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Between the tweets

It's a wireless, portable, always-on world. What are all these seductive devices doing to your marriage?

By Alison Lobron
February 13, 2011

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Seth Rosenzweig of Hingham knew he was in trouble on the first night of a romantic vacation to Italy last October. Over dinner, his wife told him what she considered to be the biggest problem in their marriage of five years: his BlackBerry. “She said that when I’m on it, she feels like she isn’t even in the same room,” says Rosenzweig.

As a professional fund-raiser, Rosenzweig, 31, feels obligated to respond quickly to work messages even as he recognizes the toll his device takes on his marriage. “I know it takes away from the relationship,” he says. “You miss a lot of things when every five minutes you’re checking your BlackBerry.” In order to spend more focused time together, he and his wife, a nurse, agreed he would leave his phone by the door upon arriving home from work. So far, he says, he’s having a tough time with it.

He’s not alone in feeling data’s draw. Between 2009 and 2010, the proportion of cellphone users with smartphones – which allow owners to access the Internet almost anywhere, any time – rose by about 50 percent, according to The Nielsen Company. All that connectivity poses a challenge to what is supposed to be our ultimate connection: marriage. While all our modern gadgets, from laptops to iPads, allow spouses to be in constant communication with each other, they also let the outside world infiltrate what used to be dedicated couple time, from date night at a restaurant to cuddling at bedtime. How can a familiar spouse compete with the shiny new images streaming nightly from Hulu or Netflix?

In the face of all that electronic temptation, some local couples turn to counseling. Others create rules to manage the gadgets, from turning all computers off on weekends to prohibiting smartphones at the dinner hour. Sue Hallowell is a couples therapist in Cambridge and coauthor of the book Married to Distraction. She says that when her clients complain of a lack of intimacy, the Internet is part of the problem about half the time. When one person keeps disappearing into the electronic abyss, Hallowell says the first step is to understand the reason. Is someone terrified she’ll lose her job if she stops being available 24/7? Is one spouse engaging in an affair, cyber or otherwise? Or has the couple just fallen into a habit of spending all their time tweeting followers instead of talking to each other? While the particulars require different solutions, Hallowell says her general advice is the same: “Understand that a relationship really cannot work without intimate time, and you cannot pay real attention to someone else while you are using technology,” she says. “You need to shut it off and spend [time] with each other.” Hallowell says that most couples begin, as Rosenzweig and his wife did, with rule setting – an approach she says is successful only if “both partners are really motivated.”

Newton residents James Kaplan and Erica Streit-Kaplan, both 35, say rules have helped them. Married for 10 years with two young daughters, the couple say that she is not a big fan of gadgets, but he is – and has a harder time setting aside the BlackBerry he’s used for work since 2007. “Sometimes I just sort of reflexively reach for it,” says Kaplan, an attorney. “I understand why Erica would get annoyed.”

What’s worked has turned out to be fairly simple: At the end of the workday, Kaplan lingers outside their home to respond to any pressing work messages. That way, he feels as if he’s stayed on top of work, and Streit-Kaplan doesn’t feel as if she and their kids are competing for his attention. “I’d rather he spend an extra minute outside and then, when he’s home, really be home,” says Streit-Kaplan, who works in public health and usually arrives home before her husband.

While the couple say this rule has helped – and not been hard to maintain – they also rely on an even simpler one: “Neither one of us will check our devices without saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to check it,’ ’’ says

Streit-Kaplan. It is the equivalent of saying “Excuse me” before you interrupt a real live conversation, a way of acknowledging that, in looking down at your phone, you are breaking whatever connection you have with the person sitting next to you.

That’s why some couples say one problem with smartphones is how easy it is to disappear into devices without realizing they are doing so. “It becomes an extension of your hand, unfortunately,” says Elysabeth Reichman, 29, of Arlington, an educational counselor. She and her husband, Marc, 31, a software engineer, got smartphones six months ago, and life hasn’t been the same since. “We’re ‘those people’ now,” she says, referring to couples whose behavior she once found puzzling, the ones who sit side by side – in restaurants or when their car is stalled in traffic – both staring down at their phones.

The couple hasn’t set any firm rules about smartphone use. He believes that while the gadgets create distance between them at night, they reduce it during the day. “We communicate throughout the day,” Elysabeth Reichman says. “So there isn’t a sense of, well, we’ve been apart all day and don’t know what the other has done.”

Indeed, some couples say the devices actually help their relationship, letting them discuss mundanities – and save their face-to-face time to have and to hold.

For Gretta Olton, 42, of Newton, phones are a way to stay in touch during the day – she often sends her husband pictures of their young daughters – and a way to dispense with “the business side of life.” A freelance graphic designer and stay-home mom, she and her physician husband use their phones to keep track of schedules and bills. “When we’re together, we can talk or play with the kids,” she says. “There was more tension in our marriage before we had these forms of communication, because things fell through the cracks.”

Of course, for true smartphone junkies, togetherness may take a different form. Seth Rosenzweig decided to buy his 29-year-old wife, Katie, an iPhone for Hanukkah. Now, when he checks e-mail at the dinner table, she does, too. “As soon as she got it in her hands, she became exactly like me,” he says with a laugh.

Alison Lobron is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

(Illustration by Maurice Vellekoop)