Tuning-out for better relationships
Author: Richard Singleton

Online. It’s where we do our shopping, watch our sitcoms and movies, find, acquire and store our music, upload our family pictures and videos and, increasingly, we are using online as the social venue where our relationships are formed and/or nourished.

While it’s important to note the dangers involved in Internet relationships, it’s the changing landscape of our society and it’s the emerging culture. That won’t be changing anytime soon; it’s here to stay. The key is not to ignore the reality of online relationships, but to embrace the benefits and be wary of the pitfalls.

Recently, a friend and colleague of mine in the mental health arena, Cesar Gamez, owner and director of North Phoenix Counseling, noted that he is seeing an alarming rise in the number of marriages that are falling apart due to Facebook affairs. Certainly, the anonymity, ease of access and sense of invincibility that comes from communicating behind the protection of keypad or keyboard creates a noxious mix of ingredients ripe for relationship ruin, and that’s not just through Facebook, of course.

Back in the summer of 2007, country star Brad Paisley made a humorous lyrical poke at this growing phenomenon in his song “Online.” In that hidden wonderland of fantasy and fiction, we’re not the same. Inhibitions ease, realities blur, taboos are tamed. And perhaps worst of all, the truth about who we are hides in the shadows of who we want others to think we are. It’s the danger of not having relationships face-to-face, where we are forced to face the realities, expectations and accountability of actual physical interaction.

All is not lost. As you well know, face-to-face relationships have their own challenges. You’ve heard of the bald-faced liar, the two-faced friend and the granddaddy of them all, the backstabber. You’ll notice that the imagery couldn’t be clearer. It’s imagery of interpersonal contact, and though face-to-face, they are just as unhealthy as the Facebook rant typed in addled anger — in CAPITAL letters! — and deposited in the cyber-vault for all to peer at for perpetuity.

So, what’s a guy or gal to do about online relationships? Like any relationship, there’s no magic answer. A few practical pursuits, however, may make a big difference in setting the stage for relationship success.

Extremes beget extremes, so avoid them. If you do all of your relationship business online, then you might want to consider powering off the laptop, putting down the iPad and chucking the smartphone up onto the counter for a few hours — after, of course, using them to contact your friend, child, parent or partner to set up some real face-to-face time. Meet-up for coffee and leave all the gadgetry in the car – or better yet, at home (I’m having withdrawal just typing about it). We can do it; it’s the right thing.

Deepen face-to-face relationships at a similar pace as you deepen online relationships. It’s easy to feel an immediate and deep connection with someone online.

I’m sure there are many reasons this is true, but one of the main ones is that you’re only seeing the filtered “them” and they are only seeing the filtered “you.” If you find yourself being more open, more transparent and more deeply connected with people online than face-to-face, tap the breaks, find a face-to-face friend and work on deepening that relationship as much as you feel like you’re deepening your online relationships. You’ll gain tremendous benefits from developing the skills and practice that it takes to form meaningful, physically present relationships.

Avoid danger zones at all costs. If you’re married, in an exclusive dating relationship or if you are trying to set boundaries for your children and their online relationships, ensure that you are exercising the most care possible when it comes to warning signs, danger zones and stop lights. Secret, hidden and improper chats, messages, texts and the like are sometimes energizing, exciting and stimulating – at least they feel that way. In reality, they are often the precursors of relationship devastation. If you have a commitment to a life-partner, have a committed dating relationship or another relationship where secrets and cover-ups are out of bounds, then keep them out of bounds. Ensure that you and your spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend or children understand where you stand and make sure that there is a way for accountability to be tested and preserved. Today’s technology makes it easy for us to find ourselves drifting almost imperceptibly towards the shoals of a relational shipwreck. Take utmost care to stay alert and responsive to lurking dangers. Honesty, transparency and accountability will win the day almost every time.

The frenetic pace of technological change is almost unimaginable. Who would have thought that we’d be facing the challenges of relationships that are increasingly done almost exclusively online? But, we’re here. We have an amazing opportunity as husbands, wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, parents and children to use technology well and to cause it to enliven and sustain healthy relationships. At the same time, we have to always be on guard for the slippery slope that leads to relationship erosion and isolation from the people whom we care about the most – the people we hug, shake hands with, smile at, pat on the back and with whom we share in the reality that no one will ever be able to replace the human touch!

Richard Singleton, MACE, MAMFC, LPC, is the Director of Counseling Services at STARRY in Round Rock.

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