"My husband and I are definitely 'CrackBerry' addicts. We are a sight, staggering out of bed in the morning, reaching for the BlackBerry before even going to the bathroom," says Kellie Appel, a senior vice president and general manager for Turner Trade Group. She and her attorney husband have fast-paced careers, two young children and a dependency on technology to keep everything in sync.
To some, like Appel, wireless devices are a necessity. They allow flexibility where previously there was none, the ability to travel extensively for work and a means to keep up with our global economy. Still, even those most reliant on this technology have concerns about never ending workweeks and constant interruptions impacting personal relationships.
Kristine Robak, a sales director at Suez Energy Resources North America in Boston, manages $100 million in energy contracts and has resisted adopting a BlackBerry. She already suffers through her project manager husband's checking e-mails during mealtimes, even while speeding down highways.
However, a recent promotion means more travel for Robak, and her company is ready to order her one of the devices. The question she mulls over is that while it might be practical for work and for the flexibility her 1-year-old son requires, is it also good for her marriage?
Married couples are not the only ones being affected by the home invasion of wireless technology. Ask any upwardly mobile single and they'll tell you that they're often too busy getting ahead in the boardroom to get busy in the bedroom. "Unfortunately, technology is the modern-day equivalent to the spinster chaperone," says Lisa Daily, author of Stop Getting Dumped! All You Need to Know to Make Men Fall Madly in Love with You and Marry "The One" in 3 Years Or Less.
"Once you finally manage to squeeze in a romantic dinner and maybe a meaningful conversation, our technological umbilical cord to the office starts buzzing away and the mood--and maybe the opportunity--is lost."
Patricia A. Farrell, Ph.D., an Englewood, N.J.-based clinical psychologist and author of How to Be Your Own Therapist: A Step-by-Step Guide to Taking Back Your Life, often treats couples for whom work comes first at the expense of their relationships.
"Time seems to be allocated for so much work and work-related activity that relationships are suffering," Farrell says. "When couples are free from [work], often they have a feeling of guilt because they [think they] should be doing something other than relaxing and enjoying each other's company."
Enter the BlackBerry. Faced with an increasing workload, Americans are relying more and more on personal digital assistants (PDAs) with e-mail access such as the BlackBerry, Palm's Treo, Motorola's Q-Phone and soon, Apple's iPhone. But surveys show we're not using these devices to reign in our work hours; instead we're adopting technology to help us work harder, faster and longer.
Can you hear me now? (Do you really want to?)
Despite its appeal as the ultimate life/work balance tool, the PDA--like its predecessors the cellphone and pager--may in fact be increasing our stress by opening up around-the-clock access to and from the workplace. In March 2005, the Families and Work Institute released its study "Overwork in America: When the Way We Work Becomes Too Much," which found that employees in contact with work outside of normal work hours are more often highly overworked than those with little or no contact.
What does this mean for constantly connected couples? According to therapists and psychologists, around-the-clock access to the office often results in fatigue, a lack of intimacy, resentment, increased conflict and even premature career burnout.
All of which are enough to crater a less-than-solid marriage or relationship. Robert Reich, the former U.S. secretary of labor, popularized the term "DINS couples" (double income, no sex) when he discussed the hazards of work overload in a 2001 speech.
While the comment drew laughs, it also brought to light a developing problem: People are working too much to have sex. In 2003, the Kinsey Institute reported that today's women are having much less sex than their 1950s counterparts.
This rings true for Appel and her hard-working female colleagues, who find themselves reminding each other to find the time and energy for sex with their partners. But despite their best efforts and their PDA-enabled scheduling capabilities, it seems that everyone is still too busy and, most of all, too tired.
Psychologist Debra Mandel, Ph.D., is not surprised. She's observed the increase in DINS couples firsthand. "They're not having sex because there's no time," says Mandel, author of Healing the Sensitive Heart: How to Stop Getting Hurt, Build Your Inner Strength, and Find the Love You Deserve. "Couples today are burnt-out and exhausted." Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D., a psychotherapist and co-author of How to Be a Couple and Still Be Free, agrees. "I think it's a common problem today, and it's growing bigger," Tessina says. Both suspect that wireless technology is adding to the problem, and, according to Tessina, "If there are underlying tensions in the marriage, [being constantly connected to the office] will exacerbate them."
No intimacy in an era of instant gratification
While wireless technology can keep you connected to the office, PDAs are less effective in helping busy executives schedule time for their personal lives, according to Fiona Travis, Ph.D., an Ohio-based psychologist and author of Should You Marry a Lawyer? A Couple's Guide to Balancing Work, Love and Ambition. "Those who think that the PDA helps them find time are really fooling themselves; it is just another way of avoiding being intimate," Travis says.
This lack of intimacy is all too often the byproduct of our increasing thirst for instant gratification. Mandel, based in Encino, Calif., believes our constant connectivity eliminates our ability to appreciate downtime. "We are losing leisure and downtime where we are not being bombarded by stimuli all the time," Mandel says. "In the old days, we could go out to dinner and be more aware of our surroundings. Now that creates boredom, and people want to fill in the gaps."
Across the city in Long Beach, Tessina sees the desire for "nanosecond communication" as having ramifications everywhere. "People are now expecting instant relationships as well as all other kinds of instant gratification," she says. "The speed of communication may help us get more done, but it doesn't necessarily enhance the quality of life." Tessina believes that too much PDA use results in insufficient real contact, leaving us feeling overloaded and longing to be left alone.
In a dark twist, our thirst for instant gratification and the lack of intimacy at home may, in some cases, lead to more sex outside the home. Alex Halavais, assistant professor of communication and the graduate director of informatics at the University at Buffalo, studies the move from mass society to network society and says that the drive for instant gratification in the area of sex and pornography often drives technology. He points to Playboy as being at the forefront of downloading content to cellphones.
Eating, breathing and sleeping with your personal address book
"In my first marriage, I used to schlep home two briefcases of paperwork...and spread them out over the bed, working until 12:30 a.m. while my husband slept," confesses Debra A. Dinnocenzo, president of ALLearnatives, a Pittsburgh provider of learning resources for people in the virtual workplace.
Dinnocenzo is also co-author of Dot Calm: The Search for Sanity in a Wired World and tells this story specifically to illustrate that technology doesn't make people work more hours; people make people work more hours. Now in her second marriage, Dinnocenzo is much more conscious about the downsides of bringing work home.
She recognizes that "technology makes it easy for workaholics to facilitate those tendencies." She stopped bringing home the reams of paper but admits bringing a BlackBerry to bed is not much different.
Sociologist Phyllis Moen at the University of Minnesota is also wary about bringing wireless technology into the bedroom. In her research on the changing nature of careers and the experiences of dual-earner couples, Moen, co-author of The Career Mystique: Cracks in the American Dream and editor of It's About Time: Couples and Careers, interviewed one individual individual who likened his working on his laptop in bed at night to "having a third person in the bedroom." Today, if you bring a BlackBerry to bed you might as well be sleeping with your entire address book (and a few random spammers).
Do the dynamics change depending upon whether one or both members in a relationship snuggle up with their wireless devices? Mandel says yes: "The one who is less connected [can have] a lot of resentment and have a hard time seeing the pros of (wireless technology)."
Farrell agrees. "When only one is connected constantly, it can be a source of irritation," she says. However, she also sees double the problem when you double the devices, as it could lead to a disconnect where work takes precedence over personal needs or the relationship. "When two are being pulled by the pressures of work, even in their at-home time, the relationship can begin to wear thin and dissolving it becomes an increasingly viable option."
Cutting the "E-Tether"
As we integrate wireless devices more and more into our lives, will we see the PDA (personal digital assistants) completely replace PDA (public displays of affection)? "Not likely," Halavais says. He views the difficulties people are having managing the technology as merely a phase. With any new technology, "people need to develop the appropriate etiquette," he says.
"They're still learning to build strategies." Moen at the University of Minnesota agrees that we are just learning to manage this new technology. She gives the example of earlier days when it was proper protocol to answer a ringing phone. "Today we have caller I.D., do-not-call lists and have learned to screen our messages so that they don't disrupt dinner," she says. And just as people are learning not to scream in public on cellphones, we will also learn how to manage our PDAs.
Anastacia Stathakis, a division manager in marketing and public relations for Westin Rinehart in Washington, D.C., received her first lesson in BlackBerry etiquette from friends in London. She and her live-in boyfriend (a frequent yet often ignored critic of her BlackBerry overuse) were lunching with friends in Covent Garden, at which time she continued to respond to e-mail interruptions.
Her English friends were not shy about pointing out her bad manners; they had been using PDAs a bit longer and had already developed appropriate use protocols. "They taught me e-mails can wait," she says.
Over time, Stathakis, Appel, Robak and the rest of us will develop our own PDA protocols. There will be compromises along the way; but, eventually, couples will be able to use technology to strengthen and maintain relationships, according to Halavais and Moen. Some of us are already doing this.
Jennifer Kushell, president of Young & Successful Media in Los Angeles, says, "While many look at [my husband and me] and think we're crazy for all that we've sacrificed along the way, I can honestly say that technology has probably brought us closer, given our insanely busy lifestyles." She and her husband (and colleague), Scott Kaufman, have thoughtfully adopted technology to improve their relationship.
But even completely wired individuals agree the one all important secret is to know when to hit the off button. Alexandra Lebenthal, president of Lebenthal & Co., a New York City-based financial services firm, and mother of three, received her wake-up call last summer at the end of her maternity leave (which she credits her BlackBerry for making possible).
It was around 5 p.m. on the Friday of Labor Day weekend and she was vacationing with her family at the beach on Long Island. Hopping off a motorboat onto the dock, she whipped out her BlackBerry from her shorts pocket, only to have it slip through her fingers and sink into the depths of Great South Bay.
After an initial scream of shock and despair, she had to laugh. She knew it was a sign that on the Friday evening of a long weekend, there's nobody who needs to connect with you more than your loved ones. She and others are learning: Control your connectivity--or be controlled by it.