“I am me, now. It’s just when I text or email, I can’t always be me.”

I overheard part of a conversation recently waiting in line – a girl speaking on her cell phone:
“I am me, now. It’s just when I text, or email, I can’t always be me. But now, it’s me! I’m here, with you.”

I won’t belabor that with a full deconstruction, but it got me thinking about how technology is shaping the way we handle relationships. How does technology shape our relationships in positive ways, facilitating communication and bridging gaps? Also, how does it hinder our communication and complicate our relationships? I asked for input from friends about their experiences with new technology in their relationships and put together some thoughts that follow.

In person, we rely on the intricacies of language and non-verbal cues to create an infinitely complex puzzle of messages. These are used to build and shape our interpersonal journeys. Our relationships are built on the transfer of information from one to the other, but reducing these to binary data may become detrimental, as the nuance is lost. As new technology becomes our main conduit, we have to find new ways of achieving the same subtleties. We also are adjusting to the speed at which our relationships can shift given the frequency at which we’re now communicating.

With our intimate partners, we create unique codes of nose wrinkles, gestures, the fleeting touch of a finger to his earlobe. A hand on the knee under the table reminds her you’re most attuned to her even in the company of co-workers. The lilt in your voice as you leave for the train lets him know you’ll be daydreaming of him and your upcoming vacation.

With strangers, we have regionally, culturally determined salutations of handshakes, head-nods, and colloquialisms. In NY, there may be little subtlety in letting the tourist know to get out of the fast lane on the sidewalk. Coming from North Carolina, I use “yes, ma’am” and “yes, sir” as a habit of my childhood and to let people know they’ve been heard.

With our communications being reduced into digital data, the subtlety is easily lost: sarcasm is obscured in text messaging; the sweetness of the “I miss you” email is lost to the barrage; the independence in adventure and the passion upon return may be stymied by the e-leash; the lunch partner is betrayed by the din of ring tones and vibrations rattling the stemware.

This is not to deny the brilliance of hyper-accessibility. The fact that I can text one brother for an airport pick-up, call my mother to help with the flight re-booking, and surf the internet for flight schedules is a brilliant feat. I fully embrace the power of Wikipedia to end an argument or settle a bet, as does my stepfather, though he rarely needs it. A co-worker preserves her parenting partnership and enduring love with her husband by using Skype, chat and email while he is in Afghanistan.

Beyond accessibility, technology is improving the quality of communications, as was recalled by a friend in a long-distance relationship. While the phone served as his primary tool to keep in touch, they also used IM/chat during calls to say the harder stuff they struggled to say out loud. This gave them a safer way to express their emotions. The door was then open to delve deeper when they were both comfortable.

One of my distant cousins, who I keep up with on Facebook, has embraced technology to further his passion for genealogy, teaching me how we’re related and our connection to the candle-factory-turned-historical-museum on Nantucket! Like me, he’s cold to the twitterverse, but keen on sending his wife an email, though she’s sitting in the same room with him.

Several comments I received echoed my nostalgia for the days of the unconnected. It was humorous then to see some of those same people depending on Facebook for the solutions to everyday life: “Who’s got a kid-friendly chard recipe?”

“Hey, OC peeps – I need a pick-up at LAX.”

As the culture and means of sharing changes, our socialization is swiftly evolving. With so much personal information flooding our avatars – Facebook, twitter, flickr, etc. – what is left to share with the person who gains our deepest trust? One friend commented on the culture of over-sharing and the discomfort it raises. If we cannot save the intricacies of our personalities for special moments, relationships will be as informed by a twitter feed as by conversation face-to-face.

As I develop these ideas, I invite your insights, reactions, experiences. Please comment below.

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It Takes Two: Do Away with Posturing and Seek a Win-Win

Sometimes, we get a great idea, so sure our partner will go gaga for it, and come to find out, he’s so preoccupied with something else, it’s a non-starter. That first refusal comes out insulting or avoiding; we dig in, insist. He’s staunch in his determination to stick to plans and get things done. And before you know it, both partners are on defensive footing, jockeying for control. And of course, a fight ensues.

“You never act spontaneously with me and we never have fun!”

“You always want me to just drop things where they are to run off with you.”

“Why can’t you be more flexible? I don’t want our lives to be predictable and prescribed all the time!”

However the pattern is built and the conversation flows, it is so easy to get caught in this pattern of always and nevers, you can’ts and I don’ts. Before you know it, no one’s doing anything they want to be doing. And, they’re doing it angrily!

Rather than sticking to the same old script that leads to eruptions and festering animosity, find a way to avoid it by seeking a win-win. Identify the differing positions, talk about what the real concerns are (e.g. “I want to get these bills paid before we leave town for the weekend”), recognize each other’s priorities and preferences, and think it through to see:

How can we work together to achieve both of our goals?

“Ok, I hear you are concerned about getting the bills done now. At the same time, I want to spend some QT with you and give you a treat! Is there a way for me to help you finish the bills faster? Then, I can treat you to that movie you’ve been hoping to see?”

“Well, if you’ll address, stamp and seal, I’ll do these last four and be ready to go!”

Easier said than done. The first step is recognizing the habitual landmines, those triggers of defensive posturing that lure you in. Use the exercise below to see how well you can pick up on some of the triggers, and tell me: which ones sound familiar? How can you use this in your own relationship? Come back later and let me know if it helps or not!

Partnerships are so much more rewarding when they’re done collaboratively and mutually – when the animosity is done away with.

Take a moment to self-assess: How are your relationship skills?

Take a few moments to reflect. Below you can take a short, insightful quiz that will help you look at the way you react to and interact with your partner. It will give you some new options and some basic feedback on how you’re doing.

We all have room to polish our relationship skills. So take a few minutes to see where yours need honing. Call me to set up an appointment and we can delve deeper.

Dropping the Don’ts, Doubling the Do’s.

As I’ve written in the past, saying what you want gets you there much faster than saying what you don’t want. In the same vein, saying things clearly and positively make it much easier to be heard. And your partner’s more likely to respond in kind – with a clear, affirming response, even if it presents a different opinion or preference. The ‘don’t wants’ are part of what make Negative Nancys so hard to be around – it’s easy to know what they don’t like, and it’s frustratingly tough to find out what they’re after.

Every ‘don’t want’ disguises the real message – what you’re after – and betrays your partner’s chance at hearing your desire and being able to accommodate. In a way, they set you up for failure right from the start. Negative statements spew negative energy. They also give a false invitation to fix a problem: “I knew we’d get stuck in these broken seats again.” It begs for your partner to fix it, but there’s really no good solution. And, as a conversation starter, it’s a non-starter; it only invites responses born of negativity – be it quiet resentment, defensive anger, or inauthentic sympathy. An alternative statement might be, “Next time, I’d like to be here early enough to get good seats.”

The work comes in nipping them in the bud, and replacing them with a clear, positive statement that shares candidly, explicitly what your goal is, what your preference is. One of the games from the Power of Two gives a short, fun exercise on identifying problematic statements that are negative and counter-productive and those that are positive and accessible. When our language becomes more straight-forward and collaborative, our partnerships follow suit – conversations stay in the positive, are warmer and more mutual. And the pattern becomes a habit, which in turn shapes the path of the relationship.

Give the game a try. Play it more than once, get the hang of it, and see how easy it becomes to identify the trigger words of the negative phrases, and notice how much warmer and easier to ‘hear’ the positive statements feel. I’d love to hear your comments on the game and how you can and do apply this in your own experience.

Power of Two: Pass the Popcorn Game

You think you know your partner?

If nothing else, simple quizzes can spark ways for you to gain new insights about your relationships. They can trigger you to consider going back to the topics of initial curiosity, in the early days of your relationship, in a way getting back to basics.

Dr. John Gottman’s name comes up again and again, especially after moving to Colorado, and I’ve come to like his work with his wife, Dr. Julie Schwartz Gottman. In the quiz linked below, you can take five minutes to answer some yes/no questions. And then reflect, not just on your score, and not just on individual questions, but what went on in choosing your answer. Be aware – if you felt an answer immediately – obviously – or you felt drawn by obligation or maybe discomfort, shame?, to answer one way. What was that like? And, what can you do about that? Remember, it’s a self-assessment, so be honest with yourself.

And then, use those new insights as triggers to new interactions with your partner, maybe even share your insights. Re-discover and re-connect on those simple items and see where it takes you.

Also, check out some of the other resources on gottman.com and let me know what you think.