Love in the Time of Caller ID

When we’re always in touch but never in reach, can true love blossom?

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on February 04, 2009
From the WebMD Archives

Just as FedEx, UPS, and DHL can send a package across the country overnight, can set you up with a stranger in just a few hours -- when you absolutely, positively have to be with someone right now.

Hey, if you can get a suit dry-cleaned in three hours, why not a first date?

Using technology in the search for true love is certainly nothing new: In the 1899 hit song Hello Ma Baby, a young man entreats his lover to "send me a kiss by wire" and begs, "Oh baby, telephone, and tell me I'm your own."

In 1965, when computers were still hulking monstrosities programmed by punch cards, a group of Harvard students, including future Supreme Court nominee Douglas H. Ginsburg, formed a company called Compatibility Research Inc., which attempted to apply digital science to the art of love. Match-making sites such as eHarmony,, OkCupid, and Casual Kiss are its love children.

But is technology really a boon to romance or a barrier to intimacy?

For the star-crossed lover Abelard who wrote to his unattainable Heloise nearly a thousand years ago, the agony of waiting for the mail to arrive must have been keen indeed. For many of today's romantically inclined, however, the immediacy of electronic love notes helps to keep intense relationships fresh.

But for others, technology has its limits and its perils, because it allows us to reach out to, but not touch someone. Instead, we're substituting emoticons for emotions and stripping the intimacy of in-person encounters from the small daily kindnesses of personal relationships.

"I think that word, 'connected' is a misnomer, because we believe we're connected but in many ways we might be more disconnected from the actual relationship with a person," says John O'Neill, LCSW, director of addictions services for the Menninger Clinic in Houston.

A Match Made in (Cyber) Space

Certainly, technology can bring people together. According to, every day, 90 of its more than 17 million registered users get married. And there are as many match sites as there are fish in the sea.

There are also hundreds or thousands of smaller sites offering pair-ups by religious affiliation, gender, age, cultural interests, political convictions -- whatever floats your boat. There's even one for Klingon and Vulcan impersonators, called Trek Passions.

Jeanine Persichini of Dallas met her husband, Gary, eight years ago via an online personals ad.

"I think it [technology] enhances a relationship," Persichini, a real estate assistant in Dallas, tells WebMD.

"Actually, I think you get to know someone more, because they're not hiding anything," she says. "You can shoot off a little 'I love you' text message anytime during the day when you can't interrupt your significant other at work with a call."

Persichini confesses to having been reluctant at first to reveal just how she ended up finding true love, but she has come to realize, she says, that the ends justified the means.

Hold on, I Gotta Answer This

Communications technology now makes it possible to reach someone on a beach in Costa Rica, the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, the International Space Station, and in bed.

Michael Chancellor, MD, director of the Center for Urologic Research Excellence in Pittsburgh, studies male and female sexual dysfunction and says he has identified a new disorder afflicting hard-charging corporate types when they're behind closed doors.

"I was in a meeting with my colleagues once and everybody's BlackBerries kept going on off, and I thought, 'Blackberries are ubiquitous and they affect business -- I'll bet they affect sex, too," he tells WebMD.

To test this hypothesis, he and colleagues conducted a small online survey of Ivy League MBAs and found that four in 10 reported that they stopped having sex to respond to a message on their BlackBerries or other digital devices, and 45% admitted skipping sex for a business meeting, golf game, or night at the theatre.

It gives a whole new meaning to the term coitus interruptus.

To foster healthier relationships, Chancellor proposes that Valentine's Day also be designated as "Turn Off Your BlackBerry Day".

Second Life, Second Wife

Technology can also make strangers bedfellows. According to Mother Jones magazine, about one-third of women who play the multiplayer online role-playing game Second Life marry off their avatars, as do about 10% of men who play. The virtual marriages usually last only a few weeks, however.

A significant proportion of online players also report having "real" dates with someone they first met online.

And then of course, there is online infidelity, whether it's a husband having a virtual affair with a woman he's never met, or, in the case of Ric and Sue Hoogestraat of metropolitan Phoenix, a husband whose avatar has another (online) wife, complete with two digital dogs, motorcycles, and a virtual mortgage. Sue told the Wall Street Journal in August 2007 that it was upsetting when she tried to communicate with Ric, then her husband of seven months, and found him "having sex with a cartoon."

That's All She Wrote

The same electronic toys that help us keep in touch, however, can also help us sever the ties that bind, a phenomenon that has many social psychologists concerned.

In a 2005 study of 40 seventh graders published in the web-based Journal of Computer-Mediated Communications, researchers from the Indiana University in Bloomington found that nearly one-fourth who reported using instant messaging said they had used it to break up with someone. And in a 2006 survey by cell phone maker Samsung Technologies, reported in The Washington Post, 11% of respondents said it was OK to break up with someone via text message, just as Britney Spears is widely reported to have done with Kevin Federline.

The cold, impersonal nature of such rejection can magnify the very real pain felt by the one who is jilted, but also, surprisingly by the one who does the jilting. In a study of the mental and physical health effects of unrequited love, Roy F. Baumeister, PhD, and colleagues in the department of psychology at Florida State University reported that romantic rejection is "a symbolic evaluation of one's deficient worth -- in other words, a humiliating blow to one's self-esteem."

In contrast, rejecters feels guilty, especially if they feel at fault for having led the others on or given them false hope.

"But even rejecters who did not lead the other on may still feel distressed about inflicting pain, thus creating the seeming paradox of feeling guilty despite self-perceived moral innocence," the researchers found.

Feelings of worthlessness and guilt may also be symptoms of clinical depression. And in fact, break-ups may lead to an episode of major depression, which can be triggered by such major life events as interpersonal disputes, role transitions (when the lover is no longer part of a couple), and by interpersonal deficits, leading to social isolation or feelings of being deprived.

Not Tonight, Honey

Technology makes our lives easier, agrees O'Neill from the Menninger Clinic. But he also worries that loss of face-to-face and hand-to-hand contact can drain the essential human element from day-to-day dealings.

"I think when you start talking about text messaging, emailing, answering the phone, spending the time online, then I'm starting to think about how does that interfere with some of the basic human connections? Being able to look somebody in the eye and talk about love, and fear, and anger -- all the wonderful things but also all the necessary things that can be uncomfortable."

O'Neill says that for many people workplace technology has spread like a fungus, extending its reaches into the home and other once-private spaces.

"When someone gets up in the morning, they may check their email first thing in the morning, and then they jump in their car and talk on their cell phone or check messages all the way to work," he says. "Then they work all day and on the way home they're talking on the phone and checking messages again. So there really isn't that time anymore to unwind and prepare, and whether they're workaholics or not, more and more people are at risk for just getting exhausted."

O'Neill cites the following warning signs that technology may be coming between you and your loved ones:

  • You spend more time on email or returning phone calls than in activities with family of friends.
  • You're late for appointments or engagements because you got caught up in texting, surfing, or talking on the phone.
  • You text, send email, or leave voicemail when face-to face interactions would be more appropriate.
  • Your family and friends ask you to stop, but you can't, and you get irritated when others complain about your use of technology.

Often when we're absorbed in electronic communications we may be oblivious to how our actions hurt others, O'Neill says. He gives the hypothetical example of a father-and-son outing at a ball game. The father, talking on his cell phone, makes a distracted grab at a foul ball, but misses and goes on with the call as if nothing had happened.

"What could have been a significant bonding moment was derailed by the father's inability to disconnect from technology," O'Neill says.

Real-life examples also abound. Sue Hoogenstraat said that discovering her husband's virtual infidelity was "devastating" and that she felt devalued. Or as a New York Times reader identified as Luca wrote in response to an article about whether BlackBerry use enhances or inhibits family relationships, "We all know how emotionally difficult it is sometimes to switch between roles in a matter of minutes; I can hardly believe the BlackBerry helps in any way to accomplish that. I now carry a cell only when I am with my family; I want to be there and share emotions with them; with the 'berry' I felt like I was always plugged somewhere else somehow."

That strategy is a sound one, says O'Neill, who acknowledges that throwing out your cell phone is neither realistic nor, in the current age, practical.

"Instead, I think we have to take a step back and say, 'Wait a minute, is this what we really intended technology to do for us? To be this great interrupter? Or did we intend it to be something that benefits us, that allows us to stay connected?'" he says.

O'Neill counsels his patients to develop rules and set limits on their use of technology, pointing out that there's no substitute for personal attention and simple human contact.

"In the end," he says, "we need to be present in both mind and body to build and maintain healthy relationships."

WebMD Feature



Michael Chancellor, MD, director, Center for Urologic Research Excellence, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Jeanine Persichini, Dallas.

John O'Neill, LCSW, Menninger Clinic, Houston.

Mathews, T.J. The Harvard Crimson, Nov. 3, 1965.

Bryant, J. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, vol 11(2).

Alter, Alexandra, "Is this man cheating on his wife?" Wall Street Journal, Aug. 10, 2007.

Gilson, Dave. Mother Jones, May 21. 2007.

Payne, January W., The Washington Post, Feb. 13, 2007.

Baumeister, R. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol 64(3), pp 377-394.

WebMD Medical Reference provided in collaboration with Cleveland Clinic: "Depression: Major Depression."

Letter to the New York Times, June 15, 2006.

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