Shortly after I began dating the man who would become my husband, I left my flip phone in the back seat of a cab. The next day, my iPod broke. This was in 2011, a time when it felt natural to get music from one device and texts from another, so I planned on replacing both. But my boyfriend was having none of it: It’s time to get an iPhone, he said. Though I’d resisted the device for years (who needed all those features?), his argument made sense, and I agreed. Little did I know that this was the first of many times that my indifference to technology would be challenged by his need to have — and have everyone in his life have — all the newest gadgets.
We’ve now been together eight years, and not much has changed. In fact, when I told him I was writing a story about differing attitudes toward tech in relationships, his first reaction was to suggest that I put the payment for this piece toward a new iPhone.
I don’t want a new phone, but that’s beside the point. The point is that the disparity between how partners view tech is an increasingly common element of relationships, and it can create a landscape that’s sometimes difficult to navigate. It’s 2018, and most of us have various gadgets in our lives — but the way we use and value them, and how quickly we feel the need to possess them after their release, can vary greatly. For instance, “I’m an early adopter, [while my boyfriend] is 38 and joined Facebook two years ago,” says Lauren Finney, a writer based in Atlanta. She’s also baffled by his insistence on using Safari instead of switching to Chrome.
Though differing attitudes toward technology might seem superficial, according to Steven Dziedzic, founder of the marriage health app Lasting, they can qualify as “‘perpetual problems, which center around significant differences that repeatedly create conflict.” The specific nature of those conflicts differs from couple to couple, but there are common themes: the minor but recurring frustrations of day-to-day life, like remembering to use a smart light switch instead of the regular one or the incredulity when a partner doesn’t see the convenience of your way.
Then there are bigger issues, like finances. A friend has complained to me that her partner likes to spend his disposable income on gadgets, while she’d prefer to put that money toward travel. I could relate: I remember feeling aggrieved when, as I waited impatiently for an engagement ring, my boyfriend bought a VR helmet.
And when one partner gives tech more prominence than the other thinks necessary, the latter often “feels neglected and hurt,” says Rachel Hoffman, a couples therapist based in New York. I know that when my husband and I are talking and, for instance, the weather comes up, I bristle when he says, “Alexa, what’s the weather today?” To him, it’s the best way to get the information he wants; to me, it feels like he’s bringing a third party into our conversation. (I was outside earlier! I could’ve told him!)
It’s important to note that I’m not talking about, or purely about, smartphone addiction. Smartphones are a utility, and our relationships with them are unique. Certainly, whether you identify more as a technophobe or a technophile informs your phone use, but they’re two distinct issues. It’s the difference between me looking at @Foodbabyny’s Instagram to retreat from a conflict versus my husband needing to have the new Apple Watch. The former is about how phone use affects relationships, and much has been written on the topic. The latter is about couples’ differing attitudes toward technology and the role it should play in life.
And the latter is what I’m curious about: What do those differing attitudes say about us? Our relationships? How do an early adopter and a Luddite find harmony?
I remember feeling aggrieved when, as I waited impatiently for an engagement ring, my boyfriend bought a VR helmet.
In part, the discrepancy can be personality-based. “One of the primary reasons for someone to be an early adopter,” explains Dary Merckens, CTO of software company Gunner Technology, is higher levels of the trait known as openness, or “how likely you are to seek out novelty and new experiences.” Gender also might play a role: Women tend to use their phones more—and more often as tools to manage interpersonal relationships, says psychologist Leora Trub, who runs the Digital Media and Psychology Lab at Pace University. On the other hand, according to a survey from Branded Research, men are more likely to view tech as a positive addition to their relationships.
When it comes to extrapolating values, there’s less certainty. Trub notes that technology offers different things to different people: “Using tech frequently doesn’t indicate one set of values or beliefs — we need to look at what it means to the individual.”
But regardless of what my husband’s desire to have a Roomba says about about him — and what my indifference toward the processing speed of the new MacBook says about me — the fact is that we’re in this together and need to learn to respect one another’s viewpoints. Here, according to experts, are a few strategies.
Be Open About Your Frustrations
According to Dziedzic, disagreements become problematic when one partner ignores their own desires to appease the situation, which breeds resentment. So instead of silently grumping when my husband looks up a fact at dinner rather than theorizing about the answer together, I should voice my feelings — but with an eye to compromise. “While you shouldn’t give up your personal desires,” Dziedzic says, “there are certainly things on which both of you can budge.”
Give Up on Trying to Change the Other Person
While I long for phoneless afternoons reading novels together, and my husband longs for me to be excited about the new iOS, ultimately these fantasies aren’t doing us much good. “If one partner is always pushing the other to be more like them, that’s fertile ground for conflict,” says Raffi Bilek, director of the Baltimore Therapy Center. Instead of seeking change, try to accept these differences as part of your partner.
Many relationship experts recommend making clear rules around technology. This can apply to daily behaviors, but also to things like finances or quality time: for instance, making dinner tech-free, agreeing on a monthly gadget budget, deciding to balance every tech-centric activity or purchase with a more analog one.
Remember the Upsides
Your differing attitudes have unexpected benefits. For one, you help each other discover new things: Finney introduced her boyfriend to the joys of Instagram, while he “reminds me there’s beauty in activities that aren’t on a screen.” There’s also the fact that different interests foster that oh-so-essential element of relationship success: space. That VR helmet I was upset about? Now I thank Oculus whenever my husband puts it on and heads into the spare room to play Fortnite, letting me stretch out on the couch to read my book in peace.
Keep It in Perspective
In the end, unless your partner is blowing all your money on iPads or insisting you move to a yurt in the Yukon, this isn’t a very big deal. “The disparity between a tech adopter and a tech avoider is relatively small in the grand scheme of things. It’s a myth that couples need to share hobbies, likes, or interests in order to have a successful relationship,” Bilek says.
It’s a soothing thing to keep in mind. I may never share my husband’s enthusiasm for the new 32-way FaceTime feature, and he may never understand why I prefer my two-pound hardback copy of The Goldfinch to a Kindle. But after Alexa tells us the weather on Saturday morning — or after I stick my head out the window and let him know it’s warm — we still go outside together to start the day.