A couple very much in love, now in a state of deep despair, as one of them, in this case, the woman has discovered that her partner has “cheated” on her with inappropriate emotional online relationships of a sexual nature.

The smartphone, once an object of enchantment, has fallen from its pedestal. The thing that helped the couple feel safe now feels dangerous. No longer the soother of conflict, the antidote to boredom, the smartphone is now the couple’s mortal enemy.

But the enemy is not the phone alone, but rather the overly important role the phone has come to occupy between the couple. The “Social You & Me” of the couple has been displaced by social media. Instead of a protective loving space, there is an emotional vacuum. They have lost their ability to be social, connected and silent in a genuine way with each other. Smartphones, triangulate relationships in stimulating, soothing and often destructive ways. “Triangulation” is a way for couples (or any two people) to alleviate the stress between them by turning to a third resource–a person or thing– to stabilize the dyad and alleviate the tension. Often, however, it doesn’t help resolve the conflict but instead perpetuates it by helping them avoid their issues. In the case of the smartphone, intimacy can be diminished in a variety of ways: why emote when you can emoji? Why chat when you can Snapchat? Why meet face-to-face when you can Facebook? Why have sex on your kitchen counter when you can do it on a social media platform with someone else…and so on.

The irony is that the more couples try to “play it safe” by turning to social media, the more danger the couple can fall into. As couples try to meet their disparate needs for intimacy alone, there is a “de-centering” of the primacy of the couple relationship, leaving many at a loss as to what meaningful connection is. It’s what I am calling “unconscious de-coupling” in the digital age.

As social media devices beckon as the “mysterious, seductive other” as well as the soothing self-object, it is our clinical challenge as therapists to create “a sense of “thirdness” for the couple to explore what is going on between them. Thirdness is the idea that there is a rich dynamic between the the couple that they can talk about vs. get split off from by triangulating. As relationship expert John Gottman of the Gottman Institute says, “The Masters” of couples can hold their relationship in their hand like “an invisible soccer ball” and be curious about it. “The Disasters” get into blame games of intense reactivity and defensiveness and don’t know how to self-soothe, let alone create empathy and curiosity about their dynamic.

Fortunately, in most cases, these social and soothing skills can be learned. Couples can learn to be gentle with each other. Couple’s therapy can help them to begin to get curious about what a healing, reparative dynamic sounds like. To become vulnerable in a way that can be heard and received.  For social media-challenged partners, the challenge is to move away from “apps” and gradually to recreate an appreciation and appetite for each other. In Alone Together: How We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, Sherry Turkle points out that while we think that our machines are “taking care of us, they don’t care for us.” Navigating the complexity of care in a relationship is what being human is about. And in our digital age, finding ways to cheat ourselves of our humanity and capacity for connection has never been easier.

Psychotherapist Esther Perel, in The State of Affairs, questions the overwhelming demands of monogamy–to be the ever-ready friend, confidante, lifelong partner, mother, father, passionate lover, etc. She writes: “the victim of the affair may not be the victim of the relationship”. Part of couple’s work is to use a “breach” as a “bridge” to explore what is desired to make the relationship more vital. What was the affair or indiscretion really about? Often it can provide a necessary spark, a wakeup call, to rally couples back to each other; to seek out a fresher recognition of each other. It is this sense of “aliveness” that is frequently what the acting-out partner is seeking, not necessarily the sex itself. In working with couples, we often try to help couples appreciate that perhaps the love they thought they knew–and feel they have lost–was hiding something that they  need to understand to truly grow. In the spirit of John Gottman, the couple needs to hold up their relationship as that “invisible soccer ball,” throw it around a bit, get curious, and learn to play a better game.

More from Esther Perel on “Rethinking Infidelity”:

More from John Gottman on the “Masters and Disasters” of Relationships:

PARC © 2019. PARC (Park Avenue Relationship Consultants) is a group of highly skilled and experienced NYC relationship therapists working with individuals, couples, and families. We have private office locations in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Riverdale, and Long Island. Each PARC therapist has extensive clinical training and experience, and is fully licensed and certified by New York State. Privacy and confidentiality are guaranteed. Out-of-network only. For more information, please call PARC at (917) 340-7592 or visit parkavenuerelationshiptherapy.com.