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Is Technology Ruining Your Relationship?

Putting down the smartphone is easier said than done-even when you know your loved one deserves your full attention. Here are expert tips on how to prevent technology from being a third partner in your relationship.

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How to Prevent Technology from Ruining Your Relationship

“I’m listening.” How often do we hear that line from significant others as they tap on their phones, heads down, in the middle of a conversation? Texts, tweets and calls may keep couples connected across oceans, but in face-to-face situations, smartphones and laptops seem only to get in the way. Technology can become an attention-grabbing third wheel in a relationship, one that can result in at least one member of a couple feeling neglected or upset.

“Issues related to technology often highlight larger problems within the relationship,” such as jealousy, insecurity and poor communication, “regardless of which came first,” says Rachel Needle, a psychologist with the Center for Marital and Sexual Health of South Florida. A lack of trust may lead one party to read a sweetheart’s emails, while tuned-out partners can mask disinterest by fixating on their phones.

But, as Needle explains, technology doesn’t have to be a wedge issue for a couple-it can also help bring two people together, even when they’re in the same room.

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1. Establish unplugged zones

If there’s tech within reach, you’re bound to use it. Cheryl Fraser, a psychologist and sex therapist in Duncan, B.C., recommends removing the temptation altogether by setting tech-free zones in your home. Reserve the dinner table for eating and the bedroom for sleeping and making love-after interviewing more than 500 Italian couples in the mid-2000s, a team of researchers found that partners without a television in their bedrooms had sex twice as often as those with a TV.

Turn phones off-don’t just set them on silent-in these areas of the house or, better yet, leave them elsewhere. “Psychologically, if it vibrates, it’s going to pull your attention whether or not you go check,” Fraser says. “If you’re multi-tasking when you’re talking to your sweetheart, you’re not doing your role well.” If your job or circumstances require you to be connected, tinker with the settings on your phone to ensure that you’re notified of calls only from certain numbers.

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2. Share tech time

Outside of the bedroom, it’s not always a bad idea to use technology while your partner is around. Couples who watch TV together or use their smartphones at the same time-to play interactive games, for example-tend to have more positive thoughts about their relationships, according to a 2014 International Journal of Neuropsychotherapy study. Like other shared activities, the paper says, using tech together can give both parties a greater sense of attachment, safety and control.

Working on a laptop while your partner doesn’t, meanwhile, has the opposite effect. A Pew Research Center survey found that a quarter of coupled Americans reported frustration with a cellphone-distracted partner, and nearly one in 10 argued about spending too much time online. Excessive Facebook use is the real killer; according to 2013 research from the University of Missouri, it can be a significant predictor of negative relationship outcomes (such as cheating, breakups and divorce).

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3. Communicate-but not too much

The most satisfied romantic pairs tend to communicate using a total of four or five mediums, regardless of what they are, according to an analysis of 11,400 couples by Canadian research fellow Bernie Hogan of the Oxford Internet Institute. He says communicating in more than five ways-including in-person conversation, talking on the phone, texting and other media-can hint at a lack of boundaries in a relationship. With digital media in particular, it can be exhausting to decipher messages that lack visual and physical cues as to how someone is feeling.

“With every new medium is a new opportunity to misunderstand the other person and project negative emotions,” says Hogan. “People are stretching themselves too thin trying to understand the other person in too many different contexts where they don’t have a full picture.” To avoid falling into this trap, recognize which medium is appropriate for the situation: text your lover to tell them to pick up milk, but save emotionally charged chats for when you see each other face to face.

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4. Be transparent with your partner

You don’t need to share the passwords to your computer, phone and social media accounts or follow your beloved on every online platform, but being especially secretive about log-in info or refusing to friend your spouse on Facebook can make it seem like you’re hiding something. Demanding a partner’s password without a good reason can be similarly unsettling. Fraser says the key isn’t a hard-and-fast rule but transparency about your behaviour. “I would look at what your motivation is to keep things private,” she says. “There’s a big difference between privacy and secrecy.”

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