While meaningful conversations and quality time are important to me, it dawned on me recently that my husband, Craig, and I had slid into the habit of sending and responding to text during dinner. Then I noticed that during most of our meals, we really weren’t listening to each other attentively and our once lively conversations during mealtimes had virtually disappeared!
Since we needed to make a drastic change to improve our communication, Craig convinced me to go cold turkey – turning off all electronic devices during mealtimes immediately, including TV, computers, and our phones. For us, this meant no excuses or exceptions. Even when I tried to convince Craig that I needed to check my newsfeed on Facebook to share a friend’s post one evening, he didn’t back down.
It turns out that reputable studies recommend that couples and family members stay unplugged from technology at key times and allow plenty of time to connect – especially during mealtimes – if they want to maintain loving, respectful, and nurturing relationships. Meanwhile, I started feeling more connected with Craig when we powered down during meals, and our sense of intimacy and caring were restored.
Recently, I started paying closer attention to the tech habits of the couples who I work with in my clinical practice. For instance, Jason and Becca often discuss the poor communication in their stepfamily and the challenges of getting their kids to unplug. They’ve been remarried ten years and are raising Becca’s two teenage daughters, Katie and Sam, and Jason’s ten-year old son, Mark. Both Jason and Becca work full-time as educators, often putting in long days grading papers and preparing lessons after work hours. Jason confides:
It’s a struggle in our house to get our kids to join us for meals or to get their homework done. I swear if we didn’t force them to unplug, we’d rarely see them. Becca’s girls are teenagers who are always plugged in to Instagram, snapchat, or whatever. They get mad at me when I ask them to unplug. My son Mark mostly plays video games and watches TV and he’s plugged in most of the night. Becca and I are often busy preparing for school and our kids are aren’t really interacting much with each other.Don’t like ads? Become a supporter and enjoy The Good Men Project ad free
Unplug at Mealtimes
It may not be possible to do this for every meal, but try to turn off the TV and put away your cell phone during mealtimes. Your emails and Facebook feed can wait. Studies show that when people power down from electronic devises, the quality of their conversation and ability to actively listen and support one another goes up, they exercise more, and they’re more tuned into their surroundings. However, high use of the internet is associated with less intimacy, poor health, and being less sociable.
Although technology has enhanced our society in a multitude of ways, it has made it more challenging for couples and family members to communicate effectively. Most couples report that they have to compete with their kid’s iPhone, iPad, or iPod. No matter what the device, parents and children simply don’t have adequate face-to-face communication when they are high users of technology. Sam reflects:
I’m on Instagram and spapchat more at my mom’s house than my dad’s apartment because it gets pretty crazy there with three kids and my stepdad. At my dad’s place, it’s pretty chill and we usually watch TV or do something cool like play Minecraft. I love my mom but my stepbrother is always trying to annoy me and doesn’t leave me alone unless he wants help with his Instagram.
Becca puts it like this:
My girls are definitely getting upset with Mark and they haven’t adjusted to having Jason around to impose house rules or take up space in their home. One thing I want to start is a new unplug rule of no technology at the dinner table and one hour before bed. I read somewhere this might help us all get along better.
4 Creative ways to limit the use of technology in your home:
- Turn off your phone! Or better yet put them away for at least one hour each evening. It’s also a good idea to have a “Tech Free Zone” in the most important areas of your home, such as the dining room, where family members silence or put away their phones and devices. Be sure to talk though hard stuff face-to-face and reserve texts for quick check-ins or scheduling issues.
- Socialize while you are cooking: All family members can take turns setting the table, doing dishes, cleaning their own plates, and enjoying chatting during mealtimes.
- Spend two to three hours together on weekends as a couple and/or family unplugged. Go outside or go somewhere fun. Try a low-key activity such as playing a game of checkers, chess, or cards. What you do together is less important than connecting as a couple and with friends and family members.
- Turn off technology one hour prior to bedtime when possible. Younger family members might have more difficulty with this but can adapt over time by reading and/or listening to music.
Ultimately, it took Becca’s and Jason’s stepfamily several weeks to adjust to these limits and rules about unplugging. Things didn’t always go smoothly. For instance, Mark often complained that he was able to play unlimited video games at his mom’s house and didn’t understand why he had different rules when he was with his dad and Becca. At first, he blamed his two stepsisters, but found over time that he enjoyed riding bikes and playing board games with the whole family.
Most important to my husband and me, our conversations revived sharply after we unplugged during mealtimes and we can now recall why we were attracted to each other to begin with. Kicking a tech habit can be tough, and I sometimes find myself reaching for my phone to respond or text at the dinner table. But the best part of powering down for me is that I’ve fallen in love with my husband all over again—and there’s no turning back!