We have an intimate relationship with our phones. We sleep with them, eat with them and carry them in our pockets. We check them, on average, 47 times a day—82 times if you’re between 18 and 24 years old, as per recent data.
And we love them for good reason: they tell the weather, the time of day and the steps we’ve taken. They find us dates, entertain us with music and connect us to friends and family. They answer our questions and quell feelings of loneliness and anxiety.
But phone love can go too far—so far that it can interfere with human love—old-fashioned face-to-face intimacy with that living and breathing being you call your partner, spouse, lover or significant other.
The conflict between phone love and human love is so common, it has its own lexicon. If you’re snubbing your partner in favour of your phone, it’s called “phubbing” (phone + snubbing). If you’re snubbing a person in favour of any type of technology, it’s called “technoference.” A popular song by Lost Kings even asks, “Why don’t you put that (expletive) phone down?”
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“A key to a healthy relationship is being present,” says James Roberts, author of Too Much of a Good Thing: Are You Addicted to Your Smartphone?. When one partner constantly checks his or her phone, it sends an implicit message that the phone (or what’s on it) is more interesting than you.
In a 2016 study published in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 70% of women revealed that smartphones were negatively affecting their primary relationship. More than one-third of the 143 women in the study said their partner responded to notifications midconversation; one out of four said their partner texted during conversations. The women who reported high levels of technoference in interactions with their partners were less happy with their relationships and with their lives overall.
It’s not just women who are feeling dissed. Roberts, who is a professor of marketing at Baylor University, asked 175 men and women questions about their partners’ smartphone use. Nearly half of respondents, 46%, reported being phone snubbed (phubbed) by their partner. People who reported higher levels of phubbing also reported higher levels of relationship conflict. In our quest to be connected through technology, we’re tuning out our partners and interrupting a kind of biological broadband connection.
“People are beginning to realise that something is amiss,” says Sherry Turkle, a technology professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. “They don’t necessarily know what to do about it, but they are open to change.”
Judith Bell, a leadership coach and co-founder of Relationships That Work in Novato, California, has noticed that her clients are starting to respect phone boundaries. “Now, they turn off their phones when they are in session. A few years back, they would let themselves be interrupted.”
If you’re feeling frustrated by phone interference in your relationship, talk to your partner but be positive. “Emphasise the benefits of being more connected,” Bell says. Rather than dictate to your partner what they should or should not do, try an approach such as, “I love talking with you, but when you’re constantly checking your phone it’s hard to have a great conversation.” “The first step is awareness,” Roberts says. Here are some suggested ways to break up with your phone long enough to connect with your partner.
Designate ‘no cell’ zones in your home: With your partner, decide which areas of your home, such as the living room and the kitchen, should be technology-free. And consider eliminating phone use in the car so that you can use that time to talk to your partner about whatever is on your mind.
Try a phone-free bedroom for one week: Yes, it’s fun to check Twitter just before bed, or when you’re sleepless at 2 am, but you might be more likely to converse with your partner if the phone were elsewhere. And just the act of favouring your relationship over your phone sends a clear message to your partner. “Buy some old-fashioned alarm clocks for your bedside table,” Turkle suggests. “Put your cellphones in a basket in the kitchen.”
Keep phones off the table: When you’re eating at home or in a restaurant, keep phones off the table. The mere presence of a cellphone—with the possibility of it chirping or buzzing at any moment—can inhibit the free flow of conversation, as per a study published last year in the journal Environment & Behavior. Researchers examined how conversations between two people were influenced by cellphones. When a phone was present during a conversation, the partners rated the conversation as less fulfilling and reported less feelings of empathic concern than when phones were absent.
Practice phone etiquette: If you must look at your phone, announce that you are doing so. “I am just checking the score/weather/playlist for two minutes” shows courtesy and indicates to your partner that you are aware that your attention is shifting. It may also make you more aware of how often you pick up your phone when your partner is present. If your partner’s job demands round-the-clock availability, discuss reasonable boundaries that would satisfy both the job and you.
“The big challenge is that people are not talking about these issues enough,” says Daniel Ellenberg, a psychotherapist and partner with Bell in Relationships That Work. “We need to open up the social intercourse.” Should your partner seem reluctant to let go of ingrained phone habits, consider turning to an objective source. Rather than wag your finger, you might suggest that you both take a closer look at your phone habits. “Couples need to form an alliance and decide together what are the new rules,” Turkle says.