Couple Tips

The title refers to a relatively recent cultural phenomenon: the interruptions and intrusions into our everyday lives by technology devices -- devices that are always on and always present. When it comes to our primary relationships, technoference seems an insidious problem...and one that's affecting more and more couples. 

According to the researchers who coined the word technoference: "By allowing technology to interfere with or interrupt conversations, activities, and time with romantic partners -- even when unintentional or for brief moments -- individuals may be sending implicit messages about what they value most, leading to conflict and negative outcomes in personal life and relationships."[i]

In a 2014 study, 75% of 140 women reported that smartphone use significantly undermined the ease of connecting with their partner. It's not a surprising statistic, given the ubiquitous use of phones and other devices nowadays. According to a Harris Interactive poll entitled "Americans Can't Put Down Their Phones Even During Sex," one third of adults reported using their phones during dinner dates, and 20% of respondents between 18 and 34 even reported using their phones during sex.[ii]

It's hard to escape the cultural influences encouraging constant smartphone use. When most people in our social and professional networks operate with the expectation that they and others need to be available all the time, it's hard not to conform. Many of us have bought into the myth that some emergency -- be it with our children, spouse, or clients -- awaits at any moment, necessitating answering our phones or reading text messages whenever we hear the ding. Primary partners in particular often desire our instant responsiveness, which ironically conditions us to always reach for the phone...except of course when we're with that partner and we're expected to not allow texts or calls or the allure of checking email to interrupt partnership time.

Consider establishing protective boundaries around designated relationship moments, whether it be dinner, chatting over coffee in the morning, or enjoying a TV show or movie together at night. Have a conversation about the realistic risks in letting calls roll into voicemail, and allowing emails or texts to go unread or unchecked for 30 minutes (or longer) while you protect relationship time from technoference. Nowadays, it sends a powerful message to a loved one when we refuse to let our devices steal our focus from shared moments together.

[i] McDaniel, Brandon T.; Coyne, Sarah M. "Technoference: The interference of technology in couple relationships and implications for women's personal and relational well-being." Psychology of Popular Media Culture, Vol 5(1), Jan 2016, 85-98.



Sex is like money; only too much is enough
— John Updike

It’s a popular notion that couples who engage in more sex are more contented in their relationship than couples who engage in less. But is it true? Perhaps sex operates like money. In that area, research has revealed that the greater one’s family income, the higher the level of reported satisfaction — but only to a point. Beyond a certain income level, more money doesn’t enhance satisfaction. Could it be that way when it comes to sex?

Studies have demonstrated that higher sexual frequency leads to greater romantic relationship happiness. And that higher sexual frequency also leads to greater overall well-being.i ii But researchers at the University of Toronto wondered whether there’s an upper limit beyond which more sex doesn’t seem to increase relationship satisfaction or well-being?iii To investigate that question, they conducted three studies examining data from over 30,000 individuals. Their 2015 findings indicated that what’s true for money seems true for sex: beyond a certain point — an average of one sexual encounter per week — increasing the frequency of sex doesn’t seem to produce added benefits for people in ongoing, partnered relationships.

Why is more not better? Definitive answers haven’t been determined. Perhaps, as it is with money, we compare ourselves to those around us and feel satisfied based on an assumption that weekly sex is typical for people like us. Or maybe when it comes to couples with busy lives, including work and children, feeling pressured to engage in more frequent sex may be stressful in itself. Perhaps the challenge of making the effort (and finding the time) for more sex cancels out the potential benefits of greater frequency.

But what matters more than statistical averages is each couple determining its own optimal frequency. Honest conversation is the way to go: How are we feeling about our sex life? Are we content with its frequency? What obstacles might be standing in the way of a more satisfying sex life? Can we think of ways to resolve those obstacles? Rarely is this an easy conversation, so schedule it — put it on the calendar — for when there’s energy and no distractions, when moods are upbeat and stresses are low. Egos bruise easily when talking about sex, so be gentle and kind and assume good intentions in one another. You’ll probably think about this conversation many times afterwards, so participate in a way that you’re unlikely to later regret.

i Blanchflower, D. G., & Oswald, A. J. (2004). “Money, sex and happiness: An empirical study.” Scandinavian Journal of Economics, 106, 393–415. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9442.2.

ii Cheng, Z., & Smyth, R. (2015). “Sex and happiness.” Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 112, 26–32.

iii Muise, A., U. Schimmack and E.A. Impett, “Sexual frequency predicts greater well-being, but more is not always better.” Social Psychological and Personality Science. 10.1177/1948550615616462.

Women once sent love letters on scented stationery, hoping the fragrance would arouse the object of their affection. Those days are largely gone, but the wish to arouse a loved one still remains. Only the vehicles of communication have changed.

Take sexting. While it’s gotten bad press for its role in political and celebrity scandals, research is pointing to something called healthy sexting — a vehicle for enhancing the amorous dimensions of loving relationships. It might be the texting of a few spicy and seductive words, or selfie photos capturing just enough to whet the imagination and invite amorous or erotic thoughts. While there’s no limit to the creative ways texting can be used to suggest or entice or arouse, some important parameters can help to distinguish healthy from unhealthy sexting.

Healthy sexting is consensual. Sender and receiver ought to agree, prior to a first message, that sex-oriented texting is acceptable and welcome. This is especially important when sexts take on an X-rated aspect, where people’s sense of propriety may widely differ. Receiving sexts without prior agreement can be unwelcome and unsettling. Studies have found significant percentages of people — particularly women — sexting as a result of pressure from their partners, and finding themselves afterwards feeling regretful and remorseful for what they’ve done. Some psychologists have come to view the pressure to participate in sexting as a form of intimate partner violence, which undermines the well-being of both the individuals and their relationship.i

Healthy sexting occurs within a context of physical and emotional safety. Just as a healthy sexual relationship flourishes when partners feel physically safe and emotionally understood and respected, the same is true with sexting. One study found that people afraid of looking bad in a partner’s eyes sexted more than people emotionally secure in their relationship.ii Sexting just to win approval may not be coercive per se, but it may not be freely chosen either — and so it’s apt to stir feelings of guilt or regret afterwards.

Healthy sexting shouldn’t substitute for true intimacy. People uncomfortable with direct, face-to-face sexuality may rely on sexting as a means of making sexual connection. When it becomes a substitute for the real thing, rather than a fun and pleasurable enhancement, it can turn into an unhealthy habit promoting the illusion of true connection. That’s when consultation with a therapist might be of help.

(Stories abound of kids getting their hands on their parents’ smartphones, and former significant others using old sexts in ways not originally intended. Prudent sexting should weigh such risks.)

i Drouin, M., J. Ross, and E. Tobin. “Sexting: a new, digital vehicle for intimate partner aggression?” Computers in Human Behavior, Vol. 50, September 2015, 197-204.

ii Weisskirch, R., M. Drouin, and R. Delevi. “Relational anxiety and sexting.” Journal of Sex Research, published online 31 May 2016.

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