Technology and big ideas have changed the world we live in. Our phones tells us what the weather forecast is, reminds us of our appointments, and helps us get in shape. You can listen to music, watch videos, and encounter culture on your smart device. Your phone helps you connect with friends, family, and can even help you get a date.
But as wonderful as your smart phone is, it’s actually sabotaging your romantic relationships. Today’s technology is hindering (not helping) romance. According to psychotherapist Esther Perel, apps like Instagram and Tinder may really be hurting our chances at authentic relationships.
In an interview with Recode’s Kara Swisher at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, Perel explained why she thinks online dating and dating apps have transformed romance today. It all has to do with too many choices, she said. “If I have a choice between two people, it’s rather limiting. In the village, I had a choice between two people. Later, I had a choice between six or 10 or 15 people, and that was a lot better. When I have a choice between 1,000 people, it’s crippling.” Perel calls this notion “romantic consumerism.” Because of all the options out there, we’re constantly checking for something better somewhere else.
“I’m, on the one hand, looking for the soulmate, the one-and-only,” Psychotherapist Esther Perel explained. “That one-and-only is supposed to be the one that’s going to to fulfill you. It’s not just a person with whom you’re going to have the basic needs of Maslow, not even the belonging needs of Maslow — it’s the self-fulfilling needs. But you’re constantly checking there is nothing better there.”
Because of their relationship with technology and the numerous dating apps someone can have downloaded all at once, this changes how we commit to each other. For single people today, the sign of commitment comes in the form of deleting dating apps. There’s no greater sign of commitment than stopping the interaction with other potential romantic relationships and deleting the opportunities for more searches. But the road to commitment is a road often left untraveled today.
With endless choices of apps, uncountable lists of people to encounter online, this leads to what Perel refers to as stable ambiguity. “This means I like you. I date you. We meet on occasion. But I’m simmering a few others as well. I’m with you just enough so I don’t have to feel lonely.”
One fear that many people with their smartphone in their pocket are facing is FOMO – the fear of missing out. So instead of committing to one person and pursuing an intentional relationship with him or her, single people will have conversations and interactions with many people all going on at once. Thanks to our smart phones, we have access to a constant feed of potential romantic partners. And while this “simmering” of interaction with others can help curb the feeling of loneliness, it’s also a huge roadblock to commitment. A single, committed romantic relationship requires giving up some freedoms, after all.
So if Esther Perel is right, and your smartphone is somewhat to blame for romantic relationship troubles, what can you do instead?
1. Be aware of how often you check your phone
One of the first steps for alcoholics on the road to recovery is recognizing they have a problem.
If we’re being honest, most of us have a very good relationship with our phone. Some of us sleep with them within an arms-length. We rely on them to wake us up in the morning. We pull them out on our lunch breaks and spend most of our break on them. They sit in our pockets, in our purses, and at our desk. According to recent surveys, we check them 47 times a day on average. But if you’re between the age of 18 and 24, you’re more than likely checking your phone 82 times a day. Think this number sounds ridiculous? Keep track of how many times you reach for the screen – that’s what I did for a day. Let’s just say the number wasn’t flattering.
2. Know who you are
Our relationships can become messy when we expect other people to fulfill us. But they can become even messier when used for self-awareness. Perel discusses how asking questions about our online dating habits reveals questions that go much deeper. “We all understand that the massive amounts of options that we have leave us with tremendous amounts of uncertainty and a chronic ailment of self-doubt,” she explains. “We constantly ask ourselves ‘How do I know if this is the person?’ It’s not for nothing that people feel exhausted – and it’s not because of they’ve been swiping, swiping. That doesn’t tire you. It’s the knowing. It’s the figuring out of questions like: ‘Who am I?’, ‘What do I want?’, ‘What do I need?’ ‘Is it really what I need?’ ‘Is I need what I think I need?’ ‘Even when I find it, how do I know it was the thing I was looking for?'”
Before you start dating, look to two other important relationships – your relationship with God, and your relationship with yourself. If you sense a void in either of those relationships, realize that a romantic relationship with someone else will not fill that hole. That’s too much to expect from another human being.
3. Don’t be afraid of good, old fashioned relationships
Perel encouraged her listeners to not be afraid of face to face interaction that’s lost when we just date via apps. “Once you get off the app, you meet a person,” she says. “The rest of the story is your experience with the person. But more and more, we have lost skills.”
When we interact with others on social media, we think we know what others are trying to communicate. But the reality is, we don’t. “Digital is flat – it’s two dimensional,” Perel says. “You don’t have to see, you don’t have to sense. We know that people’s communication online is massively distorted. They think they surely understood what the other person said, but all the social linguistic studies show you that they don’t.”
4. Realize there is no ‘the one’
When browsing dating apps, Instagram, and social media, we can’t fall into the trap of thinking that there is only one person with whom we should pursue romance. Contrary to Disney movies and romance novels, we don’t have soulmates. “There is no ‘the one’. There is one, who you will meet at one point, and you’ll write a story with,” Perel explains. “You could have written another story.”
Instead of believing that you must encounter thousands of dating profiles, searching for the perfect “one”, realize that there are many people in the world who you can interact with. There are many people you could date. There are many people you could discern the vocation of marriage with. There is beauty in the free will of that discernment process – and a load lifted off your shoulders when you realize you’re not looking for a needle in a haystack. You’re looking for a person to write a story with.
5. Be content to wait and build
In the interview, Perel discusses the importance of shifting our perspective when it comes to dating. Instead of asking ourselves if this relationship ‘is it’, she advises that we allow ourselves to see where a relationship can take us – and to be okay with not knowing all the answers.
“Don’t think you have to know all the answers based on someone’s picture, or the first date. Relationships take time,” Perel says. “They are experiences that are processes. I say something, you respond. I listen to your response.”
Another way to phrase the idea of being content with building something is described by Brett McKay. “I used to think that the key shift to be made when growing up was moving from consuming to creating,” he writes. “A mature adult aimed to create more and consume less. As I’ve gotten a little longer in the tooth, I’ve come to feel that the real crux of becoming an adult can even more accurately be captured this way: moving from choosing and pursuing to maintaining and building.”