The Impact of Relationship Apps On Family Dynamics

06/19/2014 01:02 pm ET | Updated Aug 19, 2014

Marriage is a wonderful institution that affords couples significant psychological, emotional and financial benefits, in addition to being a commitment of their love to each other. Unfortunately, nothing worthwhile is easy, including marriages. If couples want their marriages to succeed, they must work at them. Furthermore, a marriage involves two people and both are responsible one way or another in its success or failure.

Recent research from Northwestern University provides in pertinent part as follows:

"Marriage in America has changed radically since the late 1700s. It is much less oriented toward helping spouses meet their physiological and safety needs and much more oriented toward helping them meet their esteem and self-actualization needs. Although the later set of needs requires a much deeper relational bond and a stronger psychological connection than the former set does, Americans appear to be spending less time cultivating these relational attributes than they did in previous eras. In conjunction, Americans' increasing tendency to look to their marriage to facilitate the achievement of their high-level needs, along with their decreasing investment in the quality of their marriage, is linked to reductions in personal well-being and marital quality over time.

The good news, however, is that marriage has greater potential today than ever before, and marital quality is a stronger predictor of personal well-being than in the past. Meeting higher altitude needs is enormously gratifying, and doing so through one's marriage can help people achieve exceptionally high levels of relationship well-being, happiness, and personal fulfillment."

The research from Northwestern University argues that "the importance of relational processes like communication, responsiveness, and support have increased as the societal function of marriage has changed.... Just as the pursuit of higher needs frequently requires substantial insight into the self, looking to the marriage to help individuals fulfill their higher needs frequently requires that each spouse have substantial insight into the partner, and the development of such insight typically requires considerable communication and responsiveness over a sustained period.... [This] requires that they invest plenty of time and energy in facilitating the quality of their marital bond."

At the same time, studies over the past 20 years have found that the amount of time fathers spend engaged in childrearing has more than doubled, while the amount of time spent by mothers has increased between 34 and 41 percent. In addition, each spouse spends approximately 30 more minutes a day involved in paid employment and it is unlikely that it occurs at precisely the same time as it does for their spouse. In other words, that is additional time that is not spent alone with their spouse. In any event, spousal time has decreased significantly over time. "Spouses without children at home experienced a 30 percent decline in weekday spousal time and a 17 percent decline in weekend spousal time. Spouses with children at home, whose spousal time tended to be quite limited in general, experienced a 40 percent decline in weekday spousal time," but essentially no change in weekend spousal time."

According to the most recently released "American Time Use Survey Study" by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Employed adults living in households with no children under age 18 engaged in leisure activities for 4.7 hours per day, about an hour more than employed adults living with a child under age 6." Such activities include, but are not limited to watching TV, socializing (such as visiting with friends, or attending or hosting social events), exercising, reading, playing games or using a computer for leisure. According to that Study, the majority of that time is spent watching TV. However, the average American spends 7.6 hours per month (15.2 minutes per day) on social networking sites.

Furthermore, the internet has brought with it increased opportunities for spousal infidelity. For years now, surveys have found Facebook responsible for anywhere from one-fifth to one-third of all divorces. "If you're single, Facebook and other social networking sites can help you meet that special someone. However, for those in even the healthiest of marriages, improper use can quickly devolve into a marital disaster. A survey by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers found that 'Facebook holds the distinction of being the unrivaled leader for online divorce evidence with 66 percent citing it as the primary source.' Also, more than 80 percent of divorce lawyers reported they 'have seen an increase in the number of cases using social networking evidence' during the past few years." In fact, studies have found that cybersex has been a major factor in separation or divorce.

I realize that we are also living in a time in which people would rather point fingers than accept responsibility for their actions, but sites and apps alone cannot be responsible for marital strife. Rather, the responsibility falls on the individuals using such sites and apps. After all, they will be so much happier if they find someone else, right? As they say, perception is reality. The "grass is always greener" until you get there. Otherwise, how do you explain the fact that the divorce rate in the United States increases from 50 percent for first marriages, to 67 percent for second marriages, and to 73 percent for third marriages?

Not surprisingly, one of three general options available to couples for improving their marriages is "increasing their investment of time and psychological resources in their marriage." Spouses typically have the ability to dedicate the time and effort required to maintain a healthy marriage, but they instead choose to allocate their resources elsewhere. People regularly use lack of time as an excuse for pretty much anything and everything. The fact of the matter is that it is more an issue of priorities than lack of time. If both spouses consider their marriage a top priority, they will always have the time to invest in it. "Even if spouses are able to invest additional resources, many marriages will continue to exhibit an imbalance in which the amount of high-altitude need fulfillment spouses are asking of the marriage exceeds the level of investment they have made. Spouses can ask less of the marriage in one or both of two ways. ... [First], they can pursue strategies designed to optimize their resource use, thereby bolstering the extent to which they can achieve high-altitude need fulfillment without a major infusion of additional time or psychological resources. [Second], they can require less oxygen by asking their spouse to shoulder less responsibility for helping them fulfill their higher altitude needs, thereby bringing the demands on the marriage into closer alignment with the available resources." Obviously, these last two options are available to those couples in which one or both spouses are unable or unwilling to invest additional time in their marriage for whatever reason.

Prior to evaluating options and investing time and resources into their marriage, couples might want to reality check their expectations. According to Terri Orbuch, Ph.D, psychologist and author of "5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage from Good to Great," conflict is actually frustration. Specifically, frustration forms when a partner's expectations go unmet, she says. Happy couples have realistic expectations, both about relationships in general and about their relationship in particular." Quentin Hafner, LMFT refers to unreasonable expectations as the "My Spouse is My 'Everything' Model of Marriage." According to Mr. Hafner, "Being a spousal partner in an American marriage is a really tall order. Not just a tall order, but sometimes an impossible one. We see it on TV, and in the movies; it's the glamorization of our spouse needing to be our 'Everything'. There seems to be an implicit message that is pervasive in our American culture that says our spouse must be our 'Everything', and I see this idealism causing a lot of problems for people. Having our spouse be our 'Everything' sounds romantic, dreamy and idealistic -- I know. But the hidden expectations that many spouses carry for their partner to be their 'Everything' isn't helping people have thriving relationships." The following are some of the comments that Mr. Hafner received from his article:

"Great perspective Quentin, though I must say that MY spouse is ALL of the 20 'unachievable' roles for ME, but I agree, a spouse is not and shouldn't be EVERYTHING (or more accurately, the 'only' thing in our lives)." -- David Steele, Relationship Coaching Institute

"NO WAY can a spouse fill all those roles and no WONDER so many couples get divorced based on the expectations that their spouse SHOULD be all those things and if you're not fulfilling them, then you're out...NEXT I'll find someone who will. Unfortunately they keep searching and searching only to continually be disappointed. I learned a long time ago the best possible scenario in a relationship is to have a council a group of people that each person fulfills one or many of those roles and I can leave the most important one's for my partner....friend, lover, supporter etc. If more couples would realize this they would be able to give their partner a break from having to live up to such a high demand for spousal support and fight a losing battle. How many times have you heard it said, "I did everything I could and she/he they still weren't happy." Of course not, because they couldn't do it all." -- Dale Genetti, Certified Strategic Intervention Relationship/Marriage Life Coach.

"This article is spot on. The most common cause of the couples' divorces that come through my office is the unrealistic and unhealthy expectation that our spouse is responsible for our happiness. This misplaced burden keeps people from looking within, strengthening the other relationships in their life and developing themselves into the full person they are meant to be." - Selina Shultz, Principal at The Alternative Group and Coral Bridge Partners, LLC

However, as Dr. Orbuch says, "If your partner isn't aware of your expectations, how can they meet them? ... Most couples will say that they communicate. But this communication is commonly what Orbuch calls 'maintaining the household,' which includes talks about paying the bills, buying groceries, helping the kids with homework or calling the in-laws. Instead, meaningful communication means 'getting to know your partner's inner world,' Orbuch says. 'When you're really happy, you know what makes your partner tick and really understand them.'"

I recently read an article titled "5 tips to creating a successful marriage." I shared the article along with the following comment: "Isn't it interesting that in divorce mediation, we are teaching people tools that could have prevented the divorce, had the couple sought them out earlier and for a different purpose?" Let me share with you some of the responses I received:

"I have often thought that everything I have learned since my divorce would have greatly increased the chance that my marriage may have survived and even it didn't, that it would have greatly improved the divorce experience. You are so right!" - Laura Weisbart Campbell, Love Intentionalist, Divorce Strategist, and Founder of The D Spot, LLC.

"Wouldn't it be great if this type of relationship building and problem solving skills set were taught in programs at the High School level? Exposing teenagers early would be a gift that would last a lifetime. Cultivating better communication skills would be an opportunity to enhance their relationships on all levels for their entire lifetime." - Marcia Engel, Founder and Director of Single Concept- Premier Matchmaking Service and Dating Coach

"I SO ageer! I wish I'd learned these skills in high school!" - Glori Zeltzer, MFT, Couple and Relationship Psychotherapist

As you can see, communication issues and unmet expectations are two of the most common causes of divorce. People's expectations for themselves, their spouse and their marriage change over time. Those with the most successful marriages share these expectations with each other. These issues overlap when a person expects their spouse to read their mind because they were not properly communicating with them. That having been said, there are apps designed to address such things and actually improve relationships.

Moreover, couples are increasingly using apps for such purposes. In fact, according to the Pew Research Internet Project, "[t]he internet, cell phones, and social media have become key actors in the life of many American couples -- the 66 percent of adults who are married or in committed relationships. Couples use technology in the little and large moments. They negotiate over when to use it and when to abstain. A portion of them quarrel over its use and have had hurtful experiences caused by tech use. At the same time, some couples find that digital tools facilitate communication and support."

One such app that everyone should be aware of is text messaging, which allows you to communicate almost instantaneously, even if you are unable to make or receive a phone call. Other apps enable spouses to share and update grocery lists, track personal finances and create budgets, improve communication, understand and learn more about their spouse, and even explore their sexuality with their spouse. Imagine how many arguments could be avoided by making it more difficult, if not impossible, to forget things by utilizing synchronized lists, calendaring apps, and the like. By synchronizing their financial information, spouses can keep track of their combined income and expenses, avoid bouncing checks from joint accounts, and hopefully eliminate those financial "surprises" that are known to create marital conflict. In addition, technology can be used to help spouses develop a "deeper relational bond and a stronger psychological connection" by helping them gain much needed insight into their spouse.

Interestingly enough, several relationship apps have been included both on lists of apps for married couples and in post-divorce situations. Text messenging is one such app because it is frequently used to by divorced or separated parents to communicate with each other regarding their minor children. Grocery list apps such as "Grocery Smart" and "Out of Milk" are also included on both lists. After all, it is not always the other person who forgets to pick up certain items while shopping. Mint is one of the most popular apps for tracking finances, which is obviously useful to anybody and everybody, regardless of relationship status.

As far as scheduling and communication apps are concerned, OurFamilyWizard® has been in existence for almost 15 years to help reduce divorce conflict between co-parents. It provides a "shared co-parenting tool for scheduling parenting time calendars and visitation schedules, sharing information and managing expenses like un-reimbursed medical bills." I find it rather ironic that such useful relationship apps were created for post-divorced co-parenting situations long before apps designed to improve marriages were brought to market.

In any event, one such app that has been receiving excellent reviews is Couple Counseling & Chatting, which was created by Marigrace Randazzo-Ratliff, MSW, CSW. According to its description, the application provides useful relationship and communication tips, helps facilitate communication, and even "allows you to speak with a real life therapist for relationship help and couples therapy." Another such app titled "Gottman Love Maps" was created by The Gottman Institute. Dr. John Gottman is a world-renowned relationship expert and frequently quoted and/or referred to by many of his colleagues. As they say in the description of that app, "An important factor in relationship success is 'Knowing' about your partner's world. This fun set of questions helps partners to know each other better."

There is a great deal of debate as to the benefits of relationship apps. Regardless, people should consider their limitations, as expressed in the descriptions themselves. For example, included in the description of the Couple Counseling & Chatting app is the following: "Couples Counseling should be used for information and entertainment purposes only. Couple Counseling makes no warrant in express or implied about the success of your relationship. This application is meant to help facilitate and help relationships based upon therapeutic practices and relationship information. In a serious situational you should seek the help of a local professional." That being said, if The Gottman Institute has concluded that such apps can improve relationships, I would have to agree.