Love, Etc: Is Netflix Killing Your Relationship?

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If there is one subject that gets couples equally animated, it’s TV series. At countless dinner parties, I’ve witnessed conversations go from stilted and awkward to animated as the discussion gives way to what shows each couple is watching, how they felt about that infamous Game of Thrones ending, and how strange it is to sympathize with a serial killer like Dexter.

It became such a common conversation theme that my husband and I decided to give this couple bonding activity a go. At this point, it’s pertinent to add that we don’t watch series. That’s not to say that we aren’t fans of screens. But when it comes to movies or series, we have a pattern. Every time we decide to watch something together, we spend an unnaturally long amount of time trying to find a show that we’d both like to see. Somewhere around the seventh preview, we get fed up and give up. My kindle then makes an appearance and his iPad is out streaming football games. What starts off as an intention to do something enjoyable together turns into an evening lounging on the couch, watching different things on separate screens, side by side. Our inability to pick something to watch together has firmly placed us in another equally large demographic: couples that watch separate things in the same space. And truthfully, we feel little remorse, because at the end of a long and busy day filled with compromises, this is one compromise we are happy not to make.

But while this habit can bring us together, it’s not bringing us closer.

We’ve now got a mile-long list of on-demand and live-streaming contenders to keep us entertained at all hours of the day on devices that we don’t have to share.

There was a time when we could sit down and have conversations with our partners, friends, and colleagues while maintaining eye contact and without interruptions. A time when our phones weren’t glued to our hands or sitting like a condiment on our dining tables. Even when we watched TV, we did it on cable network – where commercial breaks allowed for short conversations and just enough time to notice what our partner was wearing. Back then, intimacy was a lot more attainable.

“Because options for entertainment, streaming content, and gaming were far less accessible in the past, we had greater intimacy in our lives. People depended more on personalized relationships, quality conversations, intimate plans, and so on for engaging oneself. This effort has been diluted with easy engagement through smart devices and streaming platforms, and the never-ending stream of content has resulted in neglected relationships and reduced private time for one another,” says Bharti Verma, Holistic Therapist, Coach, and Healer at Illuminations Wellbeing Center.

There’s no doubt that things have changed. We’ve now got a mile-long list of on-demand and live-streaming contenders to keep us entertained at all hours of the day on devices that we don’t have to share. And with so much content available, we’re binging on a diverse diet of TV without realizing that it’s widening the disconnect between us. If anything, streaming has become the modern version of date night (if your ideal date involves your partner falling asleep on the couch), while #NetflixandChill has become a better euphemism for tuning each other out than turning each other on.

It all started in 2013. Netflix released the entire first series of House of Cards and binge-watching became an activity firmly ingrained in our culture. People suddenly found themselves with the option of watching an entire season in one sitting instead of waiting with baited breath from week to week for the next episode. Soon enough, other series, such as Breaking Bad and Orange Is the New Black, followed suit. The novelty was thrilling, and it got people quickly hooked. So much so that they’d call in sick just to finish off the season.

We spend twice as much time binge-watching Netflix as we do bonding with family.

A UK survey of 5,500 people found that 18 percent called in sick so that they could watch TV at home. Half of them revealed that they binge-watched more than eight straight hours of a show in one sitting, while 80 percent admitted to forgoing sleep to watch a program.

Streaming is now everywhere – including our bedrooms. In fact, one in four people are turning down sex in favor of binge-watching TV at least once in six months, according to a survey of more than 1,000 people conducted for The Wall Street Journal. Amongst those between the ages of 18 and 38, the rate is even higher, with 36 percent of respondents saying they elected to stream videos instead.

That’s not the only thing that is suffering because of our streaming habit. According to industry experts, we spend twice as much time binge-watching Netflix as we do bonding with family. We typically watch 71 minutes of Netflix per day. On the other hand, we spend anywhere from 34 to 37 minutes per day of quality, undistracted time together as a family.

The ubiquity of this is clearly being overlooked because it’s easier to engage in a series than it is to work on our real-life relationships.

“Life is busy for most people and we have a finite number of waking hours every day. The buzz of content obviously eats into the time that could be spent on our relationships and with loved ones. As humans, we tend to gravitate towards ease and gratification and, these days, contentment on a device tends to be far simpler than investing in our relationships,” says Verma.

Don’t get me wrong. A longstanding date night with our favorite TV show is a shared experience, even if it isn’t exactly engaging. That mutual feeling of excitement and anticipation over the newest episode, conversations about characters and plot twists that turn into conversations about life choices, a shared space of laughter – that still counts for something.

However, the reality is this: when we focus on the screen, we can ignore our problems. If we talk about the latest episode, we can avoid having meaningful conversations. When we are locked in for hours on end, we are too tired to have sex. It’s little wonder our relationships are stagnant.

And as more and more couples ditch nights out for opposite ends of the couch and a handful of disjointed exchanges, we have to ask ourselves: Are we shortchanging our relationship by trading real conversations, physical intimacy, and quality sleep for binge-watching series?

Love, Etc. is a column on love, life, and relationships by Najla Moussa.