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Modern Relationships

Technology Is Making, Marring and Mending the Way Couples, Families Get Along

Art Boone, right, and Patty Boone, use StarLeaf, a cloud video conferencing and calling app to speak to their grandchildren (on computer screen from left to right), Mitch MacDonald, 13, and Fiona MacDonald, 9, in Hyde Heath (near London), England from their home in Sunnyvale, Calif., Nov. 12, 2013. (LiPo Ching/Bay Area News Group/MCT)

Art Boone, right, and Patty Boone, use StarLeaf, a cloud video conferencing and calling app to speak to their grandchildren (on computer screen from left to right), Mitch MacDonald, 13, and Fiona MacDonald, 9, in Hyde Heath (near London), England from their home in Sunnyvale, Calif., Nov. 12, 2013. (LiPo Ching/Bay Area News Group/MCT)

Lia MacDonald sat down at her laptop and clicked on Facebook. There he was, her old flame, asking for her. It had been years since their last encounter, long before she met her husband, started a family and moved across the globe. She answered back.

“I remember the good times, too,” she tapped on her keyboard.

Her husband Will, a Cambridge-educated Silicon Valley entrepreneur, had been neglecting her lately. What could be wrong with a virtual trip down memory lane?

Since Lia and Will MacDonald became one of Match.com’s first success stories when they met online in 1996 — so long ago that Lia had to mail in a snapshot of herself and Will didn’t even have a home computer — they have become a Silicon Valley social experiment for our times.

Like anthropologists studying the cultures of rare civilizations, so, too, did journalists chronicle the trendsetting digital lifestyle of the MacDonalds. PBS Newshour called them “pioneers in online dating.” Kendall, their firstborn child, was dubbed the “Internet baby,” and Lia, a former schoolteacher, an “abundantly connected” mother who was one of the first with a computer on her kitchen counter for storing recipes and setting up play dates.

Perhaps no family, including teenagers, grandparents and friends abroad, better personifies the power of technology to redefine our relationships — the latest installment in our series on how technology has redefined our lives. The story of the MacDonalds, in all its cultural touchstones and modern mayhem, reads like The Truman Show meets Real Housewives meets Dr. Leakey and the Dawn of Man.

But 14 years after their match, the technology that brought the MacDonalds together was threatening to tear them apart.

Could this marriage made in Internet heaven be saved?

Like the MacDonalds, nearly a quarter of online daters met a spouse or long-term partner through a dating website, according to a study this year by Pew Internet and American Life Project. Another study finds couples who meet online are twice as likely to get married than couples who met offline. More than ever, people are connecting with partners across the globe, giving new meaning to long-distance relationships and creating bonds that never existed in a pre-digital world.

And it’s not just about love. People are counting among their friends those who may share a passion for pinot noir or the Pittsburgh Steelers, even though they’ve never actually met; a 2011 Pew Research Center study found that 7 percent of the average Facebook user’s friends are strangers.

Like so many of us, though, the MacDonalds discovered that all this connectivity can come with a cost. Since it’s so easy to reach across the globe to make our next best friend — or rediscover an old one — we’re stumbling at staying focused on the people who are physically closest to us, in the same house, at the same dinner table, in the same bed.

Parents grumble that their teenagers are so distracted by their gadgets they can’t look up, much less have a real conversation. Children are disappointed that their parents are too busy updating their Facebook status on the sidelines to catch them scoring the big goal.

“If we don’t develop some skills moving forward about how to initiate real relationships in real time in seeing and in being with people, it’s going to be too easy to discard them, like Kleenex or a Dixie cup,” said Thomas Plante, a psychology professor at Santa Clara University.

Despite all the hand-wringing, however, there is evidence that the most socially active people online are also the most socially active offline.

“There is not a displacement going on,” said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center Internet Project who also co-authored Networked: The New Social Operating System.

“It’s an addition.”

In many ways, technology has been a savior for the MacDonalds and their three children, Kendall, Mitchell and Fiona. The family moved to London in 2007 when Will opened a new office for his videoconferencing company, Codian. They left behind Lia’s extended family, including grandparents who were devastated that they would be missing all their games and performances and Christmas plays. But pictures and videos posted on Facebook and regular chats on Skype proved the next best thing.

“They’ll do their dances and sing their songs,” said Lia’s stepmother, Patty Boone, 63. “Now we actually get to see the dance steps. And every time Fiona loses a tooth or gets her braces on, she calls us. We get to see them in real time.”

When one of Kendall’s friends from the U.K. moved back to the States, the two 15-year-olds barely skipped a beat. They talk “face-to-face” on their smartphones as they get ready for parties.

“I would have her there when I was doing my makeup. I would prop her up on my bathroom sink while I was doing it,” said Kendall, who was featured in the San Jose Mercury News in 2001 as a 3-year-old with her own computer. “It’s definitely the next best thing to a sleepover.”

Texting came in handy when it was time for Kendall to end a relationship after two dates with the son of a family friend.

“Since it was very new and not very official at all, it would have been kind of weird to end it in a big face-to-face kind of way,” she said. “I could text it and think about what I wanted to say instead of thinking and saying it on the spot. It wasn’t too bad at all.”

Kendall was texting her way out of a teenage problem, but her parents were confronting a technology-induced drama of their own.

It was the summer of 2010. The family was in Los Gatos, Calif., for summer break and Lia was at the coastside resort Pajaro Dunes with friends for a scrapbooking weekend when Will MacDonald received a startling Facebook message.

“Will, sorry to have to do this,” read the message that appeared to be from Lia’s friend, Jenna Wright. “Maybe Lia really shouldn’t have her password out there and maybe not keep her messages. But since you seem to give her the world, I thought you should know this. It just isn’t right.”

Below, she had cut and pasted the illicit messages that Lia was trading with her old boyfriend. Will cringed as he scrolled through them.

“I still have all the letters you ever sent to me,” the boyfriend wrote to Lia. “You have sparked a flame in me.”

The messages that followed were as suggestive as they were surreptitious: “So, just call me when you get this,” Lia messaged. “I won’t answer if I can’t talk. I’m taking the computer with me. BTW — my phone is pay as you go, so there won’t be a paper trail with my phone calls.”

But there was a trail, all right — a modern-day virtual trail — and it looked like Lia’s friend, Jenna Wright, had found it.

Nearly a quarter of Internet users say they have either flirted with someone online or researched information about someone they dated in the past, according to Pew Research study. One British divorce lawyers’ website claimed in 2011 that Facebook played a role in one-third of all divorces.

Online infidelity has become so rampant that that www.facebookcheating.com was created for scorned spouses to vent, and high-tech spyware is being marketed to catch cheating spouses in the online act.

Perhaps it was preprogrammed that the MacDonald marriage should come to this. In 1996, they were both in their early 30s when they turned to technology because the traditional way of meeting potential dates wasn’t working for either of them. She was a secretary at San Jose State University’s anthropology department working on her teaching credential. He was a computer scientist working for a startup.

Neither liked the bar scene. Match.com, even in its infancy, seemed relatively efficient. Still, their virtual profiles left much to the imagination. When they met at a Chili’s, Will thought Lia was cuter than her picture. Lia liked Will’s Scottish accent. They made a perfect couple: both smart, good-looking and fun-loving. In 1998, they married and started a family.

In 2010, three years after moving to London and just months before Lia’s Facebook fling, life looked grand on Lia’s Facebook page, a perfect forum for Lia to keep in touch with friends and family back home, chronicle the growth of her young children, and post pictures of their global adventures.

In January, there they were, poolside in Barbados. In February, she posted a message that the family was heading off to St. Anton, Austria, for a winter ski break.

“I want to be Lia for a day! Enjoy!!!” a friend commented.

Lia responded in uppercase: “HAVE TO ADMIT, LIFE IS PRETTY DARN GOOD!”

But life wasn’t exactly as it appeared on Facebook.

Technology had made Will a millionaire many times over. After signing a noncompetition clause when he sold his videoconferencing company and before he started another, StarLeaf, he spent much of the year kite-surfing around the world. Lia stayed home with the kids while he posted pictures of his exploits from the Dominican Republic to Lanzarote in the Canary Islands.

“I felt like a single mom,” Lia said. The couple talked on the phone and through Skype. But, “we weren’t connecting. We weren’t a team. There was a big wall between us.”

She was down on herself and down on her relationship. But she wouldn’t mention that on Facebook, of course.

“It’s like ‘positive-land.’ Everyone writes about the happy, happy, joy, joy that they do,” Lia said. “Maybe if I said, ‘I wish my husband was around more often’ — I don’t know, nobody does that. Do they? They only write the happy stuff.”

But Facebook also gave her a false sense of security, that she could indulge a fantasy with her old boyfriend without consequence.

“I’m not sure if he was right next door I would have been as flirtatious,” Lia said. “It was easier having him be farther away.”

In so many new and unpredictable ways, our virtual selves are replacing face-to-face encounters.

One of Lia’s best friends, Hellene Garcia, says that her husband’s extended family used to have reunions every year or two but stopped, because “everyone had joined Facebook” and was keeping up online.

Another friend put her 14-year-old son’s iPhone on lockdown after she discovered he had texted a girl in school some 10,000 times in less than a month. As shocking as the “exceedingly inappropriate” messages were, she said, one of the girl’s replies in particular seemed even more disturbing: “why don’t you talk to me in the halls?”

That reluctance to interact in person — even when it seems so much is at stake — can have even bigger implications, as Will MacDonald found out.

If he had picked up the phone or Skyped Jenna Wright after he received her Facebook message, he would have quickly realized that the note about his wife’s virtual infidelity didn’t come from Jenna at all.

It was from a digital impostor.

In this age of hiding behind avatars and screen names and “catfishing” fake identities, the person who outed Lia for her online fling was a virtual mystery.

Someone had stolen Jenna Wright’s Facebook profile picture and created a new Facebook page using her name, then sent Will the salacious news. The impostor was so convincing, Lia at first lashed out at Jenna, accusing her of betraying their friendship. It took days of cyber-sleuthing for Lia to confirm it was really someone else, most probably a friend from the scrapbooking weekend who must have seen Lia’s open Facebook page, cut and pasted its contents, then created a fake page to alert Will.

“The real me had no idea,” Jenna Wright said. “That whole thing was stupid. Whoever that person was, we can’t let that person win and destroy any real relationships.”

Lia apologized to Jenna for the accusation, but never confronted the woman she believes contacted Will. She figured the woman, a Facebook friend, was jealous of the life she posted, the “world” that Will had given her. But in the world of Facebook, Lia gave the woman the virtual equivalent of a slap in the face: She unfriended her.

Somewhere, between the misgivings, miscommunications and misunderstandings, Will and Lia figured out a way to connect again. For all the calculations that go into how we communicate — when we are furious with a lover, longing for a long-lost friend, or avoiding an unwanted dinner invite — Will had to decide how to confront his wife.

Should he text her a diatribe? Skype her his disdain? Facebook his fury?

Will thought about it first.

“I wasn’t a good husband. I wasn’t a good father. I was wondering if life as a beach bum was more fun than technology,” Will confessed. “The fact that Lia was getting in touch with an old boyfriend, I don’t blame technology for that. I blame myself. Technology made it easier for her.”

So he packed up the kids and raced down to the beach house. He took Lia to the bedroom and confronted her, face-to-face.

“Do you have something to tell me?” he asked her.

It didn’t take long for Lia to admit her online dalliance. She felt unloved, detached. The two-week Facebook affair, she said, never got farther than a few phone calls.

“I don’t want to lose you,” Will said.

And right there, in the downstairs bedroom, they made up the old-fashioned way. There was nothing virtual about it.