Technology’s Assault On Relational Intimacy

By Ginger M. Sullivan, MA, LPC, CGP, FAGPA Individual and Group Psychotherapy

More Machine, Less Human

It had been too long. A sit-down with my friend was long overdue. We picked the date and the time and of course, the usual place–a Starbucks somewhere between his office and mine.

On entering the familiar coffee shop, my heart dropped. I realized that like the Starbucks closer to home, this location was also a victim of the “Starbucks Remodeling Venture” … more machine, less human. Gone were the cushy chairs, the tight seating arrangements that facilitated conversation, and the atmospheric incentives to sit in a coffee shop and actually relax and reflect upon one’s own thoughts or those of the person sitting across from you.

Instead, products being sold were displayed, well-directed paths indicated where I should queue and rows of tables available were those best suited for what has become the modern-day conversational partner – the laptop.

I asked my friend if he had found a place to sit. He shook his head in affirmation while grimacing with frustration. The only side-by-side seats unoccupied were two hard wooden chairs at what looked like a long table for studying in a college library. All the two-top tables were occupied by single people facing a screen. So, while my friend and I shared a long overdue moment of conversation squeezed shoulder to shoulder at a table also occupied by eight strangers, rows of chairs sat eerily empty and available opposite screen-watchers. This made eavesdropping very effortless and unchallenging.

The Death of Human Interaction

What has our world turned into? Even though we have more technology than ever to help us communicate, stay in touch and cross global barriers in a flash, we are witnessing the death of human connection. Face-to-face real time contact is becoming as extinct as the dinosaurs. And while this transformation in the way we live and relate with each other is concretely displayed at a place like Starbucks, I also experience and hear it daily in my psychotherapy office.

We text, sext, email, blog, tele-work in our pajamas, shop online and Facebook our many “friends” behind the safe confines of our homes with our eyes locked on a screen. Here, we are free to present the best versions of ourselves (or made-up ones) with no mess or spontaneity. But, when it comes to actual emotional intimacy, we are even lonelier and more clueless than ever.

I certainly don’t blame Starbucks for modernizing their décor. Or even Facebook, for that matter. They are businesses adapting their environment to fit technological demand.

The Realities of Intimacy and Affection

Nevertheless, one thing I am clear about – we can do away with the conversational chairs at Starbucks but good luck ridding the human heart of its need for genuine contact. Emotional connection is to the heart as oxygen is to the lungs. The creation of intimacy requires first, that I sit with my own thoughts and feelings as a learned curiosity. Such curiosity takes an investment of time and effort to construct the space for the profundities of our inner life to surface. And then as we risk exposing our cores to another and they with us, we each expand in the knowing, tolerating and appreciating of ours and their innermost worlds. True affection then takes root and grows … giving us the opportunity to know the fullness of the human experience.

Yet, more than ever before, human beings have to be taught how to be intimate with one another. Creating and sustaining true, authentic, verbal and emotional connection is a learned skill. I see this deficit every day in my office. After partners stop the behaviors that have caused the distance between them, they both look at each other and at me, and say with lost eyes, “now what?” “Is this it?” “Are we done?” I, thus, point the way toward facing the crucial task of learning how to build a genuine, messy, loving, hating and cherishing relationship with the human being sitting on the other side of my green couch.

Usually, I get stares as though I am speaking a foreign language. I am beginning to think I really am. With the predominance of social media as our primary form of human contact, we are fostering an epidemic of relationally challenged people. We are becoming so satiated with processed cookies at four o’clock that we can comfortably skip preparing, inviting and dining over real dinner with homemade food. The overabundance of manufactured contact at our fingertips 24/7 allows us to ignore both our hunger for live human touch and the blunt realization that most of us are lousy at it.

The Scholarly Bitter Truth

Such starkness leads me to appreciate my training in psychoanalysis. My scholarly teachers, poets of pontification, deepened my experience of the world. For our purposes, I will share two of their many valued ideas.

  •    Living Unconsciousness

First, Freud was right. The unconscious is alive and well. In other words, there are parts of who we are that exist in our blind spot. The evolution of a healthy human being towards his/her potential requires that he/she seeks clarity and light around the darkened rooms within. I just need to lay on the couch and say what comes to mind, what I am thinking and feeling, out loud at the moment.

  •    The Blurry Line between   Unconsciousness and Intimacy

Second, I need to lay on that couch multiple times per week to run out of things to say. Yup! You read that correctly. I can easily fill the space of 50 minutes with a report of all life’s happenings since last week. And by the time I am done catching up my analyst, the time buzzer has expired. See you next week when we will do the same thing over again. But in psychoanalysis, I must come back tomorrow or the next day. What the hell do I talk about now? Not much has occurred since the last time I was here. So, we sit in silence. And often we sit a long time. Space has been opened and thus far, nothing is rushing in to fill it. I can’t talk about the analyst’s personal life in that this is not a social setting. And God forbid, I pick up my phone. So, I am forced to sit with myself–all the good, the bad and the ugly. And eventually, because there is this creation of space, all the rich, concealed goodies deep inside me begin to surface. We drop, or fall, into a level of intimacy where the depth of my unconscious has the luxury to make an appearance. And then we get real meat, when all the deep-seated substance eventually becomes raw material for the progression of a human towards essence and vitality.

The Time-Inefficient Fight for Intimacy

Outside of the analyst’s consulting room, there is a parallel process in real life: If I do not fight for intimacy or intentionally and consciously create the time and the space for buried thoughts and feelings to crop up, then I am settling for a life of superficiality and shallow connections. I will become a victim to life’s overabundance of distractions which will crowd my capacity to dig deeper into the shiny gold lying extensively in you and in me. Couples tell me often that they don’t have the time to do what I am suggesting in order to build and sustain real intimacy. I tell them to make the time. Relationships are an investment and they are not time-efficient. Without carving out time to reveal one’s inner thoughts and feelings to one another, we are resigning ourselves to a life of boring logistics and parallel living. Thus, it’s a wonder that Facebook becomes the go-to for empty calories and watching television has replaced the dinner table.

Passing up on the Dinner Cookies

On that cold February morning, I could have easily taken my laptop into Starbucks and engrossed myself in electronic friendship. But instead, I sat across from my dear friend in an engagement of true relationship. And he became the human inspiration that got my emotional and intellectual juices flowing.

Cookies for dinner? I’ll pass, thank you. I would rather tolerate my temporary hunger in hopes that I will feast on a gourmet meal. For, intimacy is worth the fight, even when there is no longer a cushy chair to be had.

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