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Alone Together: Intimate Relationships in the Digital Age

Intimate relationships in digital age

“One’s company,

two’s a crowd,

and three’s a party.”

 — Andy Warhol

Relationships matter. And they take work.

And they need to be fun and playful to be nourishing, rewarding and self-sustaining. They are our deepest longing and our most fearful dread, our place of sustenance, succor and security, and equally of shame, anxiety and embarrassment.

Intimate two-person relationships are inherently unstable. When emotional tension threatens, a third person is sought to help calm the anxiety.

Guerin & Fogarty wrote.

“From this perspective, we can see life not so much as a series of paths to be chosen, but as a maze of triangular shoals and reefs to be navigated around.”

This three-person interconnected relationship system, a triangle rather than a triad, serves to reduce anxiety at the same time guaranteeing that fundamental relationship problems will never be resolved. It is short-term gain for long-term pain. Even worse, triangles often exacerbate emotional discomfort by:

  • Promoting the development of symptoms in an individual – the negative side of the triangle is merely a symptomatic expression of a total family problem.
  • Maintaining relationship conflicts
  • Impeding or preventing resolution of toxic or conflicted issues
  • Blocking functional evolution of a relationship over time
  • Creating and perpetuating therapeutic impasses
  • Depriving families of problem-solving options

It is helpful to think of interpersonal triangles as having a relationship structure, a function and an emotional process.

The structure of a relationship triangle consists of two on the inside, who are fused and overly close, and one on the outside who is emotionally distant and detached.

The function of a relationship triangle is to create stability by:

1. Focusing on something external so the couple can sort their conflicts.

2. This then helps in removing the tension between them without any major change.

The emotional process of a relationship triangle consists of the movement of the system’s chronic anxiety as alliances shift and change over time.

The omnipresence of triangles in all relationship difficulties is one of the eight fundamental interlocking concepts of Bowen Family Systems Theory (BFST).

“It [a triangle] is considered the building block or “molecule” of larger emotional systems because a triangle is the smallest stable relationship system. A two-person system is unstable because it tolerates little tension before involving a third person. A triangle can contain much more tension without involving another person because the tension can shift around three relationships. If the tension is too high for one triangle to contain, it spreads to a series of “interlocking” triangles.”

Now what if that ‘third person’ is not a person but a thing?

The July/August 2016 issue of Psychology Today suggests the perils of a 21st century ‘ménage à trois’, our ubiquitous affairs with technology. With our face in our phone or tablet or smart watch or laptop, how present can we really be for our partner?

Sherry Turkle subtitles her latest book on computer culture “Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other”. She suggests that technology creates “substitutions that put real on the run”. To LOL, OMG and others we can now add IRL meaning “In Real Life” as in something in the real world in contrast with communication and interaction online or in a fictional situation.

When we have “conversations” with people who may not exist, and when we “talk” with our thumbs rather than our voice, when the person across the table sees the back of our iPhone or is face down engaged with their screen, how much true sharing and emotional intimacy can there be?

I was relating a story once about my joy at having six hours of uninterrupted face time with a close relative and the response was “you mean on your iPhone?” Guess I should have added IRL.

So turn towards your partner rather than turning away. And remind everyone, most importantly yourself, that for some strange and unusual reason, electronics don’t work in your bedroom.

We all struggle with balancing emotional closeness and distance. Consequently we can all benefit from relationship coaching and consultation. So “if it’s somethin’ weird an’ it don’t look good, who ya gonna call?” And if you don’t have a Proton Pack for bustin,’ consider consultation with a well trained Bowen Family Systems Theory Coach and Relationship Consultant who “ain’t afraid o’ no [family] ghost.”

Best of luck on your unfolding journey of a lifetime.

  VERIFIED EXPERT
Ronald B Cohen is an experienced family therapist specializing in Bowen Family Systems to help individuals, couples and families to develop healthier relationships. He is associated with the American Psychiatric Association and is an affiliate member of American Academy of Marital and Family Therapy. Ronald has also served as a supervisor to residents on inpatient psychiatric unit at North Shore University Hospital.

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