It’s funny to think that when I first met my husband in the late 1990s, there was no such thing as social media. Along with the milestones that we’ve shared — getting married, having kids, moving to a new house — I can also remember the way that technology slowly made its way into our lives. We got our first cell phones in the early 2000s and I remember being amazed at how the first smartphone allowed me to check email without being at my desk.
Soon after, we started Facebook profiles, tentatively adding photos from our wedding and feeling that first thrill of getting a “like.” From there, it wasn’t too far of a jump for social media to take a starring role in our lives. Even if we weren’t on it, Facebook was always just a click away in our pockets, and checking it became the default for any moment when we weren’t actively engaged with something.
And while our history with social media is probably not much different than most people’s, it troubled me that it had become such an automatic part of not just our day-to-day lives, but our relationship. At night, after the kids were in bed, we would sit on the couch a few feet away from each other, but each in our private, virtual world, checking our pages, consuming content and going down the rabbit hole of “research.” Did we really need to know the name of the “UNTUCKit guy (Chris Riccobono) or watch the original Apple Jacks commercial? (Don’t Google it, you’ll never stop singing it.)
Then one day in January, hyped up on the idea of New Year’s resolutions, I resolved to do an experiment — I would take one month away from social media, from January 14 to Valentine’s Day, just to see how life looked without it. And although I didn’t say it, I also wanted to see what affect it would have on my marriage.
This is your brain on your device
“These devices and apps truly activate the addiction parts of the brain,” Evie Shafner, a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Los Angeles told me. “Sometimes, making concrete decisions, like giving it up for a time, or setting rules about not using at the dinner table can be helpful.”
Britney Blair, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist and founder of The Clinic in the San Francisco Bay Area and co-founder of relationship/sexual wellness app Lover told me that placing restrictions can be beneficial.
“The first thing I always suggest is never to allow phones or social media in the bedroom,” she said. “This allows for a sacred space for sleep and having sex. I would say that there are certain times of day where social media and phones should not be allowed, including mealtime and for at least one or two hours in the evening.”
But Shafner told me that she finds it much more valuable to think about what she calls “visiting the country of your partner” rather than just placing restrictions. For some couples it might be OK to check email but still maintain a connection as long as they are periodically checking in with each other.
“Ask your partner, ‘How are we doing, how is this for you?’ Or, ‘What could I do to make this better?’” suggested Shafner.
We tried a social media detox
I wasn’t pushing the idea of a social media break on my husband, but every time I mentioned my detox, he seemed more and more interested. He expressed concern about not being online during the Super Bowl to connect with his buddies, but it didn’t take long before he followed me in deleting all social media apps off our phones.
While my husband enjoyed posting long rants on Facebook, Instagram was definitely my addiction of choice. I loved the endless scrolling through pictures and posting snapshots of my life for all to see and heart. I worried that I’d be missing out on my friends’ lives by not being on my apps but a few days into the detox something strange happened — I realized I didn’t miss my Instagram at all.
I loved the feeling that my time belonged to me, and that I no longer felt the pull to “check” something constantly throughout the day. But the best part of going offline was that when my husband and I sat down together on the couch at night, I found I was actually listening to what he was saying (not that half-listening thing that you do when your attention is split with something else.)
Life outside the house with him started to change, too. When we went out for a “day date” for lunch (back when you could do that, when kids actually went to school) we laughed about the fact that I wouldn’t be able to share a picture of our bountiful Mediterranean lunch. Taking out my phone, I snapped a pic of the frappé I was drinking anyway. Somehow, it didn’t matter that other people wouldn’t see it, what mattered was that we were there enjoying it together in the moment.
Finding a happy medium
When the day approached to end our break, I worried about what reintroducing social media would do to our marriage. I had missed messages from friends and events during our hiatus. But I didn’t want things to go back to the way they were before. Could we find a happy medium?
Shafner told me that one of the most important things to remember going forward was to approach our relationship with social media and to each other without criticism.
“It’s very easy to take our partner’s inventory, and call them out,” said Shafner. “That’s not connecting. Instead of saying, ‘You’re always on your phone, you don’t pay attention to me,’ try saying, ‘I miss you, I would love to connect.’ That sends a very different signal.”
Now in the age of coronavirus it seems logical that we stay on social media to keep up connections with friends and family. Blair told me that she doesn’t think it’s feasible, or even advisable to give up social media during this time. Instead, she suggested coming up with a plan so that one partner is never policing the other.
“It may even help to develop a ‘safe word’ to use so you can remind one another of the shared commitment,” she said.
The other night, once the kids had gone to sleep, I laid a tablecloth, lit some candles and put on a dress while my husband brought in takeout from a local restaurant. We sat together at our kitchen table and talked, phone-free, and it was just like old times — not pre-coronavirus times, 1997 old times. There was no information to look up, no texts to check or random info to research, just the connection we shared with each other.
When we were finished dinner, I may or may not have posted a few pictures from our beautiful meal on Instagram.
After all, it’s all about balance.