As a therapist, and especially one who specialises in Psychosexual & Relationship Therapy, I am always looking at, thinking about and considering human relationships. I fundamentally believe that the power of therapy in any form is rooted in the fact that someone is given undivided attention, a space to be heard and as Byng-Hall (2001) would refer, a secure base; and that the power of that, translates to beyond the therapy room.
This relationship which relies on human connection, feels even more important given the world we currently live in. When we spend more time looking into screens than into the eyes, or even the faces of those around us, and especially those we are in intimate relationships with. It strikes me how rare a fifty-minute conversation between people is without interruption. How regularly we pause conversations to check our phones, or respond to a dramatically non-urgent social media alert; and the impact all of this can have on our close and intimate relationships.
In therapy, clients can describe a feeling of ease at being able to talk about the problem; but it often makes me wonder if on some level this is because we are making it more difficult for ourselves outside of the therapy room. We are less open, more distracted, and rarely not busy.
So often we look around and see couples in restaurants, both on their phones, paying no attention to the meal they have paid for, or to each other. Is the point of a date not to engage with that person one-on-one, to give and receive your full attention, look into their eyes connect and just enjoy each other’s company? It feels like technology is a constant third wheel to our couple relationships. Arguably an essential and very necessary one nowadays, but does it need to be always present whilst we are physically together? On the table whilst we eat, on our bedside tables whilst we sleep, and permanently attached to us within instant reach at all other times.
And there is also the impact on our sex lives to consider. Research shows that even though we consider the millennials, and Generation Z, sometimes known appropriately as iGen to be embroiled in a ‘hook up culture’, the research just doesn’t match up. In fact, it shows the opposite - they are having less sex than the generations before them.
Recent research from the Archives of Sexual Behaviour has been a current hot topic of discussion, as researchers try to determine why this is happening. Explanations include the role of technology in promoting a more disposable society. In that using dating apps, technically we are actually judging a book by its cover; but also that people get some kind of connection from their lives online, perhaps enough to not feel the need for face to face interactions. The other side of the coin is that people may be feeling insecure, bred by the viewing of other people’s live's as they play out so apparently perfectly online. The additional factor is arguably that younger people live at home for longer due to the increase in house prices and living, especially in cities such as London where becoming a first time buyer is currently a huge challenge for many.
So what about intimacy in relationships? There is undeniable truth in the fact that technology has the irreplaceable magic of connecting us with loved ones all around the world. Skype and Facetime can make us feel like we are together in the room even though we are across the globe.
The internet has brought together so many; re-united old friends and families, connected those with similar passions, and has helped create couples through online dating. So the impact of technology on relationships isn’t all bad. In a different time we couldn’t even wish our loved ones good night if we were in a foreign country, and now we can do it face to face. There is much to be grateful for.The fact we can instantly connect with those we love on some level increases intimacy, the distance is unnecessary and in some form doesn’t have to exist.
But what about when we are together? How connected and in the moment are we as we multitask, managing it all and does it make us ‘jack of all trades but master of none’ as we divide our attention back and forth between conversations on screen and in person?
As a psychosexual therapist, inevitably one of the topics where the role of technology, or specifically the internet arises is around the use of pornography. There are different sides to this argument, and ultimately it should be considered that the clients of psychosexual therapists are often those who have specifically sought out therapy because they feel they have a problem in some way with their use of pornography. It can, like anything, be used compulsively which can have side effects. It can interrupt with ones ability to be sexual with a partner, or can feel like a need which then takes time and energy away from every day tasks or work, interrupting that individual’s normal functioning.
However others, for example Pandora Blake argue that the internet has opened them up to a world and community where they no longer feel alone in their sexual desires, breaking them away from feeling marginalised by their sexuality. It offers meeting others with similar wants and needs, and this discovery can be life changing.
The obvious gap here, to me at least as a professional seems one of education. If young people are educated about sex, and more importantly the differences between sex and pornography then it gives them more of an opportunity to make informed decisions. Without information, they will seek where they shall find in discovering the easiest and least embarrassing way…the internet.
Where I feel technology has the most to answer for, is in our face to face communications. Our reduction in eye contact, means that we miss out on important visual cues or expressions from those we are with. Eye-contact is one of the most primal ways in which we connect, it is pre-verbal and innate.
We know that good social support and relationships contribute to mental health and wellbeing. So, I can’t help but wonder if on some level it is this we are risking. We don’t need technology to assist us with face to face contact, we see that in the therapy room, so why do so many of us do it? Why do we walk down the street gazing into our screens unaware of our surroundings, or anyone rapidly approaching that we need to avoid.
In our close relationships, the threat of distractedly walking into oncoming traffic isn’t there, but the gradual distancing from our partner may be.
This is why I partnered with the amazing founder of Pillow Play, Darren Smith in 2015. We have striven to create something that brings couples together via technology, but without it taking their attention.
We wanted people to go back to basics, gaze into each other’s eyes, gently touch each others skin, and to share. To be fully open, to see, be seen, and to feel heard. The essential elements of intimacy are not lost – they are all still present, it is just that sometimes they are hidden.
Put down your phone, and use your hands to reach out to your partner instead, and encourage your clients to as well.
It was recently described to me as technology hygiene, that we learn how to live and work with technology in a way that is healthy and not at the expense of other parts of our lives. Technology plays a roles in, and improves so many parts of our lives and we can’t be without it. We need to learn how to be with it more healthily, and not at the expense of how we fundamentally connect with others.
Kate Moyle, BSc, PGDip, MA Psychosexual & Relationship Therapist. Kate is a Psychosexual Therapist in Central London who alongside her private practice, is a Founding Partner of Pillow Play, the 30 Day Intimacy Programme for Couples. She has a Bachelor of Science Degree in Psychology, Post Graduate Diploma in Integrative Psychosexual Therapy, and a Masters Degree in Relationship Therapy.