When my husband and I first started dating, we lived six hours apart. Technology served as a godsend that kept us connected: FaceTiming before going to sleep, texting little notes throughout the day, sending funny pug memes to one another. Those were the golden days, when my iPhone felt like a tool at my disposal versus a tiny machine running my entire life. Because nowadays? I find myself nonstop distracted by a little white screen — across the dinner table, on the couch “watching” a show together, first thing in the morning — and let’s be honest, it ain’t good for my relationship. And I want to make a change.
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I’m not alone in this. A 2016 study says 70% of women view smartphones as negatively affecting their primary relationship. Over a third claim their partner responds to notifications in the middle of a conversation (yikes), and one out of four in the study said their partner will text during an interaction… all of which, unsurprisingly, leads to feelings of unhappiness with one’s relationship and life overall.
None of us, though, necessarily want to spend more time with our devices than our partners. So here are a few ways to keep yourself, and your love life, in the present moment instead of a nonstop digital world.
Remember life without a phone?
Okay, maybe you don’t. But for many of us, we remember growing up in an age where information didn’t exist at our fingertips. Things like walking over to a friend’s house and ringing their doorbell, without knowing if they’d be home. Printing out Mapquest directions for a long drive, or better yet, getting a little lost across town. Standing in the checkout line and, you know, just looking around to observe. Going to happy hour with your partner and, ahem, not having a conversation about putting your phone away.
It’s easier to hide behind a screen than actually connect with your partner. Connection is hard work; it makes us vulnerable, and there’s a sense of not being in control, whereas a phone serves as instant gratification.
The point is, life once happened without any notifications. While it may be unrealistic to ever completely give up the smartphone, it’s valuable to take small detoxes: a weekend or a set period where you put technology to the side for the people you love most. And if you need a gut check regarding your smartphone habits, check out this little quiz. (Tip: if you freak out when you misplace your phone, run out of battery, or have limited service, you miiiight wanna scale back.)
Trust me, it’s a little weird at first. Your hand will probably do the awkward phantom reach for your phone, or you may feel a tad bored. That’s okay. Let yourself be slightly anxious, because the relief comes next. Case in point: on a coffee date this past weekend, I realized how nice it was to simply be there IRL and enjoy it versus taking a cute pic for Instagram.
Distraction is easier than connection—and it’s called “phubbing.”
Did you know the average American checks his or her phone once every six minutes? If you’re like, oh but not me, I dare you to count, because the reality will likely shock you. Some days, for me, I’m embarrassed to admit it’s more like every 30 seconds.
Studies suggest it’s not necessarily the existence of cell phones that puts a strain on relationship — it’s that urge of needing to “check” them that hurts, because it pulls one’s attention away from a partner. Mandy Oaklander writes, “Real-life interactions are dulled when a person feels the urge to check their phone, and the distraction a phone affords one partner doesn’t make the other person feel good.”
There’s even a term for it: phubbing, which means being snubbed by your partner for the presence of a smartphone instead. And it’s not that a smartphone will necessarily cause you to divorce or breakup, but it can easily put pressure on any existing tensions. Without intentional conversation and set boundaries about technology use in a relationship, phone use can easily result in a sense of growing apart.
We want our partners to give us attention, and when they don’t, it stings as a form of rejection.
Why? Because it’s easier to hide behind a screen than actually connect with your partner. Connection is hard work; it makes us vulnerable, and there’s a sense of not being in control, whereas a phone serves as instant gratification. Considering lots of people use their phones to connect in some fashion, it seems a little counterintuitive that disconnect occurs so frequently, but many couples note how quickly technology creates unexpected rifts on a daily basis. Additionally, elements like nuance, emotions, facial expressions, voice tone, and body language are often lost in digital conversations, which can take another toll on your relationship.
Explain why you’re using your phone in the first place.
On that same note, I once heard someone say that little kids, in this age of smartphones, don’t realize what you’re doing — they just know you’re not paying attention to them.
“My biggest pet peeve is when I’m talking to my partner, and he doesn’t make eye contact, but rather responds to me while looking at his phone,” says Jamie Barry. “Our phones are a fact of life at this point, as we’re both self-employed, but it can make me feel like I don’t have his full attention, like I’m not being noticed or listened to.”
And in some ways, it really is that simple. We want our partners to give us attention, and when they don’t, it stings as a form of rejection.
If you have to use your phone, it can be helpful to explain why so that your partner understands the reason for your redirected attention. Say, “I’m setting my morning alarm so I don’t forget” or “I’m responding to that text from my mother” or “I’m looking at my email just to make sure nothing major popped up after I left the office today.” If you have a job that forces you to be on the phone more often, talk about boundaries to figure out what works for you as a couple.
Give your phone a “home” outside of your body.
For some of us, we’re constantly touching our devices; our phones are in hand for every meeting and moment of the day. We use them in our cars (PSA: don’t text and drive, seriously) and even take them to the bathroom, and they’re rarely out of reach.
Brandon McDaniel, an assistant professor at Illinois State University who studies phones and relationships, says it is “unrealistic to cut phone use entirely, and also unrealistic to simply tell yourself that you will practice self-control and not check your phone.” That’s why it creeps up as a hazard for so many relationships. According to another study, even the mere presence of a phone can inhibit conversation, otherwise known as the “iPhone effect”: if your phone is there, you’re most likely going to look at it.
In my experience, when I’m feeling overly attached to my smartphone, that’s my cue to give it a “home” outside of my body, otherwise known as hiding it from myself. But really, find a place for devices in every setting, when possible — such as plugged into an upstairs bedroom or in your messenger bag under your desk — because the age-old “out of sight, out of mind” tactic actually works.
Let your phone work for you, not the other way around.
Despite growing evidence of the negative impact smartphones can have on relationships, note that many couples view it as a lifeline to love — especially those experiencing long-distance relationships or mismatched schedules.
“When my significant other and I were dating and not seeing each other all the time, we spent much less time on our phones because our time together was limited,” says Kelsey Bailey. “Now that we live together, we watch a lot more TV, or lay in bed and one of us falls asleep, or pick a random movie on Netflix. We kept catching ourselves trying to figure out whether or not it was acceptable to scroll through Facebook or play Pokémon Go. It took a few months and some arguments before we finally fell into a groove of what ‘us’ time was going to be versus what ‘me’ time in the same room means.”
“My husband and I were in an international long-distance relationship for most of our dating period, and technology made us feel closer,” explains Annie Patricia Woods. “His love language is ‘words of affirmation’ and those come pretty hard for me, so it is easier when I get to type him a random ‘thank you for being amazing’ during the day, because I know it makes him happy. Also, we both consume most of our media through our phones, and it is my main work tool as well as my line of connection with the family and friends I left behind. He is addicted to sports so pretty much we understand each other’s need for technology very well.”
And sometimes, it just comes down to preference and personality. A friend of mine hates Apple watches because they’re essentially a phone on your body at all times, but another co-worker views it as a functional way to stay connected without having to constantly whip out a phone. Other folks use their phones to bond and practice being mindful about limiting use during date nights and such. The bottom line? Your device is a tool that you own, so don’t let it own you.