5 Steps to Prevent Your Phone from Hurting Your Relationships

Are you missing what’s actually in front of you?
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Are you missing what’s actually in front of you?

It’s a Friday night, and my hubby and I are cuddled up on the couch watching a movie. I pull the blanket up tighter and sneak a covert glance at the cell phone on my lap.

Just for a second; he won’t notice,” I think. “I just have to see how many people have liked that picture I posted earlier on Instagram. . . . Oh, and wait, Sarah had a baby? I didn’t even know she was pregnant. . . . And Donald Trump said what?! I have to see what this article says. . . .”

The artful plot twist unfolding on the screen and the peace and comfort of my husband’s presence so close to me are forgotten in an instant, replaced by the lure of that glowing screen that never leaves my side.

I just phubbed. And I phubbed big time. Yes, I do it—and my guess is you do it, too.

By phub, I refer to the newly coined term for snubbing someone with your phone. It may seem like an innocent-enough social media addiction, but it could be slowly tearing away at your relationship without you realizing it.

How does it hurt our relationships? Verily magazine’s Mary Rose Somarriba wrote a few months back about how phubbing actually has neurological consequences, especially in developing emotional bonds. This study assessed 453 American adults in romantic relationships and found that perceived phone snubbing or “phubbing” was contributing to lower levels of relationship satisfaction among those surveyed. A Baylor University study also found that 43 percent of survey participants said that their partners phubbed them, and 22.6 percent said that phubbing was causing conflict in their relationship.

I know in my own relationship, we feel the strain. Unless we make an effort, my husband and I frequently find our conversations stunted by, “Hold on, Bruce just needs to know how much beer to bring over on Saturday.” Or “Wait, let me respond to my mom about the baby’s rash from earlier.” When we return from phone world, there’s always a pause as we struggle to regroup our thoughts and continue our original conversation. It’s hardly a scene for healthy communication.

But getting tough on your phubbing problem doesn’t mean throwing away your devices or moving to a cabin in the woods with no Wi-fi. What it takes is cultivating the personal responsibility and self control to manage our normal, plugged-in lives with clear limits and healthy balance. 

Step 1: Admit you have a problem.

The same Baylor University study developed the following phubbing scale to rate the extent of a couple’s phubbing habits. The study asks participants to rate themselves on a 1–5 scale (five meaning you relate highly to the scenario) in answering these questions.

  1. During a typical mealtime that my partner and I spend together, my partner pulls out and checks his/her cell phone.
  2. My partner places his/her cell phone where they can see it when we are together.
  3. My partner keeps his/her cell phone in their hand when he or she is with me.
  4. When my partner's cell phone rings or beeps, he/she pulls it out even if we are in the middle of a conversation.
  5. My partner glances at his/her cell phone when talking to me.
  6. During leisure time that my partner and I are able to spend together, my partner uses his/her cell phone.
  7. My partner does not use his/her phone when we are talking. 
  8. My partner uses his/her cell phone when we are out together.
  9. If there is a lull in our conversation, my partner will check his/her cell phone.

If you’re like most of us (especially us millennials!), you and your significant other have probably committed some or all of these phubs. But the good news is, there are serious steps we can take to cure our phubbing problem.

Step 2: Start with yourself.

You may be reading this article thinking, “Finally! I can’t wait to share this with (insert significant other name here) so they can see what a horrible phubber they are.”

But hold on.

The best way to fix a problem in your relationship is to start addressing to what extent you are contributing rather than pointing fingers. Statistics show that it’s likely that even you have some phone addiction habits you need to break. Dr. David Greenfield of the Center for Internet Technology Addiction estimates that more than 90 percent of Americans fall into the category of overusing, abusing or misusing their cell phones. So own your part in the problem and take steps to address it.

Step 3: Make a plan for your personal phone use.

Change doesn’t happen without an action plan. Author of The Power of Habit Charles Duhigg suggests that the first step to overriding a habit is to figure out when, where, and why you fall in to the habit. Are you checking your phone every time your mind wanders? Or is it your security blanket when you’re alone in a public place so that you look like you’re doing something important? Once you identify your triggers, Duhigg says you can come up with an action plan to override your habits. 

For example, if you check your phone every time your mind wanders, try keeping your phone out of sight and reach so it isn’t a temptation. Methods that have helped my husband and I include keeping phones away from the dinner table and charging them out of arm's reach at night.

When I realized I had a problem I decided to delete all social media apps from my phone to try to make a difference in my phubbing habits. The results were very noticeable. I spent more time with my husband; I spent more time playing with and marveling at my daughter; and my brain was much sharper when it was free from constant distractions. It was humbling to realize how often I absent-mindedly swiped through my phone.

Maybe for you it’s YouTube, or Google, or social media, or even email, but if it’s damaging our ability to connect with our partners and it’s too hard to control the temptation, it’s best to remove it altogether.

Step 4: Have a conversation about phubbing with your S.O.

Once you’ve recognized your own bad phone behaviors and started making efforts to improve, it’s time to talk to your significant other about how you can improve your phone behavior as a couple. And do it with phones out of sight please!

A great way to diffuse tension and avoid the blame game is to start by asking him or her if there are things that you do phone-wise that are irritating. Psychologist John Gottman says that going straight for criticism of the other, rather than self-reflection of the things you could improve yourself, is a top destructive-argument maneuver. 

Sometimes you’ll realize that things that don’t bother you at all, really bother the other person! For example, it really made my blood boil when my husband would use driving time to call and catch up with friends and family. To him, he saw driving time as dead time waiting to be used. He didn’t realize I looked forward to driving time as a chance for him and I to reconnect with a good conversation. Now he asks if I mind before hopping on a phone call, and I feel that he values my presence.

Step 5: Set phone limits in your relationship.

Even if you’ve gotten so used to each other’s phubbing habits that you don’t mind, it’s still taking a toll on the quality of your time together. According to Scientific American, even just having a cell phone nearby can reduce feelings of empathy, trust and connection in a conversation, especially in a deep conversation. With that in mind, your relationship will come a long way if you implement simple rules for when you are spending time together. Try things like removing phones from the dinner table, keeping your phone out of sight and touch when you’re on a date together or periodically spending the whole day together with your phones completely off. Whatever you decide, agreeing on phone-limits as a couple is a sure way to see a surge in your communication quality.

These days I intentionally spend movie nights with my phone safely charging a floor below, and I focus on enjoying my husband’s company. Because my man deserves my undivided attention, not a snub. 

Photo Credit: Julie Cate