When Your Mobile Phone Becomes the “Other” Person in Your Relationship

5 Ways to Navigate How Not To Become Second Fiddle to your Partner's Cell

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We’ve all seen them – the couple out on a dinner date, one is fiddling on the phone and the other is gazing into the distance, usually unhappy. You can almost sense the disconnect between them from twenty feet away. The occurrence of this type of relationship strainer is so common, that words like “technoference” (technology interference) and “phubbing” (phone snubbing) now exist. We have become so reliant on our phones that we are eroding the connection with our partners and increasing tension in our relationships.

According to a study by tech company Asurion, we check our cell phones 80-150 times a day. That’s a lot of screen time. But mobile phones aren’t going anywhere soon. With all the texting, emails, social media, video streaming, playful distractions, and countless other ways we use our phones for (sometimes we even call people!), we are more dependent on them. We keep them on our nightstand, check them before going to bed and soon after we wake. Our cell phones are tethered to us, and these devices are cutting into our time with loved ones, especially with our romantic partners.

The phone has become the “other” person in our relationships: we steal away time to have technological trysts with our phone; we whip out our phones during times when we normally would spend quality time with our partners – at bed time, in the car, during meals, on walks, etc. A study from Brigham Young University examined thecorrelation between how much the participants depended on their phone and the satisfaction in their relationships – the more dependant they were on their phones, the more uncertain they were about their relationships. So there is a certain level of unease in and fracturing of our connection with our loved ones, and this creates jealousy. Our partners feel that we need our phone more than we do them.

When we grab our phone and start composing an email or scrolling through Instagram, what we are signalling to our partner is that what we are doing on the phone is more important than they are. We tell them that they are insignificant at that time. Our partners will then often react out of a place of rejection and/or resentment. According to study by BMC Health, chronic cell phone use can cause depression in the other person in the relationships. Feelings get hurt, there is a drop in self-esteem, anger can mount up after time. It’s like a cell phone becomes the third wheel in the marriage or relationship. The partner has to compete for time and attention because of the frequent phone use.

Here are five ways to help navigate through the challenges of phones in relationships:

  1. Be honest – let your partner know how their phone use affects the relationship. Your partner may be oblivious to both their usage and more importantly, how it makes you feel. Acknowledging this is the first hurdle in moving forward.
  2. Create awareness – discuss that while phones are vital in many of our professions, it is also important to know that there are times when they are not required. Give each other the space to use the phone as needed for work or important tasks, but also to recognize when it’s a distraction.
  3. Form boundaries – talk about when and where phone usage is acceptable and when it isn’t. Start small – pick one time of the day where being phone-free will be impactful, and follow through. Perhaps it’s just before bed, to increase pillow talk. Or during meals, where eye-to-eye conversation connects us deeply. Then increase weekly. 
  4. Be present – when it is time to disengage with the phone, turn off notifications, or put it in airplane mode. Put the phone away! Turning it upside down at the dinner table or in the bedroom doesn’t count. Remove it to another room or in a drawer. Signal your intentions that you will be fully present with your partner. 
  5. Discuss usage – if for some reason you really need to use your phone (like an urgent email or call comes in) during a date or other quiet time, let your partner know that you will be using it and why. Then take care of business as quickly as you can and return to your activity. Respecting your partner that way will help to reduce any resentment or miscommunication.

Understand that not all screen time is bad – it’s such an important part of our lives these days. But remind yourself that it’s just a tool. And the more you see it that way, and remind yourself that there are more important things in life, you will be able to keep the bond with your partner alive and well. 

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