Taken as a whole, they paint a gloomy picture of our relational future. A significant cause of these trends is people’s tendency to immerse themselves in technological advancements without considering the implications. Technology is not going to stop or go away, so unless we start taking these implications seriously, we may wake up one day in the near future with a broken heart and without the relationships that are so vital to our wellbeing.
In 2006 married people stopped being the majority in the U.S., and the number has been in decline ever since. Today over 110 million adult Americans are divorced, widowed or single. Not only are fewer people marrying, but they’re also having less sex. Conversely, more people are watching pornography than ever before. Although their sessions are shorter: today viewers spend an average of nine minutes per session, whereas a decade ago it was 13 minutes.
What’s fueling these trends? Technology certainly seems to be playing a role. In a series of studies, my colleagues and I were able to highlight one way that our social media activity can harm our personal relationships.
Our research revealed an interesting phenomenon. Opening up about your feelings to friends and partners in person tends to strengthen those relationships. But doing the same online, whether it’s in a Facebook post or a tweet, has the opposite effect, resulting in a weakening of ties. It damages their relationships with their partners, potentially because the partner feels like the last to know, and thus feels less special.
But in a different set of four studies, we describe a different tendency that may also harm relationships: the tendency to view people and relationships as disposable. This “relational disposability” is on the rise.
In Western countries, consumerism and materialism are high, and people tend to buy a lot of goods even when they do not need them. People view objects, such as smart phones, computers and cars as disposable. I buy a new iPhone, not because I need it or because my old phone is dead, but rather because I like the idea of having something new.
In the first study, we showed a correlation between the tendency to dispose of objects and the tendency to sever social ties. In the second study, we showed that if you’ve moved a lot over the course of your life, you have an easier time throwing out material goods and ending relationships. The remaining two studies showed that simply thinking more about residential mobility increases the willingness to dispose of objects, people and relationships.
These findings about relational disposability are in line with what is called the Tinder effect. The use of online dating websites and apps, such as the highly popular Tinder app, has led to a change in the perceptions of, and attitudes toward, romance and committed relationships—replacing dating and commitment with hook-up culture. Having an abundance of potential mate choices may overwhelm people, makes them treat their choices lightly, and pushes them away from dating (or having sex) completely due to their disappointment or dissatisfaction.
Relationships may seem minor compared to pressing problems like wars, global warming and natural disasters. They do have, however, a huge impact on our individual and societal health and future. Looking at Western Europe and Japan we can get an idea of what might happen here at home in the near future—the upside-down population pyramid problem, meaning that fewer babies are being born and that the elderly are living longer, which leads to imbalanced demography and potential socioeconomic collapse. If we won’t pay attention and put the work into relationships, our future may look like Europe and Japan’s.
At the individual level, we need people to understand the importance of working on their relationships—by establishing open communication, comparing expectations, respecting one’s partner and working together on problems. Being aware of relational disposability can help. Trying to take others’ points of view and appreciating what you have can also help. Spending less time gazing at your phone when you’re together and more looking at your loved one is another step in the right direction.
At the national level, we need to invest resources in educating young people about the importance of relationships, especially in the face of technology—about how to find a partner, how to maintain relationships and how to deal with expectations gaps and conflicts.
Relationships require hard work. Even small changes, such as having a weekly or monthly date night, can help. Relationships also involve compromise, which may mean sacrificing your dream destination for your honeymoon—but the process of compromising could save your relationship and lead to an even more rewarding life destination.
The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)
Omri Gillath is a professor of psychology at the University of Kansas. He is a co-author of Adult Attachment.