There are many reasons why we may have our smartphones on us at all times, from simply having an alarm clock, to getting in the last work email for the night, to staying connected with our loved ones.

In our romantic lives our phones now play a vital role in keeping in touch, organising events and keeping others updated on our relationship status, however a negative to this is that we can at times give too much of our attention towards our smartphones, instead of those around us.

What is Phubbing?

Ignoring others in favour of our mobile phones is now such a common behaviour that it even has its own label – “phubbing”, a term created by Macquarie dictionary that describes how people snub those around them by paying attention instead to their smartphones. This is an experience that most of us will put our hands up and admit to both doing and receiving.

Although we might be unintentionally ignoring those around us in favour of our smartphones, and may think it is harmless, according to recent research our attention to our mobile devices may be causing more harm than good, particularly for our romantic relationships.

Research into Phone Use and Relationships

Research into mobile phone usage and its associated impacts on adult romantic relationships is in its infancy, however recent studies highlight how extensive phone use can have a detrimental impact on relationship satisfaction.

In a study that involved 170 college students in committed relationships, researchers observed participants who were dependent on their mobile phones reported having uncertainty when it came to their romantic partners. On the other side of this, individuals who reported partners that were overly dependent on their devices, felt less relationship satisfaction.

Another study which specifically examined phubbing behaviours and relationship outcomes, revealed that phone usage/ phubbing by one partner decreased marital satisfaction, with the study’s authors contributing the decrease in satisfaction to the conflict which can arise over excessive phone use.

Phone Use and Relationship Conflict

It’s common knowledge that conflict is inevitable in romantic relationships. This conflict can arise from arguments over bills, busy schedules, differences in goals and values, and now excessive phone use can be added to the list.

Phubbing or excessive phone use is becoming a common source of conflict in romantic relationships, with couples reporting that one partner’s excessive use of their smartphone influences feelings of mistrust, has an impact on feelings of togetherness, and may leave partners feeling devalued. The lack of feelings of togetherness has been supported by recent research that has shown mobile phone use interferes with establishing rapport and connection between people, having an overall impact of feelings of closeness and quality of conversation.

In Love with our Smartphones!

So why do we do it? Mobile phone devices and their associated apps not only make life easier, but also make it harder for us separate and pull ourselves away from our devices.

According to research we are not only overly reliant or dependent on our mobile phone devices, but have become addicted to them (not currently recognised as a diagnostic problem).

Mobile phone addiction or otherwise known as mobile phone dependence, refers to an individual’s behaviour being out of control due to their mobile phone use. This can result in a state of obsession that sees their physical, psychological and social functioning significantly impaired. According to studies, the key sign of mobile phone dependence is how much time a person devotes to their mobile phone device, with more than four hours every day an indicator that there may be a serious mobile phone dependency problem.

To make matters worse, we rely on our smartphones to give us access to our social media accounts, which has also been linked to problematic behaviours and having a negative impact on our mental and relationship health. Scholars have suggested that social media use can be just as addictive as gambling or drinking, with individuals experiencing similar symptoms. Fear of missing out (“FOMO”) is also a strong influence into why we may excessively engage in social media use.

Time to Turn Off and Turn Towards

According to John Gottman, relationship success can be predicted on how often partners turn toward one another’s bids. Bids are considered to be behaviours that we do to elicit a response from our partner, and can be as simple as leaning on a partner’s shoulder, to asking how the weather is looking outside.

Gottman believes that the more we turn towards our partner’s bids, the more likely our relationship will succeed. In fact, in his forty something years of studying relationships, John Gottman has found couples who responded to one another’s emotional bids have lasting relationships, compared to those who do not.

So where does our smartphone usage fall into this? If you consider the behaviours we engage in when we are on our phones, such as phubbing or ignoring our partners, then it is not hard to understand that just by being on our phones we are not providing the space and the chance to turn towards our partners and respond to their bids.

Our phone and technological devices can all get in the way of giving our partners our undivided attention, or responding to the emotional cues our partner might be giving us to gain our attention. This can lead to missed opportunities of intimacy and bonding, and allow relationship dissatisfaction can develop.

Don’t Let Smartphones Ruin your Relationship

It is now becoming more common in couples counselling to have a discussion on phone etiquette and behaviours when we are with our partners. It may sound silly and simple but small actions when it comes to disengaging from your phone, can have a large impact on how your relationship is.

Here are some strategies for you to try to help harness relationship satisfaction and decrease mobile phone dependence.

1 – Turn your phone off or set to “do not disturb”

It’s important to be mindful of the time you share with your significant other, therefore it can be beneficial for your time together to turn off your phone or simply switch your device to do not disturb. So many of us are guilty of easily being distracted during romantic nights out or even just at home by our phones. By turning off and turning towards our partners we give our partners the time and attention they may need and want.

2 – Leave the phone in another room

By leaving the phone in another room, takes away the possibility of reaching for our phone once we are in bed, having a nice dinner together, or moments such as “Netflix and Chill”. This means we are not only showing our partners that we place an emphasis on time together, but it can help build an environment for intimacy to develop. Additionally, by leaving our smartphones in another room before heading to bed at night, it has the bonus of making us get up and walk to another room to turn off our dreaded morning wake-up alarm.

3 – Set a schedule

For obvious reasons we need our smartphones for all matter of things and it can therefore be hard to be separated from them. However, it is important to properly turn off and get away from our devices, and allow ourselves separation from work, social, and family obligations and get a bit of me time, and importantly, couple’s time.

To help separate from your devices, try creating a schedule that allows you time to be on your phone as well as time off. This can also help alleviate the potential of guilt of neglecting any emails and phone calls, and delegating them to specific hours through the day.

4 – Build trust, communicate and set boundaries if needed

Often the main cause of couple’s conflict and phone use comes down to concerns of trust and connectedness.

In order to help alleviate any potential conflict or trust issues smartphone use may create, it is important that we are transparent with our partners about our phone use, providing clear answers as to why we may be taking a phone call so late at night, or mindlessly engaging in our socials before falling asleep.

If one partner’s phone use is too much for the other, it is important to effectively communicate why excessive phone use might be upsetting, and to have a discussion on boundaries around phone use, and appropriate times to be on our phones.

For some these acts may be easier said than done, and it may require additional assistance to be able to make the changes to overcome smartphone dependence. Therapists these days are all too aware of the impacts mobile phones are having on individuals, as well as their relationships. Therapists may employ mindfulness strategies along with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy techniques to help you recognise the reason why, and how often you may be engaging in smartphone use, and provide strategies to help you move away from your dependence, to being more present and active with those around you.