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Unplugging: The Gifts of Shutting off the Damned Devices

Just today I was having a long chat with my best friend about the phenomenon of face-in-the-screen in marriage. “It drives me nuts,” she said, “every time we go out for dinner he puts the damn phone right in the middle of the table. It’s like whoever is calling or texting is more important than me.”

Another friend recently said to me, “I can’t ever get her to look up. I’m not kidding. Our whole house is filled with one device after another. I feel like I’m living with a ghost—she just goes from room to room with her face in a series of screens.”

And it hit home. I had to ask myself, “How often are we actually focusing on our spouses? On his or her face, voice—on attentiveness?” We say we want closeness and intimacy in marriage, but do we actually make room for it? Do we have a space in our lives for focusing on each other—time blocked off by just me-and-you and nothing else? And can we shut off the damnable devices long enough to look over and generate a hankering and a desire for our partner that compels us toward intimacy? Honestly—do we?

Therapist Maureen McGrath, in her brilliant Ted Talk, states that 20% of people actually pick up their cell phones during sex. Really? Has it gotten that bad? And just how do we expect to have a passionate connection with our spouse if there’s never any room to focus on him or her and our face is always in front of a screen?

What if we just had some scheduled unplugged time? Think about it for a moment. How long has it been since your spouse looked at you with a wry smile, then unplugged and turned off all electronic gadgetry in the vicinity, grinning at you wickedly?

Unplugging means business—the get-your-stockings-out-and-stand-on-a-chair-in-high-heels kind of business—and it’s the best get-ready-baby message I know of. Unplugging means leaving the unsolved projects in the box, the texts and emails and communiques alone for a while (no one will die if they don’t get an immediate response). It means leaving the checkbook at the door, the day’s grievances and concerns and compelling neediness in a closet in favor of a far-off land of delight. Unplugging means there’s room for focusing on each other; room for remembering why we delighted in each other in the first place. It means there’s room for intimacy and sex and delighting in the sensuous nature of the physical.

We have become a culture of jones-ing headcases. We’re addicted to the next needy alert or notification, and we’re missing the boat. Read up: dozens of researchers are now noting that our modern marriages are more sexless than ever before.

And we can stem that tide, simply by putting down the damned devices and looking over at our partner with a bit of interest, and love, and inquisitiveness. That’s where desire comes from: from being able to set aside life’s daily cares for a few moments and just reach out to touch, and laugh, and pay attention, and delight in each other—and then, to be reminded of us of our ardor. To experience the actual sensual and physical world of love: hands-on, skin-to-skin, breath to breath and real, with no screens allowed.

But let’s think for a moment about the power of the actual act of unplugging: what it means, what it signifies, and how we can use it to promote intimacy in our marriage.

The ceremoniousness of unplugging is really a delicious act. When done with a little flair and in fun, it’s a simple pomp and circumstance event which works to excite regardless of the gender of the plug-puller. It’s the kind of action which requires immediate attention, and can send shivers up the spine of the receiving partner. Oh my God. No phones, no screens, no devices. S/he means business. Yes.

God knows what got me thinking about this—possibly the end of the week, first-make-out-kiss (and subsequent head-swooning) which left me lying on the floor in my date-clothes laughing with delirious delight over the touch of my husband’s lips and the press of his hips on mine—but it occurred to me that there are not nearly enough of these sensual signposts in our lives these days.

Since I’m not inside everybody’s relationships, I don’t know what people are using to cue each other that they’re ready for intimacy. But I do know that the phone has become attached to our hips, eyes, brains and fingertips, that it has by far taken over our quiet moments. I also know that a few silly buzzes or dings of the thing has sent many a cascading and swooning partner right back to the cold beginnings of icing a rising passion.

So how do I say this delicately? Turning the devices off is a sex turn-on. It’s a clue in the world of our communication-junkie-land that something special and separate is about to unfold, a kind of sacred sexual pause in the world of commerce and connecting marked by no working words.

Sure, I know there are different forms of intimacy and sex. There’s week-night, I-have-to-get-up-early intimacy, and fast-paced, we-have-to-pick-up-the-kids encounters. There are stolen moments, quick fixes, pressed pushes, and I-need-you-now events. But the slow, delicious, gourmet discovery of being a true lover requires no interruptions…it is a land of extreme privacy, a lush discovery of drawing out.

Loving in marriage—as I say in my new and upcoming book—is largely not a spontaneous act. We have too many pressures, too much responsibility, too many adult items to check off of our lists. So we have to get thoughtful about the cues that will help us shift gears from all of that—the cues that will help draw us into the land of passion, touch, and heat.

What can happen in a couple of hours without phones or screens? What can unfold in the course of a whole day? How delicious would it be to have no contact with the outside world and one whole day of naked playing, eating, discovering, and lingering? What if we gave ourselves a slow, deliberate, endless day of loving and feeding and bedding each other once a month or so?

I started practicing this regularly as a single woman—no calls on Sundays: just painting, reading, skating, music, friends, whatever. Just pleasure was the point. Now, as a married woman, my husband and I turn off the devices on Friday night and don’t pick them up again for another day. And sometimes, we turn off everything that connects us to the outside world and take one whole day of unplugged sexual and sensual bliss, doing nothing but getting a little high on each other’s bodies and languishing around, just for the sake of it.

Unplugging—the conscious act of it—gives us room to have that sensuality. It’s a sign, a cue, and a powerful act that signals that we’re turning our attention to our partner and to our love, and we’re letting nothing get in the way. Who wouldn’t want to be swept away like that?

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