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Christine Egan


When Your Laptop Becomes the Third Wheel

Posted: 11/13/2010 11:35 am

My husband is an excellent home cook, so we happily eat many quiet dinners in our house: chicken, white bean and escarole soup; linguine with clams and a busy salad; lemongrass chicken and vegetables over rice; whitefish baked with tomatoes and olives; etc. Just the two of us. Afterward, we may cozy up and watch a little TV together: "30 Rock," Alton Brown's "Good Eats" on Food Network (my husband insists on this one; I tolerate it), Major League Baseball (in season), and pretty much anything on HGTV. I'm on the couch; he's on the comfortable chair with his feet up on the ottoman. The cat lies somewhere in between. There's no need for idle chit-chat. It's a domestic scene that's beyond peaceful and harmonious.

Oh, did I mention we're both on our laptops the entire time?

Don't worry, this behavior is perfectly harmless. We're just catching up on a little work, or sending a few e-mails, or comparing airfares, or browsing real estate listings, or reviewing clips from last night's "Daily Show with Jon Stewart" (often without headphones; how annoying is that?). We're multitasking, people! This is actually a productive use of our evening hours. Besides, we're just watching TV together. We're not even really watching it; it's just on. Isn't the point that we're together in the same room? No big deal. It's not like we're on a date.

This week on NPR's "Morning Edition," reporter Jennifer Ludden tackled this very same relationship vs. technology issue (And iPhone Makes Three: Marriage in the Digital Age), which is what got me thinking about it on the way to work. Turns out, it is kind of a big deal. And no, it's certainly not like being on a date.

Apparently, marriage counselors in the U.S. are hearing more and more couples complain that their significant other (both men and women) is more distracted, distant, or completely uncommunicative thanks to those glowing hand-held devices. (Ludden's piece covers iPhones and BlackBerries, as well as laptops.) One of the couples Ludden interviewed for her story reminds me of my husband and me: dinner, TV, laptops, repeat. Another couple may be even further gone: they romantically lie together in bed side-by-side -- each playing Scrabble on his or her respective cell phone. Awwww.

I'm equally guilty of functioning in this bizarre way (if you can call it functioning). It's all I can do not to open my laptop as soon as I arrive home from work (where all I do all day is stare at a laptop), and shut it down (okay, "sleep" mode) while we're eating dinner. I blame this obsessive behavior on two things:

  1. My history of doing homework in front of the TV during grade school and high school. (I found the homework easy, and the TV a good-natured companion.)
  2. When I was growing up, my father always insisted that our family eat our Sunday roast dinner around the table with "60 Minutes" (or a late-running NFL game) on in the background (and the TV turned toward the table, of course). This was more than fine with my siblings and me. My mother, however, wasn't as jazzed about this tradition.

In her NPR story, Ludden makes the point that technology isn't responsible for relationship struggles or the dissolution of marriages; it's merely another vehicle by which couples can easily disconnect from each other (just like many other vehicles including, but not limited to, TV, radio, phone calls, sporting events, nosy neighbors, book clubs, etc.).

There are times after dinner when my husband retires to our small den to work on his laptop or mess around with his iPad. It's during that time that I'll often receive an e-mail. (Yes, I'm on my laptop. What else would I be doing?) But it's probably just spam.

"Hi there!" it might read. Or, "Whatcha doin'?" Or maybe, "Look at this camp in Maine that's for sale." (We can't afford to buy a camp in Maine, but that's beside the point.) Or perhaps, "In 15 minutes I'm going to come out there and have a piece of apple pie." Cute. The only potential problem? These e-mails are not spam. They're from my husband, who is sitting in the den, a mere 25 feet away from me.

So I'm going to talk to him about this whole relationship/technology issue face-to-face when he comes out for his slice of homemade pie. Just as soon as I finish writing this post.

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