Classic Computer Magazine Archive CREATIVE COMPUTING VOL. 9, NO. 8 / AUGUST 1983 / PAGE 132

Of marriage in the computer age. Michael Rossman.

Of Marriage In The Computer Age

When Kevin got a computer to do his work at home, he put it in the bedroom where the phone was, to link it to the big office machine. When he worked late he could watch the moon through the bedroom window while Mary slept in the guest room. He had hoped to interest her in his new tool, and he succeeded because she wrote her thesis on the word processor. But tension brewed between them. Assuming that Mary didn't like sleeping in the guest room, Kevin shifted the phone and computer to the kitchen and gave up the moon.

It didn't help. Three months passed before a friend of Mary's took him aside and told him why Mary was snappish and had cooled to sex. After they made love, Kevin would get up and go back to work at the console. He thought he was doing her a favor by coming to bed briefly when she retired. He had never understood that lying together afterward, talking and drifting into sleep, mattered as much to her as making love.

Talking it over at last, they agreed that he would wake her when he was finally ready for bed. This worked better for a while, though sleepy love wasn't Mary's first choice. Fortunately, a promotion soon gave Kevin his own computer at the office, cutting out his homework--and leaving him to lie abed early, alone in the moonlight, while Mary labored at the word processor till the wee hours.

As the computer revolution invades ordinary life, couples find themselves tangled in domestic conflicts involving the machine and its effects. Sometimes the difficulties are superficial and readily resolved as with Kevin and Mary. The problems, however, may run deeper, having less to do with the computer than with the people and the relationship involved.

Marriage counselors are encountering a minor wave of cybernetic cases with couples who can't straighten things out by themselves. "It's another spin-off of the computer industry, a subsidiary maintenance business,' one therapist told me. "It's just starting, and I expect it will grow.'

The Other Woman

When Lisa found herself getting upset and angry each time Carl disappeared into the den, she realized she was jealous of the Apple as if it were another woman. She chided herself for reacting so strongly. After all, Carl was home and available though preoccupied. She was simply missing some time with him and wondered why she felt not only neglected, but resentful and incompetent.

They had shopped for their Apple together like many affluent couples buying a toy. Indeed, Lisa had pushed him to get it and had thought it would be great fun to play with it together. He would teach her to program as he learned; she would put her recipes on it, use it to manage the household budget, to help the kids out in school and attempt unpredictable marvels. She was in love with the idea, and the machine, too, at first, glossy with promises of power.

The computer, of course, was more complex and difficult to work with than she had imagined and far more stupid as a helpmate. It couldn't suggest what to have for dinner or cure their over-spending. The children played video games, neglecting their homework. Nor did Lisa find herself moved to learn what she might about programming; though she was bright, she found this discipline quite alien.

What upset her so in Carl's dalliance with the Apple was not simple neglect, but a jealousy deepened by her own disappointment, the failure of her own passion for the machine--which festered and stung her as Carl mastered it. Though their relationship was basically sound, it was snarled in conflict by the time this came out in therapy.

After Lisa recognized the effects of her own disappointment, they found a simple solution. Carl vowed to spend more time with her and with the children. They bought a sailboat, refurbished it together and grew adept at sailing as a team. Well before they got it afloat Carl's infatuation with the Apple had cooled. Though he still disappeared into the den occasionally to play with it, the computer had become just another toy, no longer a threat to their relationship.

"Many couples pass through a phase like theirs with some discomfort but no real difficulty,' observes Dr. Arvalea Nelson, a Berkeley marital therapist. "But it's trickier when the computer isn't just a novel toy, when one partner enters into an organic and ongoing relation with it. Sometimes the problems affect the whole marital relationship, and the solutions can be quite far-reaching.'

Programming Your Partner

When John first moved in with Peg, he had no idea he would become a computer husband. As a drama student, Peg seemed so different from his mother, a librarian, who was domineering and compulsive about organization. But in truth Peg's character was enough like his mother's to make the relationship comfortable for John. It served Peg well when she turned to business management after graduation.

Business brought Peg to the computer, and her personality led her to enjoy it. As she learned more about programming, the obsessive-compulsive streak in her character grew stronger through constant exercise and began to affect their relationship. Peg started making lists for John--at first only of household tasks he should manage, but soon also of ways he should behave with her and things he should do to improve his performance at work.

She seemed to be trying to program him. It was so rational and benevolent, though, that John retreated into a passive aggression, leaving the lists uncompleted and the problem undiscussed. He felt increasingly anxious and overwhelmed, and went through crises of depression. Neither of them questioning her opinion that the problem was his alone, Peg convinced him to go to a therapist.

Peg quickly felt betrayed. Instead of "fixing John up' so that he could go back to getting ahead in his job, the therapist encouraged him to take a leave of absence to explore the interests he had neglected in the past and to begin making his own decisions again. With their joint income cut, Peg couldn't buy the new disk drive she wanted. By the time John started training for a new community service career, he was much happier and more in possession of himself--and Peg felt so threatened by his changes that she finally agreed to see the therapist herself.

The therapist started slowly, helping her learn to write lists with John rather than at him. Soon Peg grasped that the problem had been as much hers as his. The therapist encouraged her to express her sense of humor and the other parts of herself that she had set aside when she left school. And she realized that the one-sided persona she had developed was no better for her than it was for John. Her spontaneous, adventurous spirit, which had attracted him and had found little exercise in management and programming, was not dead but dormant. She realized how narrow her interests had grown, and she enjoyed broadening them again as she worked to develop new balances in her relations with John and with her work.

As for John, when Peg stopped using her obsessive linear streak to run his life, he found himself comfortable with that side of her again. Indeed, he depended on it when he turned to Peg for help in organizing his own work in a service agency and then in setting up a computerized business system for the whole agency.

Their story illustrates the complex ways in which computer involvement affects marriages and marriage partners. Tensions are worse when one partner becomes totally involved and the other has no connection. This happens frequently, and sometimes the outcome is less fortunate.

Hastening The Inevitable

At 28, Buzz took to computing like a duck to water, and soon broadened his company work to jet-set consulting, leaving his wife, Cathy, far behind. The more he got into it, the more she found him simply not there for her. He was withdrawn and inaccessible or speaking a language she felt she couldn't begin to comprehend. His new friends, all strangers to her, spoke it, too; he had no patience for their mutual friends.

Baffled and frustrated by his distance, Cathy decided that Buzz was boring, narrow and unexciting, and she told him so frequently. In retaliation he let her know more often that he found her dumb, and he grew more critical of whoever and whatever didn't relate to the new world he found exciting. Trapped in this dynamic of accusation and defensiveness, their marriage deteriorated rapidly. Counseling merely helped them separate on tense but civil terms.

"But their marriage was doomed even without the computer,' remarked their therapist. "Neither one had enough generosity of spirit to respect the other's interests and differences. Conflict over the computer probably saved them five years of slow discovery that they didn't really care for each other very much.

"In most successful marriages partners try to develop complementary roles for themselves in each other's worlds. Cathy could have enjoyed going on vacations with Buzz when he spoke at conferences. She might not have understood his technical presentations, but she could have shared his excitement and pride in them. Instead she stayed home, resentful.

Of course she needed to develop her own world more, to be comfortable with such a fringe role in his. But Buzz shot her down as inept when she talked of starting her own business, and she bought his know-it-all judgment. If he had really wanted to meet her as an equal, he could have helped her in many ways. But he wanted her to fail and success to be his alone.'

A Unique Problem?

There is nothing novel or special about the impact of computers on marriages, because similar kinds of strain and conflict arise out of many expensive tools and intense enthusiasm that lead partners on separate paths. Most therapists agree that involvement with computers rarely creates new problems in a relationship, but tends instead to evoke or deepen those that are already present. Still, some argue that it can do this with unusual and remarkable force.

"Computer involvement tends to be compellingly hypnotic, as addictive as a drug,' notes therapist Marcia Perlstein. "It can be worse than another lover as a competing force for attention--totally involving, always available, and quite demanding. When your partner is not in front of the terminal, he is thinking about the problem he left behind; and when he is finally done he doesn't want to pay attention to anything, but just goes passive. Even for a mate who is not jealous and who appreciates his passion for the keyboard, it can be quite a strain.

"Anyone who finds himself getting deeply involved, to the point that his computer habit becomes hard to control, will do well to find a way to make it his primary work and then to leave his work at the office. Bringing it home will probably court strain in the relationship--and many people find it all too easy to retreat even more into the computer to avoid dealing with that.'


Since computers don't care which sex punches their keys, such stories of strife between women and men run both ways. In Eunice and Bob's case, Eunice was the one responsible, having a linear mind and a somewhat tight manner, which found programming a fertile ground. Bob was the free spirit and part-time actor who found unemployment romantic. He might have encouraged her spontaneity and growth, but he had put her in a box in his mind, and felt threatened each time she tried to step beyond it. By the time Eunice left him, she was well on the way to becoming a feminist. For work had been no better than home. Her women's group was the only place Eunice felt complete, a competent woman having trouble with a mate.

Still, it is primarily men who buy computers and program them, and women who stand by baffled as their mates disappear in abstract obsession. Some reports from schools suggest that a crop of 14-year-old girls excited about programming is coming along well. For adults, however, computer relations and marital problems are strongly biased along old, sexist lines. How much of this bias is due to biology and how much to social conditioning? No one knows yet, but it affects women and men quite differently.

"Women tend to have much deeper trouble in relating to computers than most men are prepared to understand,' observes Perlstein. "Our conditioning leaves us alienated both from the computer hardware, and from the mathematical and symbolic languages that programming involves. This makes the challenge of involvement very threatening. Many women feel so stupid and defensive in its face that they dodge the challenge completely.

"It's not so good for a relationship, to feel that the only way to keep in contact with your mate is to understand something foreign and difficult. One tends to resent the other person, from feeling forced. And there is often a great deal of resistance to being taught, when he seems to know it all, and you feel helpless. Reactions like this strain relationships, and also cut women off from what they might do and enjoy--for many women are much better able to deal with computers than they realize--or would be if they were properly supported.'

As for men, computer involvement reinforces their own sex-role conditioning in quite a different way, perhaps worse for relationships. "Men tend to find it easier not only to relate to computer hardware and concepts,' agrees Dr. Nelson, "but also to use these to escape from the problems of relationships. Men's tendencies to suppress emotional awareness and expression in favor of abstraction are often encouraged by serious computer activity. Men who handle conflict by with-drawing, as many do, are at special risk in their relationships if a computer is available at home. They should take special care to be deliberate and positive about making contact with their mates--not just when things are relaxed, but when there is strain between them.'

Problems For Professionals

The problems that computer involvement brings to marriages may be most visible and exaggerated among the people most deeply involved, the professional programmers. "Computer programmers tend to be a fairly neurotic bunch anyway, made more so by the character of the machines and tasks they work with,' observes Dr. Michael Evans, a noted Berkeley psychologist. "What they do is extremely complex and abstract, and quite precarious. Large works can collapse on tiny mistakes, and do so repeatedly. One might think they would get used to "bugs,' but many people never do, and find them hard to take in stride, a constant and depressing strain.

"Programmers tend to be introverted people, high achievers, prone to anxiety, and, of course, quite obsessive. It is hard to get them to take even a ten-minute break. All this affects their abilities to begin and to maintain relationships. Their obsessiveness makes it difficult for them to accommodate others. Their jobs are not only stressful but stretchable and flexible, expanding to fill all available hours. Their language is so special that they can't talk about their work to their wives or girl friends. On the job they interact with peers around technical matters and don't really relate to each other; their bosses rarely realize the kinds of support and encouragement they need. All this is tough on relationships. It's no wonder so many programmers find it easier to relate almost exclusively to computers, than to people, and intimacy, so much more complex and demanding.'

What Dr. Evans observes about professional programmers seems to apply no less poignantly to amateurs, to the many husbands and wives now being caught up in the growing, less specialized ranks of the computer-involved. A marriage in which the partners are equally eager and able to undertake the cybernetic adventure is indeed fortunate (though programmer couples are often better at solving programming problems than couple problems, which occur no less regularly among them than among common folk). Marriages without this rare equality tend to take the advent of the computer better if one partner is already used to the other's tendency to go off in specialized obsession, and if some agreement about how to stay in contact is worked out. Without this, trouble comes with the software, like an un-indexed program.

It would be nice to wish away the problems that computers pose for marriages, or wish for some simple, dependable solutions. But the problems are real and massive, and often intractable, because they come with the medium--not only of marriage, but of cybernetics. Computer use and programming are all of the above--complex, demanding, consuming of time and consciousness--and a strain. In their present stage of development, they are also directly and ineluctably depersonalizing. At the same time, they are thrilling, a deep human adventure, and, in the end, perhaps not a narrow one. The strains and obstacles their use creates in relationships are an unavoidable part of the human price we are paying for the power we are beginning to grasp through our cybernetic extension.