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OpinionColumnistsPeter Goldmark

Goldmark: Driven to digital distraction? Try an e-nup

E-nups are agreements couples make before or during

E-nups are agreements couples make before or during a marriage or relationship to regulate circumstances in which they will use cellphones, iPads, laptops, etc. Photo Credit: iStock

We all understand that electronic devices have changed our lives. The impact they have on the way we live has to rank right up there with the mastery of fire and discovery of the wheel.

In talking with three women at a conference in California this month, I stumbled on a consequence of that electronic invasion that I had no idea even existed: e-nups.

What, you've never heard of e-nups? You've heard of prenups -- prenuptial agreements, right? Those are agreements couples make before marriage to determine who will have what right under what circumstances to which portions of the partners' respective financial and other assets.

E-nups are agreements couples make before or during a marriage or relationship to regulate circumstances in which they will use cellphones, iPads, laptops, etc.

The need for an e-nup arises out of a couple's search for a strong interpersonal relationship and a life of shared meaning -- all in the face of the heaviest and most inventive assault on cerebral machinery and sensory engagement in the 10,000 years since humans started living in communities.

You've seen people text while driving. You've seen people steal a look at a cellphone at the movies, at a party, or -- most frighteningly -- while in an airplane when all devices are supposed to be shut down. I saw survey results once that indicated some people even peek at their cellphones during sex.

The three women with whom I spoke said these e-nuptial agreements establish a mutually agreed upon set of rules about when and where they would use electronic instruments, so that moments of closeness with each other and quality interactions with their children were not mindlessly squeezed out by the digital blizzard.

A couple named Zoe and Kenny gave me permission to share some passages from the agreement they have been working on. Here's a section:

"The person wanting to use phone/computer needs to use intentional communication to obtain the permission of the other people present. If our daughter is present, we need to explicitly make sure that the other parent is willing/able to serve as primary caregiver."

This section refers to situations when permission of others present is required before using a laptop or cellphone. The draft is particular about restrictions that will apply, and joint consultation required, when their daughter is with them.

But other parts of the document propose flat restrictions on when electronic instruments can be used:

"We will not engage with our phones or work on our laptops at all in the following circumstances . . .

During meals together

When spending intentional time together (e.g., taking a walk, going to an event together, cuddling in bed)

When our daughter is present

During movies, plays, etc.

In social situations (i.e., with a group of friends)

In a confined space with others, even if it's "default time" (i.e., car, public transportation, elevator, etc.)"

Zoe and Kenny have been working on this agreement for nearly a year and are on their fourth draft. One of the other women I spoke with said she and her husband were considering making their agreement legally binding.

The agreements these couples are working on, and the commitments they entail, seek to reclaim from the digital onslaught a measure of direct, engaged communication and quality time in their lives as partners, parents and friends. I bet there are more couples working on e-nups than any of us suspect.

Peter Goldmark, a former budget director of New York State and former publisher of the International Herald Tribune, headed the climate program at the Environmental Defense Fund.