How Mobile Devices Can Interrupt Romantic Relationships

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 “Hang on one sec. Let me send this text.” How many times have we heard this from a significant other across the dinner table? The Family: A Proclamation to the World states, “Husband and wife have a solemn responsibility to love and care for each other.” So how do we obey this important dictate to love our partner when the world demands so much from us through a four-inch screen?

Mobile devices are one of the most popular forms of communication.2,9 Talking through cell phones and the internet can be good because they can help people have meaningful relationships with those who live far away.2,3 However, research shows that cell phones interrupt face-to-face interactions (FTFI) in relationships and can make conversations less meaningful. 2,6 Technoference is a large problem with young adults who are dependent on their smartphones.6

While technology can be helpful in relationships, this article will talk about three ways it can be harmful and how to avoid them.

Relationship Conflict

Phone conversations between partners affects FTFI and can lead to more relationship conflict.7,10  Partners can feel stressed when their significant other chooses to focus on their cell phone instead of each other. This can result in the partner responding with harsh reactions,7 not feeling understood,7 or a feeling of distrust.11 Partners with FTFI can have higher levels of happiness and satisfaction.2,3,6,7 This explains why an interruption can be harmful in the relationship.11 When cell phones inhibit the couples from developing closeness and trust, the relationship can suffer negatively.11 Smartphone interference can cause problems or changes the attitude in the relationship.6,7,10 Interruptions are linked with more conflicts in relationships.1,4,7,9,10,11 Studies show the largest source of conflict is when couples’ happiness levels are less due to interrupted FTFI.7,10 Conflict in the relationship can be unhealthy, making conflict from cell phone usage potentially unhealthy.10

Healthy, open communication helps partners overcome conflict in relationships from cell phones. Research shows that when couples have open and available communication, they have less feelings of distress and more mental resilience.8,12 Partners can tell each other that his or her phone is creating some difficulty in the relationship. They can use “I statements” to help them. An example of an “I statement” could be: “I feel unhappy when you are checking your phone during our important talks. Can we figure out a time to talk to each other when our phones will not distract us?” This sort of statement talks about your feelings, the problem at hand, and suggests a potential solution.

Alone Togetherness

“Alone togetherness” can make people unhappy in their relationships. This term is used to describe times when people are in the same room, but they are distracted by their phones.7 However, there are different levels of alone togetherness. A mild example of alone togetherness is when someone finds his or her partner answering messages during a conversation.3,4 A moderate example would be if someone gets distracted once or multiple times because they are on a cell phone.4,7 An extreme case would be when someone is not able to communicate with others because they feel the need to be on their cell phone instead. 2,3,7

Although there are different levels of alone togetherness, 62% of couples noticed some sort of phone usage while spending time with their partner.7 Being on a phone while talking to your partner can lead to unhappiness in the relationship.7,10,11 It can also lead to less meaningful conversations,2,3,6,7 or being more connected with your cell phone than to your partner.2,6,7

Research shows that trust, intimacy, and confidence must be present in order to have meaningful times with romantic partners.11 To ease this situation and create a safe place for relationships, partners can set aside daily time to unplug and recharge the relationship. They can put their phones on airplane mode, turn them off, or leave them in another room for a time. To build trust, intimacy, and confidence, partners should put their partner first and put their phones down.

Loss of Opportunities

The use of cell phones during FTFI can also result in less connections between partners. For example, if couples rarely look up from their cell phones during a conversation, emotional connections can be hard to form. Research shows that people who are too focused on their cell phones during FTFI have a hard time understanding that person's emotions.4 These conversations are linked to weaker social interactions,1,7,11 less words spoken between partners 4 and a less meaningful relationship.11

Loss of opportunity can also come when couples use cell phones to talk with each other rather than FTFI when the FTFI option is available. Research shows that there is a larger number of people who text, email, or use other forms of messaging rather than FTFI.2,9 People who choose to talk through a cell phone instead of FTFI prefer it because they have more time to respond9 and can be more direct.3 Though popular, these forms of talking decrease the chances for conversations with partners, which is crucial to having a good relationship.

Here are two practical ways to avoid the loss of opportunities:

  • Be an active listener.5 When your significant other is speaking, put your cell phone away. Keep eye contact with your partner to let him or her know you are listening. Ask questions to show your partner that you care about the story he or she is sharing. Research shows that when a couple has a meaningful conversation without distractions, they have more intimacy and trust in the relationship.11 Giving a partner your full attention will show that he or she is your focus and that you care to hear what he or she is saying.
  • Choose a FTFI or verbal conversation instead of a text or email whenever possible. Although using a cell phone can help avoid having hard conversations in person, partners should try to talk about them in person to create more trust and become closer.

Cell phones can be good for those in relationships when people are far away from each other, but can be bad when cell phones hinder FTFI regularly. A negative outcome is more likely to occur when someone pays more attention to their phone than to the other person. FTFI are vital to good relationships. They can help couples reduce relationship conflict, reduce or prevent “alone togetherness,” and give time for healthy connection.

Additional Resources:

  1. Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting, Work, and Relationships by Robert Weiss and Jennifer Schneider
  2. Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age by Sherry Turkle
  3. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle

Written by Laura Thackeray and Brenna Poggemann, and edited by Brittany Passmore and Professors Julie Haupt, Sarah Coyne, and Stephen F. Duncan, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University. February 8, 2019.

References

  1. Bargh, J. A., & McKenna, K. Y. A. (2004). The internet and social life. Annual Review of Psychology, 55(1), 573-590. doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.55.090902.141922
  2. Chan, M. (2018). Mobile-mediated multimodal communications, relationship quality and subjective well-being: An analysis of smartphone use from a life course perspective.Computers in Human Behavior, 87, 254-262.
  3. Cheung, J. C. (2013). Review of alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. Journal of Social Work Practice, 27(4), 471-474. doi:10.1080/050533.2013.769209
  4. Geller, Z. A. (2018). Are you with me? The impact of losing a conversation partner's attention to a mobile device. Dissertation Abstracts International, 11222, 290.
  5. Hansen Saverese, I., LMFT. (2013, May 13). Practicing Active Listening Can Improve Your Relationship [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/practicing-active-listening-can-improve-your-relationship-0515134
  6. Lapierre, M. A., & Lewis, M. N. (2018). Should it stay or should it go now? Smartphones and relational health. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 7(3), 384-398. doi:10.1037/ppm0000119
  7. McDaniel, B. T., & Coyne, S. M. (2016). 'Technoference': The interference of technology in couple relationships and implications for women’s personal and relational well-being. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 5(1), 85-98. doi:10.1037/ppm0000065
  8. Murray, C. E., & Campbell, E. C. (2015). The pleasures and perils of technology in intimate relationships. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 14(2), 116-140. doi:10.1080/15332691.2014.953651
  9. Novak, J. R., Sandberg, J. G., Jeffrey, A. J., & Young-Davis, S. (2016). The impact of texting on perceptions of face-to-face communication in couples in different relationship stages. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 15(4), 274-294. doi:10.1080/15332691.2015.1062452
  10. Oliveira, E. K. (2017). The relationship between mobile device usage and couple satisfaction. Dissertation Abstracts International, 05712, 180.
  11. Przybylski, A. K., & Weinstein, N. (2013). Can you connect with me now? How the presence of mobile communication technology influences face-to-face conversation quality. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 30(3), 237-246. doi:10.1177/0265407512453827
  12. Schade, L. C., Sandberg, J., Bean, R., Busby, D., & Coyne, S. (2013). Using technology to connect in romantic relationships: Effects on attachment, relationship satisfaction, and stability in emerging adults. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 12(4), 314-338. doi:10.1080/153391.2013.83605