Is Your Phone Sabotaging Your Relationships?

Posted on Sep 6, 2016

We live in a world where we are expected to be almost constantly available to everyone in our social network and work. At the same time, we expect that our partner is interested and engaged when spending time together.

This Catch-22 leads to what I call, “digital abandonment.” Digital abandonment occurs when the use of our personal screens make other relationships and interests seem more important than the person right in front of us.

I am seeing digital abandonment more and more with the couples I serve. Most couples come in concerned about their poor communication. Unfortunately, their use of digital devices has only made their face-to-face interactions more problematic.

Their communication is riddled with delayed responses, a lack of eye contact and poor recall of the conversation, which leads to conflict and an on-going negative sentiment about their partner

. People become resentful of the attention given to the device. Not surprisingly this resentfulness leads to more disconnection, which, in turn, results in less affection and sex.

When looking at a screen we inevitably miss our partner’s attempts to connect because we miss the nonverbal cues. After all, how can you know how your partner is doing if you don’t even look up?

The mis-attunement caused by digital abandonment creates a uniquely painful type of loneliness. You may be in the same room but you’re not really connecting if you are on a screen.

Many will say, “just ask me to put it down,” but this doesn’t really work. The person asking for your attention does not know if you’re interruptible—meaning, are you doing something important or just playing Candy Crush? The attempt to draw attention away from the screen triggers our vulnerability and fear of rejection. The screen user might become defensive because it is hard to drop the screen right away. We instinctively want to finish what we are doing with our device before giving our attention to someone or something else.

Anxiety about digital abandonment is so pervasive that we don’t even have to be using the device to create a negative impact. A 2014 study at Virginia Tech studied a phenomenon called “The iPhone Effect.” The study showed that digital devices undermine the quality and depth of our conversations. Even the presence of a smartphone—not in use, just an object on the table—degrades conversation by making partners less willing to disclose deep feelings.

Like most conflict, digital distractions are an opportunity to choose to act in alignment with your values.

• Press pause (mindfulness) and ask yourself “Which relationship deserves my attention right now?

• Ask yourself, “Am I modeling how I want my children to use digital devices?”

• Create device-free zones. I recommend the dinner table and bedtime.

If you want to improve the quality of your relationships, you have to change your behavior. You have to stop looking at this screen so much. Yes. This one. Right now. Seriously, put it away.