Every Sunday the little purple badge that flashes across my screen reminds me how much time I spent with my face buried in my phone that week. Clocking in at 46 hours last week, I’m somehow spending more hours on my phone than I do working my full-time job (I swear I get work done). Some of those hours are spent doing productive, worthwhile things like answering emails, calling my mom, using a workout app, or making my to-do lists for the week, but a lot of the time, my weekly average consists mostly of mindless social media scrolling.
This scrolling often takes place at night while I half-watch a show on the couch next to my boyfriend who also happens to be looking at his phone. I recognize that this isn’t the healthiest habit—spending time passively on my phone while also not spending quality time with my partner—so I decided to use tips from Dr. Marisa T. Cohen, relationship scientist, and UScellular partner, to improve my relationship with both my phone and my significant other. If you’re also feeling like you’re spending too much time on your phone and not enough time with your partner, read on for Dr. Cohen’s phone rules and to see how I implemented them in my own relationship.
5 Tips for Refreshing Your Relationship With Your Phone (& Your Partner)
Reflect on your phone usage
As Type A workaholics, my boyfriend and I both spend a lot of time on our phones checking our emails, posting to social media, creating content, you name it. If this sounds like you and your partner, you might also be due for a review of your phone usage. Dr. Cohen encourages couples to mindfully examine their relationships with their phones to better understand how and why they use them, saying it helps “determine the space between where we are and where we want to be.” This can be done in a few different ways. Within most phones’ settings, there’s a tab devoted to your screen time and activity. Take time to look through this data to understand how much time you’re spending on your phone and for what purposes. Another way to keep track of your phone usage is by tallying the number of times you pick up your phone out of habit but without any real goal in mind.
Even if you don’t think you have a screen time problem, you’d be surprised how quickly five-minute phone breaks can add up or how much of an unconscious habit you might have to grab your phone when you’re bored, and once you have a better understanding of the time and attention you are giving to your phone, you can make an effort to change your habits with the help of some of these phone rules and ultimately, use some of that time to connect with your partner instead.
Determine your personal goals and keep each other accountable
I’ve been unhappy with my relationship with technology for a while now and have decided I want to spend less time scrolling and more time doing screen-free hobbies like reading or walking. My partner on the other hand recognizes that he’s also probably spending a little too much time on his phone but doesn’t feel like it’s hindering his life or our relationship. What he does want to improve, though, is focusing less on his phone (read: shuffling through Spotify playlists) while driving. Despite having different goals, sharing them is a helpful way to keep each other accountable or act as a source of support according to Dr. Cohen. Now I know to remind my boyfriend to keep his eyes on the road instead of searching for the next song, and he knows that if I don’t respond right away, I’m probably just taking a break from my phone.
Have a discussion about phone and social media use
It may seem awkward to have a sit-down discussion about something as simple as phone usage, but Dr. Cohen says it “can provide partners with insight that they may not have previously had.” For example, I don’t think I ever told my boyfriend that it makes me feel like he’s not listening to me if he looks at his phone while I’m talking, but taking time to have this conversation allowed me to tell him something I may not have otherwise realized I needed to share. This discussion also helped us realize the positive role that our phones and social media play in our relationship, like spending quality time doing the New York Times crossword together in the mornings. Dr. Cohen notes that a mismatch in a couple’s view of phone usage is what leads to conflict, but through conversations like this, you can begin to find common ground, set boundaries, and even agree on positive aspects of phone usage like we did.
Create a signal to indicate the need for quality time
My boyfriend and I both value the importance of communication in our relationship and openly sharing our needs, so this as one of Dr. Cohen’s phone rules was pretty easy for us. The hard part was deciding what the sign should be. We wanted to make sure it was something that didn’t make the other person feel like the “bad guy” or like they were being reprimanded for their phone use. Since Dr. Cohen suggests the cue could be non-verbal, we decided that might be the best route for us. In the evenings while we’re watching TV, my sign that I’m looking for quality time and connection is to snuggle up close to my boyfriend. Since he usually ends up putting his phone down to engage with me in these situations anyway, we thought this would be a natural signal.
Anytime either of us feels like we’re looking for quality time without devices, we reach out to touch the other person. At a restaurant while the other person is on their phone during date night? Reach a hand across the table to reconnect. At home watching tv and scrolling on your phones? Lay your head on the person’s shoulder to show that you’re looking for attention.
Remove the temptation
If you’re anything like me, you probably pick up your phone out of habit and before you know it you’ve spent 10 minutes looking through Instagram instead of focusing on your partner. To mitigate this, Dr. Cohen recommends removing the distraction of your phone by putting it in another room. “Sometimes we pick up our devices without awareness. If this is the case, the person doing this may not actually be engaged with their phone but is still signaling to their partner that their interest is elsewhere,” she says.
Instead of placing our phones in another room, my boyfriend and I chose to remove ourselves from the equation. We decided that on our nightly dog walks, we wouldn’t bring our phones. This allowed us to spend quality time together outdoors and gave us a chance to talk about our days and connect uninterrupted by texts or phone calls or the temptation to check our notifications.
How These Phone Rules Affected My Relationship
While I don’t think these phone rules revolutionized my relationship with my partner or my phone, I’m glad we gave them a try, and here’s why:
As I mentioned, communication is huge for me and my boyfriend, whether it’s silly conversations or meaningful discussions, but the one thing we’ve never talked about is our stance on phone usage. This experience allowed us to learn more about each and discuss a new topic, which is always helpful in keeping a relationship feeling fresh and new. I enjoyed hearing my boyfriend’s personal goals related to his phone and learning how I could help him achieve those goals. And since our phones weren’t involved during this conversation, I felt like it gave us time to connect and talk without any distractions.
I’ve also enjoyed that this experience has made us more aware that our phones are far less important to us than having quality time together. Don’t get me wrong, we’re still going to share funny memes with each other on Instagram and do the crossword every morning, but these phone rules helped us realize how much we enjoy uninterrupted time together taking walks, eating dinner, or watching TV.