By J. D. Peterson
When we think about technology in love relationships, strange pictures may pop into our heads: from the forbidden love a man has for his car, to vibrators and cyber-sex, to the whole Stepford Wives meets Battlestar Galactica, mating-with-androids kind of thing. Although these examples range from realistic to ridiculous, there is no doubt that many people feel a lurking sense of awkwardness, unnaturalness, or inauthenticity when it comes to incorporating technology in matters of the heart.
And yet, with the boom in communication media potentials, our internet-savvy culture is quickly becoming dependant on technology to facilitate our many occupations and preoccupations: we work online, we shop online, we entertain ourselves online, and yes, we even find love online. This is not surprising given the benefits of such a social arena, which were recognized even a decade ago: “Having control to simply disconnect from irritating or unsafe individuals, freedom to experiment with various personas, and the ability to impression manage makes computer mediated relating an attractive alternative to traditional social environments” (Merkle & Richardson, 2000, p. 190). Furthermore, those who began to find love online quickly shed their technological reservations, as the research discovered that “individuals often describe their CMR [computer-mediated romantic relationships] as extremely intimate and as ‘authentic’ as any face-to-face relationship” (p. 191).
Now, eleven years later, considering the development of web-based technology in society, and the statistics and trends of an increasingly large pool of participants in related studies, we are compelled to ask the inevitable question: Can technology really help romantic partnerships and marriages grow stronger, happier, and more successful? The answer—a resounding YES! Technology has proven to be a widely accepted and useful tool in the development, retention, and strengthening of love relationships. According to a recent study on the use of media technologies in such relationships, “Media use is very common among individuals involved in romantic relationships,” and “most contact via the media is very positive” (Coyne, Stockdale, Busby, Iverson, & Grant, 2011, p. 158; 159). The authors also make a point to emphasize the “potential for including media more in the educational and therapeutic endeavors of practitioners” (p. 161), listing several key considerations:
The room for innovation with these technologies for adapting educational and therapeutic interventions is almost limitless. Practitioners could easily use automated prompts to individuals or couples to gather information through a quick assessment over cell phones or to remind family members to interact around certain topics or in certain ways. In addition, the development of apps for smart phones could provide much more advanced forms of communication that are triggered at certain times of the day, such as when certain responses are given to a question or when certain things are observed in their relationships. Although using media to adapt interventions is sure to provide challenges with compensation, boundaries, confidentiality, and other issues, there are unique opportunities with these technologies to meet couples where they are at, when they need it, and in ways they are already communicating that may very well redefine intervention. (p. 161)
As if channeling some psychic force of good will, Minneapolis raised/Bay Area cured/New York resident Dr. Gary Krane developed his “CoupleWise” startup venture with all of these considerations and potentials in mind. Set in motion in St. Paul in 2005, the idea for CoupleWise was based on Dr. Krane’s work and research concerning long-lasting happy marriages and the best of what Cognitive Behavioral therapy has to offer. To find out just how he came to the idea, what challenges the venture faces, and what benefits and services are in store for its clientele, I tracked Gary down for an interview.
IV: So Gary, what were you doing before you came up with the idea for CoupleWise?
GK: I was working on trying to educate people in California about publically funded elections. I was so enthralled with that, how it could do so much good in this country, and replace the primary source of corruption of our former democracy, our campaign finance system, that I was just very devoted to it—and over the course of that, I was looking into how to organize people more effectively, and therefore looking at various developments on the internet.
But, at the same time, I would occasionally read books still kind of haunted by the failure of my own marriage and the pain of that loss, and I wanted to learn all I could to make sure the next time around I wouldn’t screw up. Then one morning, I think I was in the shower, suddenly the two things came together—what I was reading in some books that worked to save and revitalize marriages, and what I’d been learning about what software and the internet could do—and that’s sort of what gave me the initial idea, the epiphany.
IV: What motivated you to take on the challenge of figuring out how to use the powers of the Internet and related software to help couples succeed?
GK: My own pain from my own divorce was what started me on the journey, but my mission in life has always been to do the greatest good for the greatest number—that’s why I was a film maker working on documentaries broadcast on PBS for so many years, and that’s why I was working on the Internet. Still, I never thought at the time that what I was learning about helping marriages succeed would ever go into any kind of mass-educational effort.
But when I had that epiphany, I suddenly realized, wow, I could actually help millions of people with their marriages with what I was learning about the potential of interactive software and the Internet, especially its potential for tapping the wisdom of crowds as well as that of the best therapists. In other words, a lot of what I was reading that psychologists were doing with people one-on-one, or that therapists were doing in weekend seminars with large groups (that cost a fortune), could actually be adapted into software that would enable couples to do pretty much the same thing, and get pretty much the same results, without having to pay a thousand dollars for a weekend or a hundred dollars an hour for a therapist.
IV: It seems counter-intuitive using a computer (what some would call an emotionless and passive medium) to save relationships—how do you explain your tactics?
GK: I realize that’s a reaction a lot of people have, but when you look at it a little more closely—first of all there’s a lot of research that shows that mediated forms of communication like e-mail actually make honesty easier (Hancock, Thom-Santelli & Ritchie, 2004; Krotoski, 2011). And pretty much everybody—whether it’s a therapist or just somebody who knows a lot about marriage—will tell you that honesty is key to having a successful marriage. And then, from your own experience, if you’ve ever been in a position where you felt you had to express your anger or disappointment with a colleague, or even fire someone, you know it’s much easier to confront that person face-to-face after you’ve sent them an e-mail that gets them ready or buffers them for the confrontation.
Mediated communication reduces your fear of confronting another person, which is the primary barrier to preventing honesty. You see this all the time as well in a different context, with teenagers; guys are now texting girls when they ask them out for dates instead of just asking them face-to-face. There’s also been some research that shows that e-mailing makes it easier to negotiate with another person (Smith, 2003), and a lot of making marriages work is negotiating.
There are many things that software and the Internet can do that either emulate pretty closely what a therapist does, or go beyond what therapists can’t do or won’t do, so it’s more than just mediation. For example, one of the things that pretty much all therapists agree is important in making any relationship work well, is learning how to listen well. And I think that’s something that is teachable through interactive software and the use of video modeling. One advantage of using interactive video to teach this is that people can always come back to it again, whereas if you had a little lesson as to how to listen empathically with your therapist, by the time you get home you’ve probably forgot half of what they said, so you’re kind of screwed for the rest of the week until you see them again.
One more thing, and this is where the other advantage of the Internet comes in—its power to tap the wisdom of crowds. Say you’re having an issue with your mate. I come from the point of view that all conflicts are because the strategy one person is using to meet a need is in conflict with another strategy the other person is trying to use to meet their need, and none of these conflicts are particularly unique. This is well elaborated by the system of nonviolent communications founded by Marshal Rosenberg. So if you’re having a problem in your relationship, there’re probably tens of thousands of other people who are having the same problem. With this in mind, why not develop some kind of software that allows you to rather rapidly find other couples who’ve been through close to the same kind of problem you’re going through, and have solved it or transcended it? You can benefit from their solutions—some of which might be very creative that you might not have thought about by yourself until, tragically, after your divorce, when it’s too late. I could give you more examples, but we don’t want to give away all of our secrets.
IV: Seeing as how this is a relatively recent and perhaps controversial approach to relationship counseling, what school or schools of therapy have most influenced you, and where does this show up in the design of CoupleWise?
GK: I would say the schools of therapy that have most influenced me have been basically cognitive and behavioral therapies, which have been developed by everybody from Albert Ellis to Dr. Aaron Beck and many others. I also very much love the work of Drs Steven Stosny and Pat Love. Other people who have had a significant influence, two of our advisors, are Drs. Charles and Elizabeth Schmitz, who are two of the most famous researchers on the predictors of long-lasting happy marriages, and also Dr. Harville Hendrix, our first advisor. I could name many others, but one of the most important influences on me has been, as I mentioned earlier, the work of Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, the author of the book Non-violent communication.
To answer the second part of your question—again, I don’t want to give too much away, since my associates and I have invested so many years into this gamble without recompense—but I can say very broadly, these theories show up first in the tools we provide couples to clarify what their conflict is, in ways that are non-judgmental and non-critical, that don’t get them started in blaming and criticizing each other. And of course, they also show up in all the tools we’re going to have that will actually help couples solve these issues.
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1. Coyne, S. M., Stockdale, L., Busby, D., Iverson, B., & Grant, D. M. (2011). Brigham Young University ‘‘I luv u :)!’’: A descriptive study of the media use of individuals in romantic relationships. Family Relations, 60, 150-162. DOI:10.1111/j.1741-3729.2010.00639.x
2. Hancock, J. T., Thom-Santelli, J. & Ritchie, T. (2004). Deception and design: The impact of communication technology on lying behavior. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 129-134). NY: AMC. ISBN:1-58113-702-8 doi>10.1145/985692.985709
3. Krotoski, A. (2011). Interview: Prof Aaron Ben-Ze’ev (University of Haifa). Untangling the Web. Retrieved from http://untanglingtheweb.tumblr.com/post/4803520787/interview-prof-aaron-ben-zeev-university-of-haifa
4. Merkle, E. R. & Richardson, R. A. (2000). Digital dating and virtual relating: Conceptualizing computer mediated romantic relationships. Family Relations, 49(2), 187-192.
5. Smith, B. (2003). Computer–mediated negotiated interaction: An expanded model. The Modern Language Journal, 87, 38–57. doi: 10.1111/1540-4781.00177