Techno Trouble

4th January 2013

Ever fancied taking a blunt instrument to your partner’s phone or laptop?

You’re not alone. Alex Gray reports.

Every morning, as the pitch-black winter night presses against my bedroom window I awake to the ghostly glow of an iPhone. It’s the same light that hovers over me as I lie in bed at night trying to go to sleep. It's not my iPhone, it's my husband's, and it's a nocturnal habit of his that I find so irritating that I lie in bed fantasising about throwing the damn thing out the window.

Thankfully, it's only a minor irritation in my marriage, on a par with leaving plates next to the dishwasher ready for the dishwasher fairy to appear, or opening a letter and leaving the various elements – envelope, letter, inserts – lying about the place... because luckily, the rest of the time my husband is not glued to his iPhone like a proverbial extra limb. But this January, more couples than at any other time of the year will be calling legal firms for help with getting a divorce, and a large chunk of those will be blaming technology, in one form or another, as part of the reason for their marriage breaking down. For some, it's the use (or rather, overuse) of gadgets – smartphones, computers, gaming consoles –that in itself causes the irretrievable breakdown.

Sarah Cousins, a partner at law firm Ross Williams in Hitchin, says that ‘unreasonable behaviour’ petitions are up significantly from ten years ago. A decade ago they constituted around 70 per cent of divorce petitions; nowadays they constitute around 95 per cent of her divorce work and within that, complaints about gadget use are rising. “I have come across many clients that cite smartphones and PCs in their allegations of unreasonable behaviour,” says Sarah. “There's been a growing trend over the last five to ten years of people complaining about phones. When they first came out, complaints would be about discovering pictures or texts on a mobile phone, but now it's about how often people are using them.”

In the last five years the popularity of the Apple iPhone, the Samsung Galaxy, the Blackberry and so on has soared. Many things that could previously only be done on a computer, such as browsing social networking sites or playing computer games, can now be done through this new technology. Sarah had one client who literally pinpointed the end of her marriage to the day her husband got himself an iPhone. “When she came to see me, she pretty much said to me they'd had the odd row, but when her husband got an iPhone he was constantly checking social networking sites, the news, the weather… he was constantly looking at it. The thing was that he had never previously been interested in doing all those things on his computer, but the iPhone had made it really easy for him to do it. He then got in contact with old friends on Facebook and was constantly sending and receiving messages to people, one of which eventually led to an affair. His now ex-wife says it would never had happened had he not got the iPhone.” Other people complain about games,. Sarah recalls that “one person's husband was obsessed with one in particular, so much so that the actual game featured in the divorce petition.'

Louise is all too painfully aware of the effect of gaming on a relationship. In 2005, she met someone who she thought was perfect. “We had both come out of a failed relationship and went into it thinking that we had found a lifetime partner. And it was great at first,” she reflects. “I knew he liked playing computer games but I got his full attention most of the time. About two years into the relationship he started to spend more and more time on his computer and on gaming in particular. He'd come home from work, have a drink with me, I'd cook dinner, then half an hour later he'd say ‘I'm just nipping upstairs for an hour’ and that would be the last I would see of him. Pretty soon he never wanted to go out anywhere at all. We used to go out for a meal together all the time. In our last year together we went out three times.”

Louise sought to bring her partner's computer use down to a more acceptable level, by telling him that she wasn't okay with it and that they weren't spending enough time together. “I then spent the next 18 months trying to get the relationship back on track,” she says ruefully. “He would agree at first, and I would get him back for a few days, but it would soon creep back up.” Finally, after four years, Louise left.

“There is,” explains Christina Gordon, Sexual and Relationship Psychotherapist, “something about the instant gratification of being online. It activates a particular part of the brain where it becomes compulsive – I think with any sort of screen-based technology people get really hooked in; they can flit from one thing to another without having to think about what they're doing. Nowadays it's not easy to avoid technology; we're surrounded by all these different gadgets all interrelating at the same time but we have to learn how to manage it, otherwise we end up with a relationship with a device rather than our partner.” The irony is, of course, that by connecting through social networking we're communicating with people – but not those sat in the same room as us. Even I've noticed if I'm watching TV I'm checking on Twitter what other people are saying, rather than speaking to my husband – and as a relationship therapist I know that's not very healthy.'

Christina recommends talking to your partner and, as with all relationships, the key is to finding some middle ground. “You probably need to deal with it quite sensitively to avoid the risk of being a ‘nag’ or seeming overly critical,” she says. “Suggest that they cut it down to half an hour or one hour per evening, leaving the rest of the evening to sit down spend time together.” Christina explains that it's also crucial that couples reconnect. “Get some couple time away from house, away from constraints of family life: take time out of lives as parents and as workers to do something that is fun for both of you. By doing it regularly, say, once a fortnight, you can begin to recapture what it is you really liked about the other person. You also get the space to talk about things without pressures of the home – the washing up, the laundry and so on. And of course, leave phones off.”

Sarah says that seeing so many marriages grind to a halt has affected her own behaviour: “It makes you realise where people go wrong, and I see the same thing all the time. You meet someone, you fall in love, then maybe a work promotion or a family comes along and the one thing that can slide is the marriage. You stop going out together, you stop making an effort because you can't be bothered, it's much easier to play with your iPhone.”

“Technology is very much present and with us now and it's not going anywhere,” adds Christina. “It's in people's houses constantly and I don't think we've learned how to moderate our use of it, but we're going to have to do otherwise we're going to have people hooked into their own devices.”

Quite.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to switch my husband's iPhone off and book a babysitter.

• Sarah Cousins, Partner: www.rosswilliams-law.co.uk

• Resolution is an organisation that believes in a constructive, non-confrontational approach to family law matters. You can find a member family lawyer through their website at www.resolution.org.uk

• Christina Gordon, Sexual & Relationship Psychotherapist: www.cgtherapy.co.uk

• Relate offers marriage counselling; to find your nearest counsellor visit www.relate.org.uk

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