Technology & Relationships: A Two-Decade Study on Interactions and Effects
As we adapt to the changing dynamics between technology and romantic relationships, we must understand both the positive and negative consequences.
We envision a future where technology enhances relationships mindfully and responsibly.
Technology has drastically changed our relationships, shifting from a focus on practical benefits to the modern pursuit of love and self-expression.
Since the 1960’s, dating culture has been influenced by innovations such as computer matchmaking and AI chatbots.
With over 366 million users in 2022, online dating services have reshaped the landscape of relationships, but it's not without its challenges, including bias and discrimination.
88% of people experience "technoference" or "phubbing", i.e. technology interfering with their relationship.
People are starting to replace human companions with AI companions.
Technology promises deeper romantic connections through innovations like online therapy, virtual reality (VR) for long-distance couples, and prevention-focused apps.
Couples that actively engaged with relationship wellness apps multiple times a day reported higher levels of relationship satisfaction after only 21 days.
The future of relationships lies in our ability to use technology in the best way.
In today's tech-driven world, our romantic relationships have changed significantly. Imagine going back to the 1900s and trying to explain swiping on a screen to find a partner. The very idea would seem like science fiction, yet today, it's a reality for millions. Now more than ever, we are living in a society where technology is fully integrated into even the most intimate parts of our lives. As a result, not only have the values and needs of our relationships changed, our relationship with technology itself has evolved.
As with any evolution, there are both positive and negative consequences. If we want to thrive in this digital age, we must comprehend the full scope of how technology impacts human connection. In this exploration, we will journey through time to examine important parts of history, and the present day consequences of technology on relationships. At the heart of this research lies several questions: How has technology shaped the way we relate to one another? What does the future hold for the intersection of technology and romantic relationships? How can we leverage technology to foster deeper intimacy and human connection?
Ultimately, our goal is to shed light on the past while charting a path forward. From online therapy to relationship-focused apps, we envision a future where technology enhances relationships mindfully and responsibly.
A History of Technology and Relationships
If you were to time travel to the 19th-century, you’d find that relationships were a lot different than they are today. Back then, marriage primarily served as a means to acquire economic and physiological benefits, including safety, household support, social status, and financial contributions. While love has always been a desirable goal, it was typically viewed as a nice-to-have rather than a necessity for a successful partnership. This stands in stark contrast to modern-day relationships, which are deeply rooted in the pursuit of love, personal growth, and self-expression (1).
So, what changed? Various factors have contributed to the evolution of relationship dynamics, including war, politics, and changing cultural norms. However, technology arguably lies at the center of it all.
Advancements in tech have been influencing social norms since the industrial revolution. Automobiles allowed young couples to escape their parents' watchful eyes, turning courtship into dating. Postal services facilitated long-distance communication via love letters. In 1959, the potential of computers extended beyond military code-breaking when two Stanford students, Jim Harvey and Phil Fialer, used an IBM 650 mainframe computer to match individuals based on common interests (2). Harvey and Fialer had no intentions of turning their school project into a business. Little did they know, they were sitting on a billion dollar idea.
It didn't take long for someone else to recognize the potential for computers to help solve the age-old challenge of finding a compatible partner. In 1962, Joan Ball, inspired by her experience operating a marriage bureau in Britain, hired a programmer to create the first commercialized matchmaking service named Com-Pat. Two years later, Harvard students Jeffrey Tarr, David Crump, Douglas H. Ginsburg, and Vaughn Morrill gained nationwide attention in the United States for matching over 70,000 students in their initiative, Operation Match. This was only the beginning of digital technology's integration into our intimate lives.
While many innovators in the 1960’s were racing to revolutionize the dating scene, others were uncovering insights into the psychological effects of becoming more intimate with machines. In 1966, Joseph Weizenbaum created the first chatbot, named ELIZA, to demonstrate the limitations of human-computer interaction (3). To his surprise, people were easily captivated by the personal feel of an artificial intelligence that could "understand" them. Of course, it was an illusion, the chatbot was designed to recognize patterns and respond using predetermined scripts, but that didn’t seem to matter. Many people, including Weizenbaum’s secretary, found themselves confiding in ELIZA as they would a therapist or friend.
This unusual bond with AI raised red flags for Weizenbaum and others, who began to voice concerns about the potential dangers of technology. Since then, opinions have become increasingly controversial. While many advocate for the positive applications of technology, research also highlights the negative effects we’re experiencing today. It seems the path of technology has led us to a crossroads where we're both intrigued and concerned about the intimate relationships we're forging with machines.
The Impact of Technology on Today’s Society
When thinking about technology and relationships, contemporary dating apps such as Tinder, Match, and Bumble likely come to mind, and for good reason. Over the past two decades, online dating has become the most common method for people to meet their partners (4). Gone are the days when we primarily relied on friends or family members to introduce us to potential matches living only a few blocks away. With over 366 million users in 2022, online dating services have reshaped the landscape of relationships.
These days, romantic interest often begins with a swipe (or rather a few thousand swipes) and continues as a series of instant messages (5). Online chats can easily turn into face-to-face conversations or they can develop into long term relationships without ever needing to meet in person (6). For many, these platforms provide a comfortable space to initiate conversations and express their interests (7). This is especially true for historically marginalized groups like same-sex and interracial partners who’ve had fewer opportunities to find love in the past.
The ability to connect more openly and freely online, has helped push the boundaries of what's considered socially acceptable. Studies show that 65% of same-sex couples have met and formed relationships online (8). Furthermore, a 2018 Tinder poll revealed that the majority of respondents felt more confident dating people from different racial or ethnic backgrounds when using virtual platforms (9). These stats highlight technologies' ability to positively influence society. However, this interaction is two-fold. Some research emphasizes that dating apps can also reinforce societal issues, including discrimination and bias.
For a large part of history, dating platforms like Operation Match were built on conservative views, primarily catering to straight, white, and privileged young men. In some cases, modern apps still reflect harmful biases such as race discrimination which has been linked to higher rates of depressive symptoms among online dating users (10). While certain platforms aim to foster more inclusive environments; some critics argue that dating apps are not as progressive as they should be. Allowing users to filter potential matches by race, for example, represents a missed opportunity for technology to challenge and reshape dating norms (11). Given that dating apps are created by humans, they are subject to human shortcomings, which is why it's essential to be conscious of the potential biases that can negatively impact how we interact with technology in our romantic lives.
That said, online dating is just one of the diverse ways in which technology has positive and negative impacts on relationships today. On one hand, research offers hope that devices such as our phones can serve as effective tools for enhancing communication and addressing conflicts (7). Imagine a heated argument where you're either unsure of what to say or you say way too much out of anger. Your phone can help you create some space, giving you time to reflect and respond more constructively. Many individuals have reported using technology to help them discuss disagreements and express feelings in a less confrontational way. With the creation of social media, we’ve also started sharing pictures and relationship status updates as a way to express our romantic interest, validate our commitment, and strengthen our sense of connection when physically apart. This public display of affection has been shown to create bonding opportunities and shared experiences (12).
On the flip side, when technology is misused, our relationships start to suffer. Constant access to social media, texts, emails, news alerts, advertisements, and a million notifications has resulted in an abundance of distractions at our fingertips. Studies indicate that 88% of people see technology as a growing interference in their relationship (13). In research, we call this "technoference" or "phubbing", where individuals pay more attention to their devices than to their romantic partners. Phubbing leads to increased feelings of jealousy, decreased relationship satisfaction, anxiety, and disconnection (14). Sadly, advancements in tech meant to help us connect have inadvertently led to toxic behaviors. Rates of online abuse between partners are increasing through harassment (obsessive calling and online stalking), controlling behavior (demanding passwords and tracking location), and non consensual sharing of private information (15). These behaviors are making it increasingly easier for relationships to fall apart. Some researchers believe that the further development of technology, specifically AI companions, will only continue to separate us.
Source: Pew Research
In the futuristic movie "Her," Joaquin Phoenix plays a lonely writer who falls in love with his artificial intelligence operating system. The idea of forming intimate relationships with a computer may have seemed far-fetched in the 1900s, but today, it's becoming a reality. We're not just using technology; we're forming real attachments and relationships with it. Advanced AI chatbots are gaining popularity to the extent that some people prefer AI companions over human ones (16). If Joseph Weizenbaum, the first chatbot creator, feared how easily people bonded with his early model, imagine what he'd think now that we have more advanced ones like ChatGPT and humanoid robots like Sophia. Technology is rapidly changing the way we connect, and it's not all sunshine and rainbows. Fortunately for us, the future's not set in stone. We can either allow technology to drive a wedge between us, or we can use it to strengthen our intimate connections.
New Hope for the Future: Leveraging Technology in a Positive and Impactful Way
The future of technology is full of promise. When created mindfully and used responsibly, there are many ways we can turn negative side effects like "technoference" into what we like to call "technofacilitation"—the use of technology to foster meaningful connections between partners.
AI- Powered Therapy
One implementation of this is the advancement of online therapy. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, online therapy tools such as Better Help have gained more traction (17). Previously, barriers such as time, money, and location prevented people from getting the help they needed. Now, it's possible for therapy to become universally accessible. Studies show that AI trained on clinical data can already identify and address concerns like anxiety, depression, and emotional stress (18). This is not to say that AI will ever or should ever replace therapists, but there’s promise in the ability to make therapy more effective and easier to access. With the support of technology, therapeutic strategies can extend far beyond treatment and into preventative methods for supporting relationships.
Virtual Reality for Long Distance Couples
We see a future where technology benefits all types of relationships, at all stages. Long distance-partners, in particular, have a lot to gain from innovative ideas as they heavily rely on technology to maintain their romantic connection. On average, long-distance partners exchange 343 text messages a week and spend over 8 hours video chatting or calling, with more than 80% reporting that technology has helped them feel closer (19). Advancements such as Netflix syncing, co-op video games, and relationship apps have helped satisfy the longing for connection. Still, there's one aspect of intimacy that remains challenging to address, physical touch. Although it isn’t a perfect solution, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta, has revealed that Meta’s VR headsets will be capable of creating a digital avatar nearly identical to its user (20). This technology can enable virtual dates for long-distance partners, making them feel as if they are in the same room together.
24/7 Support with Prevention-Focused Relationship Apps
Mobile apps like Flamme, Evergreen, and Paired aim to use technofacilitation to bring people closer together by redirecting our attention to what truly matters. These apps offer features like daily discussion questions to encourage deeper communication and tools for planning date nights, enhancing quality time. Their ultimate goal is to build positive relationship habits and prevent common challenges. While this digital space between dating apps and therapy is very new, there’s already research to support the positive effects. Couples have reported higher levels of relationship satisfaction after only 21 days of using a relationship app (21).
At Flamme, as leaders in the relationship wellness and couple tech space, we've seen similar effects. When talking one-on-one with Flamme Users, many have expressed how the app helps them feel more connected, allowing them to continuously discover new and exciting aspects of their relationship. Some have even used it as a tool to reconnect after they noticed their communication was suffering. Those who engage with the app daily appreciate the various ways technology can be leveraged to enhance their relationships.
That said, it’s essential to keep in mind that the goal of relationship-focused technology should be to enhance face-to-face interaction, not replace it. This can be achieved by promoting healthy boundaries. David Schramm, an assistant professor at Utah State University, advocates for eliminating devices from the dinner table and the bed, highlighting these as crucial moments for partners to connect (12). Relationship apps could give couples the option to designate specific times of the day, such as dinner, for reminders to put away their devices and connect with their partners. To go a step further, those who enable geolocation could receive a message like “You and your partner(s) appear to be in the same location. Would you like to activate ‘Do Not Disturb’ mode to focus on connecting?” Although it's highly unlikely that we will ever be free from the virtual distractions stealing our attention, these ideas highlight the potential for us to fight technology with more mindful technology.
Using Technology To Meet Our Changing Needs
Thanks to the industrial revolution, fewer people rely on a partner to help satisfy their need for safety and security. Over the years, we’ve been able to reach for higher levels of fulfillment on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
Nowadays, we expect way more from our partners. Dr. Eli Finkel explains that modern relationships have reached the top of this pyramid which includes a desire for love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization (1).
When partners are able to help each other achieve these higher needs, they experience deeper levels of fulfillment. The problem is that this requires a substantial investment of time as well as open communication, intimacy, emotional support, and more. Thus, many partners are struggling to meet these demands on their own.
This is where technology has the ability to shine! In order to contribute to the long term success of relationships, we must utilize digital tools to establish healthy boundaries, cultivate deeper connections, and offer accessible support, allowing us to fully embrace the potential benefits relationships have to offer.
Based on today’s society, it's clear that technology is not going anywhere. Instead, it continues to evolve and redefine the way we seek and build romantic relationships, as well as how we maintain and nurture them. As we've seen, technology can either enhance or hinder human connection, depending on how we choose to wield it.
Ultimately, our findings resonate with a resounding message: The future of relationships lies in our ability to use technology in the right way. It’s not a matter of whether technology should be embraced but how it should be embraced to foster deeper connections. When used mindfully and responsibly, technology has the potential to enhance the quality of our relationships, aiding us in our pursuit of love, companionship, and personal growth.
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