sharing passwords and getting to read each other’s emails or texts without permission.
All marriages and relationships have issues, and those issues can be magnified when adding technology into the mix. The key is to not let technology lead to an increase in their severity. Enjoying the benefits technology provides and setting mutually acceptable boundaries for devices can strengthen marriages, help couples connect and expand the repertoire of connection.
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