A digital connection: Instant communication can be helpful or harmful when used in relationships

Dillan DeGross
Dillan DeGross, FAIR Minneapolis
Dr. Carol Bruess
Dr. Carol Bruess, the director of the Family Studies program at the University of St. Thomas and the co-author of “Contemporary Issues in Interpersonal Communication,” “What Happy Couples Do,” “What Happy Parents Do,” and “What Happy Women Do.”
THINK SPOT: How do you use technology to communicate in your own relationships? Is it beneficial, or a burden?

Liz Fesenmaier and her boyfriend may live nearly 1,200 miles apart, but communication is only a few taps away.

Video chats, text messages and phone calls have enabled their relationship to become a reality instead of a summertime fling when Fesenmaier, a junior at FAIR Downtown in Minneapolis, and her mother stay in Whitefish, Montana, where her boyfriend lives, she said.

“I need to talk to him all the time or I miss him too much,” Fesenmaier said. “It’s hard enough to live without human contact with the man you love, let alone not even being able to talk. You’d have to write a letter and send it to Whitefish and wait for a response, which could take weeks.

“Weeks between talking? No thank you.”

In relationships, “instant communication” such as social media, video chatting, texting, emails and other forms of conversations through technology can be an asset or a detriment, depending on how it’s used, according to Dr. Carol Bruess, the director of the Family Studies program at the University of St. Thomas and the co-author of “Contemporary Issues in Interpersonal Communication,” “What Happy Couples Do,” “What Happy Parents Do,” and “What Happy Women Do.”

“Technology by itself isn’t bad, it’s how we as humans use it,” Bruess said. “It’s kind of like any tool. If you use a hammer it can be used for good. It’s hard to construct something without a hammer. That same hammer can be used to kill someone. It could be used to injure someone … We as humans have to figure out how to use it well, where it serves us well, where it serves our relationships well, and realize where it could be harmful.”

When Bruess was a teenager, she said, the people you could potentially be in a relationship with were the people who lived near you, worked with you and were in your social network. She believes that instant communication has allowed people to be in a relationship with anyone around the world.

Hannah Mertz, a junior at FAIR Downtown, uses text messaging to stay in constant touch with her boyfriend, who attends a high school southwest of the metro area. Despite the couple attending high schools located 25 miles apart, this form of instant communication has allowed their relationship to continue, Mertz said.

“I like texting with my boyfriend because it’s so much easier for me to talk to him,” Mertz said. “I can’t imagine not being able to talk to him for days.”

However, Mertz also feels that much can be lost in translation.

A well-meaning text can easily be misconstrued and cause friction, she said.

“Things over text can get misinterpreted and read the wrong way because you aren’t physically there to see and hear the way people are saying something,” Mertz said. “If we don’t respond quick enough we can get irritated because we think we are being ignored.”

Ninety-two percent of teenagers go online daily, including 24 percent who go online “almost constantly,” according to an April report from the Pew Research Center. While technology can be a near constant presence in teenagers’ lives, learning to navigate relationships while using it can be tricky, according to Bruess.

Two years ago, when Fesenmaier was staying with her mother in Whitefish, her future boyfriend caught her attention after he returned her escaped dog. Fesenmaier stays in Montana during summer and school breaks, which forces most of her and boyfriend’s conversations to be through Skyping, texting and calling.

While Fesenmaier believes that without instant communication her relationship would be nonexistent, conversing digitally can still cause a lot of friction between them. Because they were still learning how to incorporate digital communication into their relationship, they had missteps, which led to fights, she said.

“You misunderstand what people are trying to say,” Fesenmaier said. “There are no tones, there’s no way to use sarcasm without starting a fight. Now that we aren’t on a break anymore, we communicate so much better, but like any relationship there are arguments and fights ... but ours are over text or call, and you can’t just hug it out afterwards and reconnect.”

Bruess said instant communication can give people a wall to hide behind when conflict arises. Sending a text when you’re angry at your significant other is easier than talking about it in person, but it’s a dangerous pattern to fall into, she said. Bruess suggests couples talk about the role technology should play in their relationship before conflict from instant communication surfaces.

“Humans are complex, emotions are complex, so our conflicts deserve to be voice-to-voice and face-to-face, if possible,” Bruess said. “… It’s a very powerful tool, but like anything we have to be willing to make positive choices. We have to examine our own use.”

Bruess used the nickname her husband gave her as an example of a positive choice. Due to Bruess’s love of sleep, her husband calls her “Mama Bear.”

“If in our little text exchange my husband of 24 years will send a bear emoji, it has an entire history,” Bruess said. “If couples can do that, we know that they are more likely to be satisfied and happy because it’s the sharing and building of that relationship culture.”

As difficult as instant communication can be to navigate, when used correctly it can be extremely powerful, according to Bruess.

“I always thought I couldn’t [be in a long-distance relationship] until I met the man of my dreams who just happened to live 1,200 miles away from me,” Fesenmaier said. “… It’s hard, it’s frustrating, it’s confusing, there are many tears, but is it worth it? Yes.”

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