Your Partner or Your Phone: Pick One

Studies are beginning to prove what we already know—smartphone obsession is a relationship killer.


by Michael Essany

photo courtesy of Dina Giangregorio

filed under Advice, Science of Love

You’ve seen them in restaurants: the attractive couple sitting across the table from each other, one or both of them staring into their smartphone the entire time. It’s the younger version of the longtime couple who, with nothing left to say, endures an entire dinner in silence. And of course, it doesn’t just happen in restaurants: Partners check their phones while hanging out at home, traveling together, even while in bed. An unbelievable 71 percent of Americans take their phones to bed with them.

If you think smartphone-heavy couples are headed for trouble, you’re right, according to a recent study published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

Baylor University professors James A. Roberts and Meredith David surveyed 453 U.S. adults to examine the relational effects of “Pphubbing”—or “partner phone snubbing,” explains a media release announcing the report. “Pphubbing is described in the study as the extent to which people use or are distracted by their cellphones while in the company of their relationship partners.”

The effects are not at all romantic.

“What we discovered was that when someone perceived that their partner phubbed them, this created conflict and led to lower levels of reported relationship satisfaction,” Roberts explains. “These lower levels of relationship satisfaction, in turn, led to lower levels of life satisfaction and, ultimately, higher levels of depression.”

The complaints of the spurned included statements such as “My partner glances at his or her cellphone when talking to me,” and “If there is a lull in our conversation, my partner will check his or her cellphone.”

“In everyday interactions with significant others, people often assume that momentary distractions by their cellphones are not a big deal,” David says. “However, our findings suggest that the more often a couple’s time spent together is interrupted by one individual attending to his/her cellphone, the less likely it is that the other individual is satisfied in the overall relationship.”

The recent findings confirmed those from a set of 2012 studies at the University of Essex, which found tthat “simply having a phone nearby, without even checking it, can be detrimental to our attempts at interpersonal connection,” notes Helen Lee Lin’s research summary in Scientific American.

Of course, life is full of distractions, and we can use any activity either in moderation or to an obsessive degree, including work, shopping, or television. Mobile phones, however, seem to offer the most constant and tempting pull on our attention, like the sirens of ancient Greek mythology who, with beautiful music and alluring voices, enticed sailors to ultimately wreck their ships on the rocky coast of their home island.

“Studies have suggested that because of the many social, instrumental, and entertainment options phones afford us, they often divert our attention from our current environment, whether we are speeding down a highway or sitting through a meeting,” Lin writes. “Research suggests that cell phones may serve as a reminder of the wider network to which we could connect, inhibiting our ability to connect with the people right next to us.”

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