'Technology encourages us to avoid intimacy' - How to focus on relationships in this social media age
We're spending more time on social media than focused on real relationships, writes Tanya Sweeney
To paraphrase Ferris Bueller, "relationships move pretty fast, and if you don't look around once in a while, you could miss it." Certainly, modern-day interactions with our nearest and dearest are more likely to be conducted in a blur of Facebook likes, emojis and texts, and meaningful face time (as opposed to, well, FaceTime), becomes the first collateral damage. "There's a big difference between communication and connection and nowhere is that more apparent than on social media," explains Chris Flack, co-founder of Irish digital wellbeing company UnPlug. "In small quantities it can encourage deeper connection and intimacy, however, overuse can lead to tension and has been shown to increase loneliness."
Sharron Grainger, psychologist at the Connolly Counselling Centre, agrees: "Technology encourages us to avoid intimacy. For some, rather than relate to the one they love face to face, they disappear into their screens. However, if you choose to get your head out of the screen for long enough and commit to working creatively at it, cultivating meaningful relationships is possible."
So in a world where company appears plentiful but is really a triumph of quantity over quality, is there a way of making our interactions with others more nourishing? More substantial? More able to work for us?
The Slow Movement, which began in Rome in 1968 but has gained traction in recent years, encourages us to move off life's hamster wheel into a less busy but more focused, gratifying existence. Slow Food, Slow Fashion and Slow Parenting advocate for a more mindful, 'present' approach, so it stands to reason that when it comes to Slow Relationships, the maxim is very much 'less is more'. Or rather, it's about making time for the relationships that matter rather trying to be all things to all men. To avoid getting into a rut with the people that matter the most, take an inventory of the three major groups in your life and make some small but hugely efficient changes:
Family relationships are an obvious starting point; they tend to be among the most potentially gratifying and rich of all. Yet old dynamics can run bone-deep, and they're the one group of people with which we're often the most complacent. Complexity is writ large in family relationships, according to psychotherapist Lorraine Hackett (mymind.org): "The parent-child relationships can be tricky as parents can still feel like they're responsible for their child's emotional wellbeing," she says. "The fact is that true wellbeing comes when you can be with someone and be as sad or as happy as you really are.
"Parenting an adult can be different, and can come when parental health is in decline, and when the dynamic changes quite fast, there can be a wave of resentment and pain on the child's part," Hackett adds. "But in order to maintain a deep, intimate contact within the family, we need to meet family members as we, and they, are at the moment."
Your significant other
According to relationship psychologist Dave Kavanagh, who runs online courses for couples (relationshipbootcamp.ie), humans are governed by chemistry. "When you're scoring left and right, you get these little bursts of dopamine that are highly addictive. Once you give yourself an overload of dopamine, in some ways it can make an individual seem less exciting over time. It can make the idea of committing to one individual less appealing." Yet a deeper connection, involving intimacy and authenticity, is of much more lasting benefit: "It's important to recognise other people's humanity and vulnerability," explains Kavanagh. "It takes a lot of time to build this up - you don't know someone immediately after a two-hour dinner date. With multiple dating experiences though, we lost some of the richness of humanity, and that's not great for your expectations of relationships." Those in long-term romances needn't get stuck in a rut, either: "I often mention the importance of adventure and excitement, and flooding the brain with chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, testosterone, and adrenaline," says Kavanagh. "If you watch Netflix or do the same thing over and over, your pleasure-seeking mechanisms will be screaming for attention. People spend too much time in each other's company that the element of excitement is no longer there. Give each other space, and be sure to do novel new activities. Things like rock-climbing will have a more dramatic effect than going to the cinema, and allowing these chemicals to be recreated in the brain can affect the amount of lust people experience for each other."
According to the experts, a major cull is often needed, starting with cutting out the 'have tos' with acquaintances in our life. In her book, The Life Changing Magic Of Not Giving A F***, author Sarah Knight suggests doing away with events, meetings or people that mean little or nothing, even if you feel a misplaced sense of social obligation. She was clearly onto something - the book was a worldwide bestseller.
According to psychotherapist Emma Doyle (mymind.org), we tend to do this for several reasons: "Lots of my clients force themselves to do things they don't want to do," she observes. "Often, what drives this behaviour is their personality and internal self-belief. They're people who tend to people-please, and are reluctant to say no because of how they'd be perceived." Adds psychotherapist Trish Murphy (trishmurphy-psychotherapist.com): "If you do say yes to these interactions, go with a full heart behind it, but only spend time with people if they're not toxic and moany."
When friendships fall into a complacent rut, changing up the scenery can offer relationships a much-needed shot in the arm. "Change the setting and conversation," suggests Doyle. "It's fine to go to the pub for drinks, but open up and ask someone what's going on for them. If your group pattern is to meet and rant about work, talk about something else, like a big holiday you'll take this year. It can be a hard conversation to start, but try something like, 'I'm glad you're here and I value the time we have together and I really want to know what's going on with you.'"
It may sound novel, but physical contact is hugely important in platonic friendships, too: "A lot of my clients, particularly male ones, find that unless they're in a sexual relationship it can be a long time before someone will hold their hand, and that affects us physically," observes psychotherapist Lorraine Hackett. "On a very basic level, if you want to see a decrease in anxiety and depression societally, we need to depend more on this contact."
How to be a good friend
Laura O'Herlihy, from Dublin's Stoneybatter, works in finance.
"I think most of my friends would see me as a positive person, someone who encourages them to look on the bright side or make the best of things. I would also hope they would say I'm a good listener.
"The best way to keep meaningful relationships is contact - it doesn't always have to be face to face - even phone calls and texts to check in and let them know I'm thinking of them. A reminder that a band we both like is touring soon, or sharing an article on something I know they're interested in. Little ways of reaching out to let people know they're in your thoughts and keep the lines of communication open.
"Friendship should be forgiving of most things but it's almost impossible to stay friends with someone who constantly takes and needs your support when times are tough but vanishes into thin air when the situation is reversed. It's good to remember that making time for people doesn't always mean spending a whole day with them - a quick coffee when you're in their part of town, asking them if they'd like to come along to an event you're planning to go to, or a lunch during the week if you work close to each other."