Love in the Time of Caller ID

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Just as FedEx, UPS, and DHL can send a package across the country overnight, CrazyBlindDate.com 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, Match.com, OkCupid, and Casual Kiss are its love children.

But is technology really a boon to 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 clinical depression. And in fact, break-ups may lead to an episode of 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.”