That Text From an Ex:
Our Devices are Conditioning us for Heartache

Three years ago, on a study abroad trip to Wales, I fell crazily, obsessively in love with a boy from South East London. When I left, I spent the next six months on hours-long Skype dates and trips back and forth between London, Wales and my home state of Ohio, planning a fairytale future globetrotting around the world with who I thought at the time was the only person in the world for me. 


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The Skype ringtone— unique to that program— became the source of my joy and comfort. I would keep my laptop open all of the time in case it rang at a random hour of his nighttime/my afternoon, or when I would return from a night out when he was getting up in the morning. 

In the same way the dogs in Ivan Pavlov’s famous experiment salivated when they heard a bell, because they knew it meant food would come next, I became conditioned to respond to the Skype ring with overwhelming love and excitement.


But inevitably, with an ocean of distance between us and the reality of the utter craziness of that life plan, after six months clinging to Skype for what I thought at the time was my only key to happiness, the relationship, obviously, had to end.


When the relationship crashed and burned, I was left grappling directly with crushing heartbreak every time I heard a Skype call. Just as the dogs in Ivan Pavlov’s famous experiment salivated when they heard a bell, because they knew it meant they would be fed, I found myself conditioned for heartache.


With all the new ways of communicating with one another, is it possible we are conditioning ourselves to have a million private, miniature emotional battles with what’s coming from our devices?



Psychology Professor at Columbia, Dr. Peter Balsam, says the classical conditioning of relationships has been happening for centuries with songs and other triggers, but it might be happening more often with the increasing number of ways we communicate.


“You have many more reminders of a person [today], and you have less control over being exposed to the reminders,” he says.


But while we might find ourselves having an increasing number of mini-emotional battles at the double vibrate of a text or the ring of an app, he says there is hope— it might be positive rather than negative for our emotional well-being.


What happens when the triggers still exist?

Why?



“If you continue to present a signal for something, but it’s no longer a reliable signal, then the reaction to it goes away. You learn not to respond to that signal. It does go away, but it takes a while,” Balsam says. “If you’ve  got lots of reminders, maybe you’d get over it sooner.”


Dr. Art Aron specializes in relationship psychology at Stony Brook University. He says humans have been experiencing emotional responses to triggers for centuries.


“We have all sorts of things that remind us of someone where we met them, who we know that knows them, [or] the kind of accent they had,” Aron says.


He says he’s not sure ringtones and buzzes are any different than other triggers, but that may be because we’re not used to it yet. He says we haven’t learned not to respond with an emotion and that we might have stronger associations to new triggers today because we have yet to adjust our reactions appropriately.


Balsam agrees that there is hope for our future emotional stability.


“Initially it would be harder, but in the long run, you might get over these things in a more enduring way because you can’t avoid dealing with them,” he says.