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Dating apps are everywhere. Relationship apps are for what comes next.

Apps that teach people to be better partners have faced skepticism online. But some say they work.

A couple sits on a sofa, each looking at their phone.
Fix your marriage with this one weird trick!
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When Verge editor (and Vox Media coworker) Chris Welch tweeted a screenshot of a relationship app that reminded users to “send a text message that makes your partner smile at 12pm” or “ask about my partner’s day at 6pm,” it quickly went viral.

“Imagine your spouse talking or texting you because an app said so,” read one response. “Maybe just design a virtual boyfriend app and cut out the middle man,” said someone else. “If we ever get to this point, let’s just break up,” one woman wrote, tagging (presumably) her partner.

Because sure, on the surface, a faceless app playing an intimate role in a marriage sounds like something out of Black Mirror, and anyone who has seen a single episode of that show would be forgiven for assuming everything that is mediated by your phone is inherently evil. But it didn’t take long for plenty of others to point out that tools like these could be extraordinarily useful.

“This actually seems helpful to people who have trouble expressing their emotions appropriately, while taking the burden off the more emotionally intelligent partner! I bet a lot of therapists would really like this!” wrote Lifehacker reporter Nick Douglas. Others jumped in with how the app could help people with autism, depression, anxiety, or ADHD, those who didn’t grow up knowing what a healthy relationship looks like — or even really, anyone who knows what it’s actually like to be in a long-term marriage.

That app, by the way, was Lasting, which promises to show couples how to “love better” for $11.99 per month. It’s just one of a handful of apps launched over the past few years devoted not to finding a partner but helping to guide what to do after you have one. Couples who use them say they’ve been able to spark meaningful conversations and added valuable tools on how to navigate the murkiness of long-term relationships. But they’re also indicative of a larger shift in the way people approach their personal lives: like a business.

How relationship apps work

Alexi and Enrique Villatoro started having marital issues in the fall of 2017. They’d met in a high school karate class and had been together ever since, but now, everything felt off: communication, trust, and their ability to be vulnerable with each other. A health concern of Enrique’s exacerbated that distance. The decision to seek marital help wasn’t a difficult one; both were big believers in journaling and therapy. But they didn’t go to therapy. They downloaded an app.

Specifically, they downloaded Lasting. Based on the Gottman method of couples therapy and more than 300 marriage studies, the bulk of them from four of the leading relationship psychologists, it does little things like send you reminders to text your partner an expression of gratitude at a certain time of day and big things like guide you through how to start a conversation about infidelity.

“It felt like we had a third, neutral party to rely on who was comparing our answers and showing us where our needs and priorities differ,” Alexi says. Luckily, it worked, insofar as Alexi and Enrique remain together after 10 years and say they still find the app helpful as a way to record conversations and return to their answers.

There are now at least a dozen popular apps that cater exclusively to couples: Raft to sync schedules, Kindu for sex stuff, Honeydue for financial planning, Icebreak for conversation starters, You&Me to send messages, Fix a Fight for, well, fights, and Happy Couple, which gamifies getting to know each other.

But it’s hardly surprising that using a relationship app comes with a stigma like the responses to Welch’s original tweet. After all, shouldn’t love be easy? Isn’t that what we’re constantly told, that if you only find the right person, the rest should come naturally? And if it doesn’t, well, you chose wrong! Luckily, there are plenty of apps that will help you find someone better.

The irony, though, is that online dating used to carry a similar stigma, which has only recently begun to wane. Yet once we’ve found someone to settle down with, we’re supposed to know exactly what we’re doing, no help needed. With the divorce rate hovering between 40 and 50 percent, it’s clear that it’s not necessarily the case.

Liz Colizza, the head of marriage research for Lasting and a practicing couples counselor, helped build the app around the Gottman approach. Developed by Drs. John and Julie Gottman over the past 40 years, it’s the most widely used method of couples therapy, and prioritizes attachment as a means of defining a relationship, all based to some degree around the question, “Are you there for me?” The app combines audio tracks and articles about psychology and marriage health, then translates them into exercises.

“In the marriage health intro, we talk about this concept of emotional calls, which are these tiny moments throughout your day where you are attempting to connect with your partner or your partner is attempting to connect with you,” she says. “It could be a call for humor if you’re telling a joke, it can be asking for a massage, it can be asking your partner to unload the dishwasher. There are different ways that we’re essentially asking our partner, ‘Are you there for me?’” Answering those emotional calls sets the foundation for the relationship, so that in situations where there might be negative emotions, partners are more able to give each other the benefit of the doubt.

One of the main reasons people seek couples counseling is because they say they need help communicating, Colizza says, and the app can open up the space for more honest and direct discourse. She said that when she was first brought onto Lasting by founder Steve Dziedzic, he was concerned about including certain topics, like sex and infidelity, in the app, and whether it might lead to negative feedback. Instead, what they ended up finding was that people wanted those knottier, deeper topics.

Downloading an app, of course, is far more accessible than therapy. And because couples wait an average of six years after they’ve discovered a problem before seeking counseling, according to Colizza, an app can spark the kind of conversations that, if avoided long enough, can fester into something much trickier to untangle.

More people are approaching their personal lives like a business

Relationship apps also speak to a broader shift in how people are attempting to optimize their personal lives. In May, journalist Amy Westervelt wrote a New York Times opinion piece on the benefits of a marriage spreadsheet, in which she and her husband collected data on everything that might affect their quality of life — how many hours they’d slept, household chores, alone time, length of commute — and then gave themselves a score between one and 10 every day along with a reason for the score. Over the course of a year, they began to notice patterns, and even made the decision to sell their house in the Bay Area to live somewhere less expensive based on the fact that they scored higher on days where they worked less.

Westervelt acknowledged that talking about the experiment sounds “anxious or eye-rolly.” “But a funny thing happened as I huffed through weeks of data collection,” she writes. “In addition to leading to a better understanding of what made us happy as a family, I also found the spreadsheet to be an incredibly useful tool for expressing things I might have otherwise avoided. It made the invisible visible. Instead of arguing about housework, for example, both feeling like we were doing more than our fair share, we could talk about it relatively objectively.”

Maybe he’s Slacking his kid!
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It’s why some families are incorporating the workplace productivity tools like Trello and Slack into their home life. Google Calendar can act as a manager for children’s time, while Trello organizes a family’s to-do list, goals for the week, and upcoming activities. And then there was the couple in 2016 who espoused the virtues of the weekly one-on-one marriage meeting: “You’ll open up on things you keep meaning to mention, but haven’t — either because you keep forgetting or because you’ve felt uncomfortable and it never seems like the right time to talk about it,” they write. Another couple espousing the same advice ended up on the Today show. If the “creepy finance guy” whose dating spreadsheet was leaked in 2012 was around today, perhaps he wouldn’t have sounded so creepy after all (his biggest offense was giving potential dates a score based on looks).

No app will make you a productivity robot. And no app can save every marriage.

While many have found relationship help in the form of an app or a productivity tool, the same kinds of anxieties over tech, namely around the sale of our most intimate data, are magnified when even more personal issues and deepest fears are catalogued in the cloud. In a GQ piece on the app Happy Couple, Dr. Christoph Lutz of the Nordic Centre for Internet & Society urges caution: “The data produced within such apps is sensitive, potentially even more sensitive than the data produced through dating apps, since we might be more authentic on relationship game apps,” he says. “Leveraging the data produced, which is a valuable asset given its personal nature, is an obvious avenue for the apps.” It’s unclear how such data will be used or monetized, particularly considering how new the business model for relationship apps is.

And there are more existential concerns as well. Should we be prioritizing even more time spent on phones, when too much time staring at a screen is already negatively impacting many relationships? A 2016 study titled “My life has become a major distraction from my cell phone” showed that too much phone use (dubbed “partner phubbing, wherein “phubbing” means “phone subbing”) led to decreased relationship satisfaction.

They’re questions that the developers of relationship apps should be asking themselves, at least according to Michał Śmiałko, a Kraków-based software engineer who’s currently working on Couple, an app for marriage therapy exercises that launched about two months ago. Like Lasting, it’s more in-depth than messaging or gaming apps marketed to couples, and is based on psychological research, geared toward preventing conflict rather than solving it. “We need to be very careful when building tech products that are meant to interfere in our relationship building,” he says. “It’s still an uncharted area and we need to design our products with the help of professionals.” Nevertheless, he thinks technology can close the accessibility gap between those who can afford therapy and those who can’t.

Even if a relationship app can foster communication and unearth issues before they snowball, an app can only do so much. After all, there are obstacles that even real, in-person couples therapy can’t overcome. “When the couple has taken what they’ve done in the app and they’ve had the conversations outside of it and they’ve gotten stuck in a place that one person is either unwilling or incapable of moving forward, they need maybe a third person to step in,” says Colizza from Lasting. “I mean, you can’t force people to come in to therapy, either.”

Yet there is something undeniably sweet about the act of two people committed enough to each other and their relationship to download an app that helps them do the difficult work of nurturing it. In admitting that finding a partner is not necessarily the endgame of all happiness, and in acknowledging that no one is born knowing how to be a perfect spouse, we’re choosing to trust that the little annoyances and inconveniences that come with having a partner are worth trying to sort out for the sake of the big reasons why you’re with each other in the first place. Relationship apps won’t fix every relationship; nothing will. But maybe the act of downloading one is reason enough to believe that a relationship is worth fixing at all.

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