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How Technology Can Interfere With Dating And Getting To Know Someone

Hanna Barczyk for NPR

Valentine’s Day is not everybody’s favorite holiday. People in relationships might feel unrealistic expectations to shower their loved ones with flowers and candy. People not in relationships may envy those who are. But haven’t we all seen couples in a restaurant or bar, sitting at the same table – but with their faces in their phones?

Morning Edition host Jennifer Stayton wanted to find out more about that, so she checked in with local psychotherapist and relationship intervention specialist Junice Rockman and author and motivational speaker Rock Rockman, who happen to be husband and wife.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.  

Rock Rockman: When you have an addiction, it's hard for you to put something away and put it down. When you see people, for example, that are out on a date, their heads are down. They're not even engaging or looking in each other's eyes. Their heads are down. And even in some cases, they're communicating through their technology, texting each other, commenting on each other's posts while they're sitting right in front of each other.

Junice Rockman: There is like a physiological aspect to it. There is a release of dopamine. When we get that text back or that heart or that share or that like or that comment and that gives a sense of euphoria, but also from an identity standpoint, it also informs validation that so many of us are seeking – that immediate gratification and validation.

Jennifer Stayton: Presumably if we're with someone that we care about or like or are trying to get to know, all we would have to do would be to look up and couldn't get some validation in person?

Junice Rockman: We could get some there, but we can't get it at high speed and we can't get it from hundreds of people at one time.

Jennifer Stayton: I'm fascinated by that concept of the two people at the table on their smartphones or their devices, commenting on each other's posts and messages. My intuition and my inclination is to sort of go – Ugh, and roll my eyes and say, "I can't believe that; that's so rude" or "That's so weird." But if everybody is doing that, is that still bad and rude and weird? Or is that our new normal?

Rock Rockman: In a sense, it is a new normal, but just because everybody's doing it doesn't make it right. We have to begin to find a way to have some moderation.

Junice Rockman: And traditionally I think our culture only thought about addiction in terms of substance abuse, like alcohol, and certain narcotics, things like that. But there are behavioral addictions as well. In science and psychologists, we still haven't seen what the long-term outcome or fallout [is]. And, you know, most of us when we feel uncomfortable or feel stress we're designed in a way, you know, we had that fight, flight or freeze reaction but then after that, we want to figure out how can we cope. So for some people maybe it is a way of coping with stress or anxiety. Or for some people, it's like I don't feel really fabulous or charismatic in the real world, but what I'm on online or when gaming I do. So it maybe a coping mechanism. Sourcing it for each person may be a little bit different.

Jennifer Stayton: What is the impact that all of this has then on our relationships?

Rock Rockman: So, I think it has positive and negative aspects, because, you know, you have apps out there – dating apps, which are great ways to meet new people – but then, you know, because people create this image – and don't get me wrong, people in just regular life interactions. When you first meet someone, and there are five stages to a relationship, whether you meet through technology or you meet just in a regular human interaction, you're going to go through all of these stages. And you're going to have your ups and downs. So the problem with technology or over usage, that is, is it takes you a little bit longer to know the real person and to work through those five stages. So it's very important to make sure that, you know, if you are you know engaging with someone through some sort of technology device or, you know, social media, it's important that you really get to know that person for who they are.

Jennifer Stayton: I'm imagining there are couples where one of them uses and relies on technology more than the other and there's not a balance there. How do you know if that is an insurmountable problem in a relationship?

Junice Rockman: Yeah, I mean we've seen excessive gaming break up relationships, you know. So one thing that Rock was saying earlier today was that if it's the technology that you feel like is causing the breakup that's not really what it's about. There's probably more issues going on right. It's a symptom.

Rock Rockman: Yeah, someone gaming too much or on their phone too much, right? There's probably a root to that problem. If someone is too far gone where they're not engaging you at all in a relationship, you really can't just blame it on the technology. It's probably some depression there, maybe. There's probably something that they're hiding from. Can you strip down those barriers and get to the core of what's really going on with that person.

Junice Rockman: Just like anything else, if there was like addictive behavior or over-dependency of something that's imbalancing the relationship, try and give it some time to courageously and clearly asked for what it is that you need. And then if you can try and set up some boundaries.

Jennifer Stayton: Folks our age did not grow up with this technology. We are not technology natives; we didn't have phones from the very beginning. But our children, younger folks are growing up in a time when that's a part of their lives from as long as they can remember, and it's a part of how they learn to be with others and form relationships. And I'm wondering if you can sort of forecast a longer-term impact about what it will mean for relationships going forward as we have more and more generations of folks who this is all they know.

Junice Rockman: Advances in technology will benefit us and more people of younger generations will, sort of, have access to information and opportunities to connect with people globally in a way that they could never do before. And they can also train and become specialized in things that they maybe perhaps couldn't afford to do. But they can access those kinds of things academically and educationally, you know, resources online. I think the other side of that is that I do sit down and see a lot of clients that have severe social anxiety issues because they say, 'I'm fine online' or 'If I date online I can do that.' But if I see somebody at the store or library that I would like to talk to or go out with I will not say a word.

Rock Rockman: We have to teach our children how to ride bikes. We have to teach them how to change clothes and put a shirt on. We can also teach them how to balance a life.

Jennifer Stayton: Rock and Junice Rockman, thank you so much for coming in and for your time today.

Rock Rockman: Thank you.

Junice Rockman: Thanks for having us.

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