How technology is really changing our relationships

It's not all doom and gloom

Published today, The Way We Are Now: The State of the UK’s Relationships 2015 is a report from Relate commissioned with Relationships Scotland, and Marriage Care, which offers an insight into the home, sex, and work lives of people across the UK. It’s not a particularly juicy read, but it does make interesting attempts to explore how technology is affecting our relationships, which is something we have only really recently been able to explore.

The study, based partly on a YouGov poll of 6,500 people, offers an overview of the way our relationships have been impacted with developments in technology, from how we meet, to how we communicate, even to how we cheat, and also how different age groups are affected.

How we meet

Image: © iStock/Martin Dimitrov

We were surprised to read that just 16% of the coupled-up 16-34 year olds in the study report having met their partner online. Amongst older age groups, it’s even lower, with the number falling to just 3% for those aged over 64. Across all age groups, however, most people are likely to meet through friends. It makes sense that younger generations would find their relationships more affected by technology; we are a generation who are constantly online, and dating apps, dating websites, even ordinary forums, have opened the world up to us, making it much easier to meet people based on shared interests rather than shared acquaintances.

Arguably, though, it’s likely that due to perceptions of online dating and worries about personal safety that these numbers will change slowly, with most people understandably seeming inclined towards the immediate feeling of connection that comes from a face-to-face meeting and the feeling of safety that comes from mutual friends. There’s something comforting about having a close friend be able to give a casual character reference for a prospective partner, rather than relying solely on that person’s word.
“Dave? Nah, Dave’s alright. Bit knobbish, but alright” is naturally more comforting and believable than the perfectly constructed profile you find online.

How we communicate

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Although it’s primarily a younger generation who are open to meeting partners and friends via technology, using it to communicate is very much a cross-generational thing. People aged 65 or over commonly use technology to keep in contact with their partners when they are apart for extended periods, and 79% of those who do so said it had a positive impact. Across all age groups, technology undoubtedly aids communication with friends and partners: 84% of people under 35 who use technology to contact their partner on a daily basis said it has a positive effect on their relationship.

This is no great surprise; a lot of emphasis is placed on good communication for maintaining a strong relationship, and being presented with a plethora of communication options, from Skype to the humble text, when face-to-face simply isn’t an option is an excellent way to stay connected. When face-to-face is an option though, don’t forego it; it doesn’t seem likely that cohabiting couples who Skype from room to room will really feel the communicative benefits.

Interestingly, the report found that couples have a much more positive view of the impact of technology on their relationships compared to relationship support practitioners; 62% of practitioners said technology has a negative impact on relationships compared to just 13% of couples. Perhaps these practitioners are foreseeing problems we aren’t.

The ability to communicate 24 hours a day seems wonderful, but as a result there is a significant pressure to be in constant communication just because we can be, leading to those never ending text conversations where the it begins to feel like you’re trying to make wine from a conversational raisin. Suddenly, before you’ve even gone on your first date, you know everything there possibly is to know about the person and the desire to find out more is gone, or you assume you know them as a person when there’s more to be explored; the amount of times I’ve seen someone dismissed as boring because their text skills aren’t up to scratch is incredible. It seems that as well as having things in common and compatible personalities we must also now navigate different degrees of dependency on, or competency with, technology to communicate in order to form successful relationships.

How we have sex

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Unsurprisingly, technology is also having an effect in the bedroom. The effect of increased ease of access to online porn is a debate it feels like we’re constantly revisiting. 23% of 16-34 year olds in a relationship have reported a negative impact of porn on their relationships. However, 19% of this same group reported a positive impact. But this is an incredibly broad age range, and as porn has a wide range of uses in any relationship, it would be difficult to ascertain whether increased access to online porn is overall negative or positive; obviously the couple who use porn together to explore their sexual fantasies are going to report a much more positive experience than a couple in which one of the partners has developed unrealistic sexual expectations from porn, leaving both of them feeling unsatisfied.

Technology in our sex lives is not limited to the passive experience of porn, we’re also actively using technology to send sexually suggestive texts and pictures. 49% of unmarried couples said that this has had a positive impact on their relationship, and this isn’t exclusive to younger relationships either, with 18% of those who’ve been together more than 15 years reporting sexy messages as having a positive impact.

Of course, as with anything, the experience is not wholly positive, with 17% of 16-34 year olds in relationships saying these kinds of messages had a negative effect on their relationship. Technology can of course sustain intimacy when couples are apart, but we frequently see stories in the media of examples gone wrong, with large numbers of people finding themselves victims of ‘revenge porn’.

How we cheat

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Particularly relevant considering the Ashley Madison fandango, is the place of technology in facilitating affairs. The report indicates a possible increase in those having affairs, saying that 44 per cent of people over the age of 16 had “cheated either physically or virtually or have been tempted to.”

The authors suggest that technology could be playing a part. They say: “We know that novelty can be key for creating sexual arousal and technology offers new opportunities for engaging with new people, as well as creating and viewing sexually explicit material.

“One reason for the higher numbers cheating ‘virtually’ may be because our inhibitions can be reduced when we’re behind a screen, and the temptation to take risks and try out fantasies can instantly be acted upon without time to reflect on the consequences.” However, whilst there are new technologies which facilitate cheating, the behaviour itself isn’t new at all, and it would be a stretch to argue that these technologies are directly leading to increased numbers of affairs.

Technology is even changing the way we find out about affairs; the old lipstick on the collar or discovering something suspicious in the pockets has been replaced with the finding of incriminating Snapchats or Facebook messages. But with 11% of respondents saying they were worried they’d been cheated on, regardless of whether it was digital or not, it’s pretty clear affairs were an established enough occurrence pre-technology that we haven’t all suddenly become more paranoid and adulterous thanks to the facilitation of the dick pic.

It seems that, like anything, technology will have both positive and negative impacts on our relationships. Rather than being a purely positive or negative force, technology is simply another element of relationships, and it’s our use of it that will determine its effect. As much as it would be convenient to blame all of our relationship problems on technology, they essentially stem from where they always have: the people involved in the relationship and how they relate to and trust one another. Technology is just another variable in the mix.


Main Image: © iStock/Petar Chernaev