Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Defending My Turf

As I’m wiping down the table from dinner, I casually listen in on the lively game of superheroes being played out in the next room. Phil had promised the older two he’d play with them before bed and now it’s a mighty showdown: My Little Pony versus toy soldiers versus the Riddler. It’s a fantastical scene that could only be concocted in the minds of seven and five year olds. I hear Dylan excitedly play out one of the scenes: “And then Daddy….the Penguin is going to use his rays to stop the soldiers and then he’ll take over the Bat cave!”

I wait and listen for Phil’s response. It sounds like this: “umm hmmm…”

Every part of my body tenses up. Without moving, without looking, I know exactly what is happening right now. His phone went off – more work emails. He responded to the notification. He is looking down and checking email. I do not in any way blame him for this. He is caught in a constant tug between his personal and professional life. And that phone is the rope that keeps him mentally and physically tethered to his job all day and night. He wants to separate but then another email comes in and well, he’ll just read this one more. But I hate that this scene is playing out in front of the kids and completely interrupting critical Bat cave time.

Phil’s time with the kids is limited really to bedtime hours – that brief window between 6:30 and 8pm. When he’s home during those hours, it is imperative to me that he have his phone put away. This is important not just for the kids, but for Phil because he too needs this break to refocus, refresh. But I realize, how does he know what this means to me when I’ve never told him – when we’ve never had the talk.

When we first came together as a couple ten years ago, we talked about all sorts of things that couples talk about to help them sort out whether or not they are in it for the long haul and assess compatibility. We discussed children, if we wanted them and how many of them we wanted, where we wanted to live, our views on social justice, faith, and money. But we never discussed technology because it was a non-issue back then. Phil had a blackberry and a flip phone. I had a flip phone. Data plans were nonexistent and the habits that are so pervasive in our daily life literally didn’t exist.

Flash forward to ten years later. We’ve got a house and three kids and a marriage that requires constant TLC because anything worth anything always does. And it occurs to me that technology advanced so quickly over the course of our relationship that we never stopped to talk about the spaces in which we were and were not comfortable letting it in or conversely expressly wanted it out.

As silly as it sounds, technology, and the subsequent ripple effect it can have on feelings and people, is still a relatively new concept to the coupled version of us. Technology takes up space and if you don’t acknowledge that and specifically carve out where and what you’re going to give it access to, it’s like a third person in your relationship. And no one expressly invited Siri into my Chuppah.

So I said something like this: “I don’t think I ever told you how important it is to me to have your phone off between the hours of 6:30 and 8pm. I really want this to be our time together - just us. I hope you understand what this means to me.”

And he said something like, “I really didn’t know how important that was to you. I will keep it off between 6:30 and 8pm.”

(ps this was the most grown up conversation we’ve ever had in married life)

And then I said, “Is there a time of day when I use my phone that bothers you? Like for example when Hope wakes me up in the middle of the night and I have a hard time going back to bed, I’ll turn on my phone and look at it. Does that bother you? Does the light bother you when you are sleeping?”

To which he not surprisingly responded, “Yes. This bothers me.”

And so we agreed to respect the spaces in our family and relationship and home where we weren’t willing to let technology in. I’m certain we will both need gentle reminders from time to time, but the idea that we talked specifically about this seemed landmark to me in some way. It was so important yet so deceptively simple and easy to overlook. I wonder if there are more couples that experience tension around these different moments in the day but can’t quite pinpoint the source.

These phones can be tricky like that, making us so available to so many people, places, and things, that we forget how quickly this access can erode the intimacy that our families are built on. It is the kind of intimacy that exists solely outside of our phones, in real relationships hashed out through grown up talks about complicated stuff and in live action play on the Bat cave battlefield.
And so the phone goes away. Dylan lines up the soldiers and the Penguin makes a daring attempt to take over the Green Lantern's cave!
Indeed this is turf worth defending.