A few years ago, I was furious at my now-husband for checking Twitter during a date of ours. I had gone to the bathroom and came out to find him on his phone, instead of—as I guess I’d expected from chill romantic comedies—sipping his mint julep and admiring the scenery from the restaurant balcony in solitude. At the time, I wasn’t on Twitter and he was, and I didn’t have a smartphone and he did, and I just couldn’t understand what was so enticing about the internet that he had to look at it in the two minutes I was away.
Times have changed. Now we are both heavy internet users, which presents its own problems, but for a while that divide caused trouble. We like to separate the internet from the IRL, but the internet is very much real. It’s a place where I’ve made friends, where my career has thrived, and where things I’ve said and done have caused very real consequences. It operates as an almost parallel universe. So what happens when one person in a couple has a life in that universe—and the other doesn’t?
For most of us, at least some internet use is a necessity. It’s becoming harder and harder to have a job, stay in touch with family, or keep up with the news without it. “Heavy use and reliance on the internet is where most of us are,” Dr. David Greenfield, the founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction, and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, told the Daily Dot.
Dr. Greenfield studies internet addiction, and also runs a “boot camp” for couples looking to change their internet behavior if they’ve found it’s affecting their lives. He described internet addiction to the Daily Dot as “compulsively using it,” to the point where it affects one’s health, academic performance, or relationships. “You or your partner may use technology to either ‘check out’ or, in extreme situations, to create significant relationships online,” he writes.
For many, that description of addiction may hit too close to home. In fact, building significant relationships online may be one of the best parts of the internet, whether it’s finding a like-minded social group, a professional circle, or just a community in the comments section where everyone appreciates your jokes.
Liz Niemer, 24, says her online socializing was one of the issues between her and her boyfriend regarding internet use. She says she regularly uses Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr to keep up with her friends and the world at large, while her boyfriend uses the internet to play online poker and not much else. “He gets irritated if I check Twitter while we we’re watching TV or a movie, and I think that I’m perfectly capable of multi-tasking,” she told the Daily Dot. Besides, she says, “all of my friends in my pocket are hanging out and having fun.”
The discrepancies in the way each uses the internet has caused some issues in the relationship, says Niemer. “If there’s ever down time in any situation, my go-to is to pull out my phone and see what my friends are up to,” she said.
For her, it’s just checking in with her social circle, but to her boyfriend, she’s ignoring him for a screen. Eventually, they worked out a compromise. “If I just say, ‘Hey, I’m gonna check Twitter for a bit now,’ that’s fine, but if I pull out my phone after a lull in the conversation, he’s a little miffed that I didn’t tell him I’m switching gears.”
Things are similar for iOS developer Jen Hamilton and her boyfriend, Mike Zarajczyk. Hamilton uses the internet for socializing, whereas Zarajczyk says he mainly uses it for work, gaming, and selling things on eBay. “Internet friends are not and never will be a substitute for the most important relationship in my life,” says Hamilton. “But sometimes I care about stuff that he doesn’t—and it’s good to be able to have a place to talk with like-minded folks about those things.”
Hamilton and Zarajczyk both agree that their favorite thing about the internet is the ability to learn about anything at any time. However, for Hamilton that means picking up her phone whenever she wants to look something up, no matter what she is currently doing. “When you are spending alone time together or with a group of friends, it’s not very likely that it’s of dire consequence to ignore personal time in order to look up some random factoid,” says Zarajczyk.
“Everybody justifies that what they’re doing is important, but the question is, ‘Is it really?'” says an expert in internet addiction.
The ease of pulling out one’s phone to check Twitter, comment on Facebook, or look something up, seems to drive a lot of these divides. But so too is the divide between how couples are using it.
Writer Claire Zulkey describes her internet use as split between work and pleasure, but the kind that happens “during spare seconds of downtime.” “Often I’m posting photos and status updates for entertainment or because I’m bored or want validation, but at the same time I’m also hoping to direct people to my writing and other projects,” she told the Daily Dot over email.
But part of her internet use is staying social while being an active parent. “Sometimes I text my friends and it’s just the way we stay in touch,” she says. “And I need those touchstones, especially as a mom, especially as the only girl in the house.”
Zulkey’s husband, Steve Delahoyde, says the internet is also a huge part of his life, from helping him in his career to being the place where he met his wife. He uses the internet mainly for work, and says that for both of them, the positives of their involvement with the internet “far outweigh any negatives.” However, since he’s not as active on the internet for his personal life, Delahoyde has a hard time relating to Zulkey’s use of social media during downtime, especially around their kids.
“I think there’s value in learning to be observational and quiet, and maybe self-reflective, or some sort of other mumbo jumbo, which is negated the second you grab for your phone,” says Delahoyde.
With all the couples I spoke to, there was one powerful commonality in their internet use—the more social one of the couple was always the one who used it more.
“The him-not-having-Facebook thing means I end up doing a lot of the ‘social secretary’ work of our relationship, both because I’m more outgoing and because people know how to reach me,” says Niemer. “I know it’s emotional labor, but most of the time I don’t mind doing it.”
Delahoyde also describes Zulkey as “infinitely more social to begin with,” so using social media for, well, socialization makes more sense for her. It’s rare to find couples who socialize in the exact same ways all the time, but it appears internet use can widen that gap.
“When you are spending alone time together, it’s not very likely that it’s of dire consequence to look up some random factoid,” says the partner of an avid internet user.
For those who don’t care about socializing as much, that gap can also stretch if working online is seen as more valuable than chatting online. “I get the impression that he doesn’t think it counts when he‘s online (during non-work-hours), which is, admittedly, more for work, but still, a screen is a screen,” says Zulkey. “If I can’t be on, you can’t either!”
In a society where jobs increasingly require employees to have “flexible” schedules—i.e., answer emails at all hours of the day—attaching oneself to the internet can feel vital. “Everybody justifies that what they’re doing is important, but the question is, ‘Is it really?'” asks Dr. Greenfield.
In the worst cases, this separation can drive couples to the point of no return, whether it’s because your partner is living a double life online, or you feel like you’re “fighting a god**** computer game for my boyfriend’s love and attention.” But for most couples, the divides can be bridged.
The solutions are pretty intuitive, according to Dr. Greenfield: Designate time to put away phones and computers, set boundaries, and spend quality time face to face.
But for the couples I spoke to, and for myself, the best solution has been doing the thing you’re supposed to do in relationships: communicating the whats and whys of your feelings and goings-on.
According to Niemer, things got better once her boyfriend explained his needs, and now she can “definitely understand why he wants to know when [I’m switching to going online], instead of just having to assume once I start paying more attention to my phone.”
Zulkey also says her husband’s concerns helps her check her own behavior. “I definitely don’t mind having little checks or gentle reminders when it’s time to get off the phone,” she says, and it’s helped her to not get wrapped up in the internet drama of the day. “Having a real life person help you realize that internet drama is ridiculous helps, because I used to take it a lot more personally.”
I recently had a panic attack about my husband’s Slack use. He is in a private Slack of friends who are also professional colleagues, or vice versa, the kind of place where socializing quickly turns to networking. I was invited to join, but declined. I know I’m not there by choice, and yet one day, when he shared some joke a mutual friend had told there, I was paralyzed. When we’re watching a movie and I turn around to see him on his phone, is that who he’s talking to? What does he say about me in there? Is he out there building better relationships without me?
Internet use is, by nature, singular (unless you’re one of those couples who shares a Facebook page). It’s the equivalent of taking a phone call in the other room—except dozens of times, almost simultaneously. Whether driven by jealousy or confusion, when one member of a couple spends all their time online, the divide is about feeling left out.
When you shack up long-term, you agree, on a certain level, to let that person see all the parts of your life. To not spend all your time in a parallel universe. Because whatever’s going on in that universe is probably not all that important. “If the world’s ending we’ll find out about it soon enough,” says Zarajczyk. “Anything else can wait.”