Is Your Cell Phone Ruining Your Relationship?

November 14,2018

One of the most popular emails I ever wrote was called “Did you phub your partner last night? I did.” Phubbing is the term for when you snub your partner because you’re too distracted by your cell phone.

One of the most popular articles I’ve ever written was for the New York Times all about how to stop fighting about social media in your relationship, and set healthy boundaries for the role social media plays.

I think both pieces really resonated with people because we recognize that we’re all guilty of bad behaviors with our phones and social media accounts.

The average American checks their cell phone every six minutes. That’s about 150 times per day! The average person will spend five years of their life on social media. YEARS! Of course, there’s some serious overlap there, since checking social media is one of the primary ways we use our phones.

With that level of frequency, it’s pretty much impossible for your cell phone and social media habits not to affect your relationship. Today I want to focus on how cell phones and social media can affect the communication in your relationship.

I actually think that cell phones and social media can contribute to communication, if used properly. But unfortunately, most of us sabotage our ability to have good communication by allowing our phones to get in the way.

If you want to minimize the impact that your cell phone and social media have on your communication, here are some handy tips for developing better habits.

Cell Phone And Social Media Rules For Healthy Communication

Consider adjusting your notifications
So many of us are slaves to our notification dings. Like Pavlovian dogs, we instinctively grab for our phone when we hear it go off, even if we were in the middle of an important conversation with our partner.

I know this can take some adjustment, but I highly recommend turning your notifications off. Or at least turning them off during certain hours. (Aside from improving your communication, you may also find that this makes you happier and more relaxed to boot.)

At the very least, if you and your partner need to have an important conversation, turn off the sounds on your phone and flip your phone face down.

Ask for each other’s attention
Of course it’s frustrating when you’re trying to communicate with your partner, but they’re buried in their phone. But many of us actually set ourselves up for failure by trying to talk with our partners when they’re already lost in their online world.

If your partner is looking at their phone, and you need to talk to them, say “Hey, can I have your attention for a sec?” Ask them to do the same when they need to talk to you.

Check your assumptions
One of the most obvious ways cell phones damage our communication is because it’s so easy to misinterpret our partner’s texts or emails. You can’t hear your partner’s tone, see their facial expression, or read their body language. You may think your partner is being a jerk, when in reality, they were feeling totally calm and happy.

As a quick exercise, think about the question, “What do you want?” See how many different tones you can layer on top of those four simple words. I can think of wildly different examples, like anger and generosity.

If your partner sends you a text message that evokes a strong reaction for you, take a deep breath. Then ask your partner to clarify what they meant or are feeling. Let them tell you what they meant before you jump to conclusions.

On the flip side, you may want to make extra effort to make your intentions clear when you’re communicating to your partner. Remember that they can’t hear your tone, see your facial expression, or read your body language either.

Have important conversations in person
It’s just so easy for conversations over text or email to go awry, so I highly recommend that you aim to have important conversations in person. If you know the conversation is important beforehand, wait until you’re in person. If you start having a text-based conversation that goes off the rails, ask to finish the conversation in person.

Use the word “phubbing”
Phubbing is a funny word, and it can lighten the mood a bit. You can apologize to your partner for your past phubs, and have a conversation with them about preventing phubbing in the future. Or use it in the moment. For example, if you think you and your partner are wrapping up a conversation, say something like, “Anything else we need to talk about? I don’t want to phub you.”

Be clear about your usage
If you and your partner have been fighting about your cell or social media usage, you may each be overly sensitive to each other’s behavior. One thing you can do to minimize future fights is to be more open with each other about what you’re using your phone or social media for.

For example, you may use your phone to show your partner something related to the conversation you’re having, like a picture or article. But your partner sees you reaching for your phone, and thinks you’re cutting them off or ignoring them. To prevent this, try to wait until your partner has stopped talking, then say, “I want to show you something” as you take out your phone. This might sound like a silly step, but it really helps your partner understand that you’re trying to add something to the conversation.

Similarly, sometimes we pull out our phones because we need to be by ourselves and shut out the outside world. If that’s the case for you, just name it! Say something like, “I need a minute to zone out. I’ll be back soon.”

Check in before you post
Next week I’m going to be sharing with you some of my own major communication mistakes. So since I’m already pre-emptively embarrassed about divulging my screw-ups, here’s another one! I recently hurt my husband’s feelings by posting a picture of him on my Instagram account. I thought I was playfully teasing him about a funny comment he had made, but my post actually upset him. He told me how he felt, and I removed the post. But I could have prevented this difficult conversation in the first place by simply asking him, “Is it OK with you if I post this?”

If you’re going to make a post that involves your partner’s picture, words, or experience, ask them, “Is it OK with you if I post this?”

Pretend that social media was real life
So many couples get into fights about their behavior on social media. Your partner might get mad at you for following accounts, or leaving comments or likes.

Here’s the best way to deal with this: imagine that your social media behaviors were happening in person, with your partner standing right beside you. Would you make that comment or send that message with your partner watching? If you wouldn’t do it in the real world, don’t do it online.

Use your phones for good!
Phones aren’t all bad! There are definitely ways you can use them to improve your communication. Here are some ideas:

• Send your partner sweet text messages throughout the day, letting them know they’re on your mind.
• Champion your partner on your social media accounts. Post cute pictures or stories of them.
• Sext with your partner, to build up anticipation for seeing each other that evening.

Spend quality time alone
One of the main reasons why our cell phones and social media accounts harm our communication and our relationships so much are simply because they’re so present all the time.

The most common cell phone- and social media-related fight couples have is over how much time each partner spends on their phone and social media.

If you’re constantly on your phone, it makes your partner start to feel like they’re less important to you than a few ounces of metal and plastic. And that really hurts.

Here’s an easy solution: every day, spend at least 20 minutes of screen-free time together. Of course, more social media-free time is better, but 20 minutes should be a totally-doable minimum.

You can designate certain daily activities as screen-free, for example, taking the dog on a walk or cleaning up together after dinner.

Aside from your daily minimum, you may also want to talk about other activities or spaces that should be phone- and social media-free, like date night, family time, or your bedroom.

Now, I’d love to hear from you. Out of the guidelines that I listed above, which one do you think would be the most helpful at improving the communication in your relationship?


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I'm Vanessa Marin, a sex therapist and writer specializing in helping you have more fun in the bedroom.

I have bachelor’s degrees in human sexuality and sociology from Brown University, and a master’s degree in counseling psychology from the California Institute of Integral Studies. I’m also a licensed psychotherapist. I’ve been working in the sex therapy field since 2002 and have been featured by The New York Times, O: The Oprah Magazine, Real Simple, and many more.

If you’re interested in improving your sex life, you can work with me via my online courses or personal coaching sessions. I look forward to supporting you in creating the sex life you’ve always wanted!