Question: My husband and I have been married 5 years, and I am expecting our fourth child. I knew when we first started dating that he enjoyed playing video games and using the computer but I didn’t realize the full extent of it until we got married. Although I understand the need to unwind after a difficult day at work, it seems like any screen (laptop, tablet, phone especially) in the house is the only thing ever receiving his full attention. Also, after the birth of each of our children he suddenly gets really into a new video game and holes himself up so I don’t have the help I need when I need it most.
There have been a few times he’s sworn off video games and uninstalled them. But after a few weeks, they’re back. He is a great provider and devoted Catholic and I am 100% certain he is not into pornography or online gambling, but this is really taking a toll on our relationship. What should I do? — Tech-stressed wife
Answer: Many people turn to technology as a coping mechanism to deal with stress. But when a coping mechanism creates as many problems as it solves, then it is maladaptive or unhealthy. As Pope Francis lamented, “digital connectivity can have the effect of isolating us from our neighbors, from those closest to us.”
You mentioned that your husband has difficult days at work and that there are soon to be four kids under the age of 5 in your household. As parents of six kids ourselves, we fully understand how much stress that can cause.
Find healthier coping mechanisms. The solution lies in finding a healthier coping mechanism. Your husband might need to be alone for ten minutes when he walks through the door just to decompress. He might benefit from jogging for an hour or lifting weights in the basement. Or he might want to discuss work problems with you after the kids go to bed. Quiet prayer time is always helpful. We’re a big fan of husbands and wives saying the rosary together, even if it’s only one decade.
The next question is: where does that leave you? After spending the day taking care of three small children while experiencing the tiredness of pregnancy, you’re stressed and need a break, too. It’s natural to expect that your husband will provide that break for you. After all, he’s the dad. But since not every dad is Superman, we encourage you to seek out other sources of support. Swap babysitting services with a friend, get someone in to clean the house even if it’s only once a month, take the kids to a park in nice weather so maybe you can sit down and relax.
Moderate and structure your time. It sounds like moderating the amount of tech time would also be a good idea. You and your husband can try to set technology house rules together, like no screens at the dinner table. Going out to a “tech-free”dinner once a month would also help the two of you to reconnect without distraction.
Try to structure the evenings and the weekends to minimize tech time, too. Make specific requests for how to spend the time in a more family-oriented and helpful way. Don’t say “you’re always on the computer,” because he’ll get defensive. Say instead, “it would really help me if you did X activity at Y time.” For example, ask your husband to bathe the kids before bedtime or watch the kids while you go to the grocery store. Give him a big “thank you” if and when he does it. But be patient, too, since new routines take time and effort to become fully established.
In case of addiction, seek professional help. Video games in particular can be addictive. One study found that almost 12% of the participants met the criteria for addiction. Video games can hook into the reward pathways of the brain — perform well by the standards of the game and you’ll get rewarded by points, coins, higher rankings, happy music. The real world, on the other hand, doesn’t always offer praise and recognition for a job well done. Escapism is another powerful lure. The fact that he’s tried to uninstall video games but then re-installed them a few weeks later is particularly troubling. If you’re truly worried that your husband is suffering from an addiction, then he may need to seek out professional help.
How much technology is too much? Do you have house rules for technology use — for parents as well as kids?
Copyright 2015 Dr. Manuel and Karee Santos.