I told myself that it would never happen to me, but it did. I was sitting with my wife and daughter at an Indian restaurant on the East Side of Providence. In the midst of a family discussion I felt a familiar buzz of my Blackberry at my hip, and noticed I had a new email. No harm in checking I reasoned. As my wife and daughter continued to chat, I saw that the email had come from an editor who had interviewed me for an upcoming article in Woman’s Health. “One quick question,” she wrote. Recognizing the journalist’s looming deadline, my thumbs moved over the tiny keyboard as I typed in a two-sentence response to her question. As I prepared to push “Send” I looked up and saw my wife and daughter staring at me. “What?” I snapped back defensively, “This is important!” I sent off my message, and, as I slid my device back into my holster, I attempted to explain further; but, really, there was nothing more I could say.
As my voice trailed off, my family simply shook their heads in disbelief. I can’t recall the exact words my wife responded with, but it was along the lines of: “After that stunt, your existence on this planet cannot be justified.” I allowed my mobile phone to intrude into a very special time with my daughter and wife, and I was caught BlackBerry-handed. I know from my work as a researcher and psychiatrist that I’m not the first person this has ever happened to. Cell phones have changed the way we relate to each other. I still recall the first time I saw somebody answering a cell phone at a restaurant. My wife and I both agreed that such behavior was inappropriate and inexcusable. Yet now, whether you're waiting in a doctor's office, walking in a train station, or sitting at a restaurant, scenes of people talking on their phones are commonplace. Almost nobody notices anymore.
I'll admit, after our first experience of shock and indignation, both my wife and I have been known to engage in brief cell phone conversations while awaiting appetizers from T.G.I. Friday’s. But cellular devices are no longer just a place to carry on a conversation, a sort of phone booth that you can carry by your side. Smart phones have opened up world far beyond Ma Bell’s vision of "reach out and touch someone." They have permitted regular and immediate access to e-mails, text messages, and the entire world wide web, all within easy reach of your fingertips. This can be helpful, to be sure, when you want to see if the weather this weekend will spoil your family plans for a picnic, or to find out the time of the next showing of "Toy Story 3". But too often having access to an entire digital community does not foster closer family ties. As my experience at the Indian restaurant shows, sometimes people can do some pretty dumb things when they have a smart phone.
The main problem with Blackberries, Droids and iPhones is not their vast capacity to access, process and convey information. The main problem is that they don't get turned off. When I talk to couples who come to me with relationship problems, one of the most frequent complaints I hear these days is "He's tied to his Blackberry [or fill in the name of any other smart phone of your choice]." I have heard countless stories of spouses arriving home, and, as they go to greet their stay-at-home partner, stop suddenly and pull out the iPhone to check a new message. I treat a husband whose long habit of going on weekend drives with his wife is now interrupted by her frequent texting of her friends and family. One of my female clients complains that even as she attempts to seduce her husband at night, he glances over at his Droid just to make sure there are no new messages.
Throughout the world, each day, millions and millions of people repeatedly look down at their belts or in their pocketbooks in the midst of intimate interactions, waiting to see if the red flashing light tells them that they are needed for some other purpose than what they are currently doing. The action suggests that there are things more important than, right here and right now, enhancing the well-being of their partner and their relationship. Are you one of those people, or are you in a relationship with one? The ideal solution is to throw the cell phone in the garbage and never use it again. But, if that’s not a reasonable option, here are some hints on not letting your blackberry come between you and your sugarplum:
1. After arriving home from work or any outside activity, don’t rush immediately to your cell phone. Take a few minutes to greet each member of the house warmly, and to distribute hugs and kisses liberally. No communication device is as important as your own body, and how it expresses itself to your loved ones.
2. After your mate greets everyone, give him or her the next fifteen minutes as open time to check emails and texts. That may seem unfair, since there may be so much that you want to share. But, think about it: if spouses don’t know they can e-check in when they get home, they risk texting while driving or reviewing their messages while sitting in the driveway before they come in the door.
3. Unless absolutely necessary for business, set up some blackberry-free time in the house. For less obsessive mates, the phone can simply be turned off. For those who insist that the device must always be ready, the ringer should be turned off and the phone put in the same safe place for the duration. Make sure the phone gets put in the same place every time, because once the ringer’s off, you won’t be able to find it by calling yourself.
4. If you must conduct business at home, give your boss or your employees your home phone number. If they realize they have to bother you at home, they’re much more likely to wait until the word day to try to reach you.
5. You can usually adjust your smart phone to alert you (or not alert you) for all kinds of messages, from texts to instant messages. When you get home, turn off the alarms for emails (which, in many cases, come in every few minutes) so that only the most important phone calls and texts come through. Your partner picked you for a reason, and your family relies on you for your leadership and love. So you’re letting everyone down when your little electronic pocket-pal gets in the way of your relationships. With just a few small changes, you can find a good balance between taking care of business and taking care of your family. And you get to keep your smart phone.