- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Flirtations and indiscretions with other humans may not be the most vexing problem facing American couples anymore. Computers and telephones are horning in on that loving relationship.

In a new survey of 1,001 adults, 65 percent said they spent more time with their computers than their spouse or significant other, according to Los Angeles-based Kelton Research, which released the findings yesterday.

The computer/user “relationship” is intensifying, the survey found, noting that 84 percent say we’ve grown more dependent on our computers in the last three years. Harmony is not a built-in feature either: 52 percent of us take our computer’s failures personally, feeling anger, sadness or alienation if the computer did not cooperate or perform well. An additional 19 percent admitted they have wanted to strike their computers.

Ironically, we seek sympathy for such “cyber stress” from a spouse or family.

“Americans’ relationship with their computers are affecting their relationship with family and friends, as nearly three fourths — 74 percent of Americans — say they bring their computer problems home with them,” the survey found.

“As computers become increasingly pervasive in our lives, our relationships with them can begin to seem almost as important as a relationship with a significant other. When problems then occur with the computer, it often leaves people feeling frustrated or helpless,” said Robi Ludwig, a Manhattan couples therapist.

It’s an equal opportunity activity: 69 percent of women and 71 percent of men, or about 141 million people, regularly use the Internet, according to the latest statistics from the Pew Internet and American Life Project. Men tend to go online for solitary pursuits, Pew found in a 2006 survey, while women seek the community of family and friends.

And while mental health experts have argued whether regular Internet use fosters pathological or addictive behaviors for a decade, Stanford University reported last year that 6 percent of us report our personal relationships suffer because of computer use. An additional 14 percent cannot “stay away” from the keyboard.

But computers are not the only third party among American couples. Dr. Edward Hallowell, a Massachusetts psychiatrist and author of “Crazy Busy: Overstretched, Overbooked and About to Snap,” found that multitasking couples are troubled by intrusions from communications devices. Some wives report that their husbands are bringing their BlackBerrys to bed during moments of intimacy, he says.

Dr. Hallowell called it “an addiction to messages.”

University of Florida psychologist Lisa Merlo faults cell phones as a growing barrier to relationships. Those who get separated from the phone or personal digital assistant become agitated.

“It’s not so much talking on the phone that’s typically the problem,” she said. “It’s the need to be connected, to know what’s going on, to be available to other people.”

A 2006 study from Britain’s Staffordshire University found that 7 percent of cell phone users say their phone caused them to actually “lose a relationship,” Miss Merlo said. She advises frequent phoners to cut back phone time.

“It’s OK to turn it off,” she said. “The cell phone message will still be there.”

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