Saturday, March 10, 2012

Saving My Marriage from Facebook

Sometimes I absolutely hate Facebook, i-phones, and the prominence of technology in my life and home. The way my husband and I are glued to our phones and the Internet each night, you would never guess that a mere four years ago all we had was dial-up. That was back when we lived in a cabin with a woodstove for heat and a composting toilet on the back porch. That was back when it still felt like a novelty for me to even have a cell phone (which incidentally didn’t happen until 2004).

When Matthew and I lived in the cabin on 50 acres outside of Olympia, our time together was mostly technology-free. We had the occasional DVD night up in the loft where the T.V. lived (that could only be used for movies), but mostly we just hung out, made dinner, listened to music, drank wine, and stared at the stars—both metaphorically and literally. Dial-up was, of course, frustratingly slow, but because of its very slowness, it forced me to get on, do my business, and get off. No mindless surfing, no long detours into someone’s life story or web links, no wasted time online. Sounds ideal.

Of course, I also love the Internet, my i-phone, and Facebook. I would feel cut off and disconnected from the world without them. And without a fast connection, I would never have the motivation to network or do Internet research. I might very well withdraw into my old insular ways.

But what I hate sometimes, and I mean loathe, is the way these devices pull us away from the moment, pull us away from our living room, from our child, from each other, distracting us and eating away at the precious few moments that we have to connect at the end of the day.

When I come out of the bedroom at the end of the night, my son finally asleep, dinner eaten, the house quiet, a feeling of relief washed over me, I want to be able to sit down next to my husband and have him look up at me, put aside his laptop, and ask me how my day was. I don’t want to have to ask him to do this, but if I don’t ask, and instead decide to just go get a glass of wine, sit in the chair across from him, and get online via my I-phone myself, then it might be an hour before we finally look up at each other and attempt to converse. Or, we might just skip that part altogether and decide to watch an episode of Mad Men or what have you, since we only have an hour now before it will be time to go to bed.

To be fair, there are times when my husband comes into the room and I am the one who is engrossed in something online, and not immediately willing to shut it down and tune into him, or us. To be fair, I am sure that I check my email way more than he does his. And to be fair, I am probably every bit if not more addicted to Facebook than he is.        

My excuse: I’m home all day with a toddler. Some days go by where I don’t talk to a single other person besides a few words exchanged with the grocery checker. My days are devoted to meeting the needs of a two-year-old: to feeding, changing, and clothing him, to providing him with enriching, stimulating environments and play. But are these activities stimulating to me? Not very often. Perhaps in a mild, satisfying “that was a fun way to pass the day” kind of way, or in a random intensely delightful moment. But seldom in a way that actively engages my mind and creative longing.

And so? I turn to Facebook and to my email. I check them over and over again, a mindless reach of the fingers, to see if anyone new has written me, if anyone has commented on an update, or posted interesting links. It’s like candy. (Or chips, if you go more for the salty.) It’s little morsels of fluff and occasionally glimmers of opportunity or interest that inject a bit of the outside world into my day. Since I can’t just decide to take a break and go be alone, or sit down and watch a few minutes of t.v. (if I want to be a good parent), or talk much on the phone without my son trying to get my attention, then I turn to Facebook which provides the perfect take it or leave it morsel of a break that I can get away with in between activities throughout my day.

My husband’s laptop sits right next to the couch, right next to the spot where coincidentally one of us is usually planted. We also use the laptop to listen to music and stream videos, so it makes sense that it lives at the center of our living space. But sometimes I wish it weren’t so, because I know that the ease to which I can click the button, scan a few posts, and turn it off, is not always an asset. It’s a distraction. It pulls me away from my son, who is here and wants my full attention. It pulls me away from my husband. It pulls me away from myself.

And with the i-phone, it’s even easier to click on and off, wherever I am—in the bathroom, in the yard, in the car. I never wanted an i-phone, but now I’m addicted to it. Again, it’s like candy, or a cigarette, or anything you might rationalize giving yourself as a little “treat”, a quick fix, because “you work so hard you deserve it”. Never mind that it doesn’t really matter if you read that message now or later at night (when you know you’re going to check your email again anyway). It’s just habit. It’s an addiction.

I know I am hardly the first here to decry the ways in which technology is pulling us apart more than together, but I feel compelled to write about it because, like I said earlier, sometimes I really do hate what it’s done to us, and I mean HATE in capitol letters or italics, whichever you prefer.

I hate it when I realize that one of the reasons why my son probably begs for Elmo so much is because I am constantly getting on the computer, and thus reminding him of Elmo (for we stream it via Netflix). And I hate it when I want to just be with my husband, but it feels like he would rather be with his virtual fishing buddies online.

Once you’ve developed a ritual where you are used to checking certain sites every day, the process becomes like a litany of sorts, and the day feels incomplete unless you’ve done so. My husband and I both developed our habits in large part during the year and a half that he worked on the road during the week and we were both alone during the evenings. That’s when my love affair with Facebook and my online community of friends really began. Almost every night, I’d sit down with my dinner or my wine and enjoy Facebook. If it happened to be a night where I felt chatty and had posted a status update (or two or three; I tend towards either binge updating or silence), then my chattiness would no doubt be rewarded by that perky little red flag of correspondence, with new comment or ‘likes’ boosting my inner extrovert and desire to connect. Other nights, when I am not feeling that chatty, my time spent online is shorter, although I still loyally scan through the new posts, looking for those few that pop out at me with interest.

Loyalty. If you want to love it, and keep loving it, Facebook demands a degree of loyalty. Leave it for too long and it might feel like no one cares about you, no one cares what you have to say, and you were really just talking to yourself the whole time in the first place. Facebook rewards those who reward Facebook. Leave a bunch of comments, post a bunch of updates, and lo and behold, red flags will abound and your interactions will begin to feel that much more personable, conversational. But if your own interest wanes, if you couldn’t care less or be bothered to comment, then after a while, you might just find that the whole endeavor feels like a giant waste of time.

I’ve only gone on one Facebook purge since I started; it was during the three weeks I spent at Hedgebrook, a writing residency for women on Whidbey Island. I could have still checked it each day in the main farmhouse or “pumphouse” if I’d wanted, but I chose to leave it behind. It was easy. I sunk into my writing mind and the environment around me instead. I didn’t post one thing, and on the one occasion that I did glance at it, everyone’s updates suddenly seemed so… inconsequential. Petty. Striving for something to say. Striving for connection.

I’m not trying to sound all high and mighty, for it didn’t take me long (at all) to get reengaged, but what I recall here is the feeling of what a complete organism the world of Facebook is, the way it sucks you into it’s chatty, interesting, sometimes political, often apolitical, sometimes passionate, often ironic world, and makes you want to be an active part of it, makes you want to stand out and be noticed, makes you want to be followed and liked.

Sometimes, there’s nothing wrong with this. Being ‘liked’ and otherwise encouraged and patted on the back can feel great, especially after a long and difficult day. But if we come to expect this, or go to Facebook for our “quick fixes” of approval, don’t be surprised if Facebook can then also offer the opposite effect. Ever notice what happens when no one comments or likes what you post? It can be a mild let-down-- whatever, Facebook, it’s not that great, you shrug it away. Our own disappointment or delight is fed in accordance with our own expectations. But our addiction for more “positive fixes” keeps us hungry for more.  If suddenly something you write gets twelve likes and nine comments (or adjust your expectations accordingly here)—wowzas! It makes you kind of perky. People like you. Or like what you have to say. People notice you. Or people want you to notice them. Be their friends. Like them back. It’s middle school all over again.

Have you ever noticed how seeing the red flag of correspondence gives you a little zip of anticipation? And how seeing nothing gives you a mildly deflated kind of blah feeling? Of course, it’s often no coincidence that it’s exactly when you’re feeling blah, that your updates are then blah, and therefore so are your comments. And it’s when your feeling all, “Zippity-do-dah, the world is great, and I just won the Pulitzer!” that people love to give you virtual high fives. It makes me wonder how much we unconsciously (or consciously, for those of us who have thought about it) start to post things that are happier or perkier or somehow easier to “like” because we’ve learned that it elicits a response. For me, I often just don’t feel like posting anything unless I’ve got something particularly funny, exciting, quirky, or poignant to share. Or else, be prepared for silence. Mostly though, I’ve just figured out by now that I mostly only care to actively engage with Facebook (as in post on it) when I’m feeling relatively good about my life. Otherwise, all that chatter on Facebook just starts to depress me. And who wants to be a bummer online?

I know I’m never going to swear it off—the benefits of Facebook and the online world in my life are too great. Beyond the distractive qualities, I find that it can and does actually connect me to people in ways that I wouldn’t otherwise have the time or means to do. As a natural introvert (or perhaps an introverted extrovert), I benefit greatly from this way to know more people. I do end up feeling like a part of a greater community—whether that’s across the world or in my own city or amongst my extended family, other writers, or other parents. I have forged and cultivated real, in-person relationships via Facebook that otherwise wouldn’t have come about.

So call me a diehard fan, and I won’t deny it. But then what are these intense feelings of hatred that Facebook can also evoke in me? I think it comes from the same hunger to connect that draws me to Facebook in the first place. It’s the recognition that no matter how stimulating Facebook might be at times, it can also leave me feeling disappointed, distant, and sad about my lack of real-time, right now, connection. It’s that mild dissatisfaction that almost all of us feel now and then, if not every day, that feeling like, this is it? This is my day? My month? My year? Was there something else I was supposed to be doing with my life? Was there some promise that I made to myself long ago that I’m not fulfilling? When did I forget about how nourishing practices like yoga or sitting meditation can be? When did my husband and I forget that we might actually be able to do some of those important and restorative activities together? Why does it have to be just “my time” (spent writing) and “his time” (spent fishing), and then “our time” sans child, becomes the rare afternoon visit to a pub or the beach, or more like the nightly veg out state on the couch—checking our email and watching T.V.

The ultimate irony is when my husband and I are sitting in the same room at the same time and both on Facebook, and one of us attempts to ‘chat’ with the other or else comments on the other’s post. Sometimes this is humorous, but more often than not, it’s just depressing and a sign that we really need to get offline NOW.

When did we become one of these couples? When we moved to the city? When we had a child? Yes, I could blame it on child rearing, the easiest and most obvious target. But even without children, I think all couples start to sink into these levels of complacency, forgetting all the hard internal work you might have done while you were single and alone, pining for your soul mate, and then sliding comfortably into a lazy space where you don’t push each other to grow—and even more than this, you don’t push yourself to grow as a couple. You do what you can do to keep the peace, stay sane, pay the bills, reward yourself with treats. But couples therapy or retreats? Save that for when the marriage really gets rocky; that’s salvage and reparation time.

Most of all, my husband and I just need more time together. And time that is NOT being interspersed with checking our emails, Facebook, and texts. Because our lives are already marked by a decided shortage of time to do the things we need and want, it is baffling to think of all the time that we both freely give to acquaintances and distant friends online; if we were to add up all of it, I know we would be appalled. I’m quite certain that we give more time to Internet rabbit holes overall than we do to sitting down and chatting about our day. And THAT is truly sad. THAT is what makes me want to institute Facebook or Internet-free moratoriums when together—try for an evening, a weekend, a whole week even! But just as I know my husband would be hard to convince, I know that I too would want to make exceptions. This is called bargaining. This is called an addiction.

So when that familiar feeling of stifled frustration comes over me when I see you sitting there online, and barely looking up to acknowledge my presence walking into the room, I will try to remember that it’s in part my frustration with my own addiction that makes me so resentful of your own. And I will also try to remember that it is in my power to not be angry but simply be honest and forthright.  To tell you what I want and need, even if I feel like I’m repeating myself again and again. And to tell you this because I love you, because I want to be with you, and because it’s our job to keep reminding each other why we are here, together, in the first place.


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