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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

The internet makes life better by bringing people together from across the world.1,3 Anyone can use a smartphone (or tablet) to create and maintain bonds with others.2,3 Because of this, they are able to connect without face-to-face interactions.1,2,3

Using smartphones has become common, with as many as 90% of American adults have one.2,9,12 They are even more popular among young adults.9,12 But this may have a cost. Symptoms of smartphone dependency are rising in young people and seen in almost all parts of life.4,9

Using smartphones to communicate can potentially worsen the quality of social interactions.2,6 For example, many studies have shown that people get distracted by using their phones.5,6,10 Doing things like talking on the phone, checking a phone, or texting while talking to someone can interfere with the face-to-face interactions. This leads to weaker social interactions in person.5,10 So, even though smartphones can be helpful for things like long-distance relationships, they can harm in-person relationships.1

Even though smartphones can help us make connections, they can also lessen secure attachment and satisfaction. Using smartphones in front of partners may cause more conflict in the relationship and lead to more times of “alone togetherness,” while the number of chances to have meaningful interactions may go down.

Technoference

People can become attached to devices at the cost of their relationships in real life.6,7 Technology interferes with more and more interactions between couples. This technoference can result in alone togetherness, where two people may be near each other, but are each mentally alone due to their device.6 Many studies have shown that phones can disrupt couples in regular, daily face-to-face interactions, hurting relationships.6,7

Findings show that phone disruption can lead to couples having more conflict or being less happy in their relationship.3,6,7 It may bring doubt and anger between couples, makes people more depressed, and leads to couples talking less.5,6,7,10 When this happens to a couple, trust and confidence decrease, along with relationship satisfaction.8

Relationship Conflict

People do not always know what kinds of bad things can happen when they use their phones at the wrong time. Previous research showed that using phones in face-to-face interactions can be really harmful to people.1,5,7,9,10,11 One of the worst things it can lead to is more fights in couples.7,10 People may get upset when their conversation with someone else is interrupted by something less important like a phone call or notification.7 This leads to distress when some in the relationship does not feel valued.7

Research shows that those who have good face-to-face interactions have better mental well-being, satisfaction, and good emotions.2 This is why an interruption can potentially be harmful.11 When smartphones block the couple’s ability to communicate, the relationship can suffer.6,7,10 Phone disruptions can trigger frustration in the romantic relationship and changes the daily habits within the couple.1,5,7,9,10,11 More interruptions are linked to more conflict.8

Studies reveal that smartphone usage can also start arguments in couples about whether a partner is overusing technology.8 Conflict can also come when intimate moments of trust and bonding are blocked.6,11 Overall, the largest source of conflict is when couple’s satisfaction levels drop in relation to interrupted face-to-face interactions.7,10 Conflict due to dissatisfaction in a relationship is unhealthy, making conflict from smartphone usage unhealthy.10

Conflicts which may start due to smartphone use may lower relationship satisfaction. But there is a need to find out what type of conflict occurs in these situations. For example, it is not known for sure to what extent smartphones control or start the conflict. More research into those specific details would help show how smartphones hurt romantic relationships.

Alone Togetherness

As mentioned before, “alone togetherness” can make people unhappy in their relationships.10 This term is used to describe times when people are in the same room, but they are distracted by their phones.3,5,7

Just as smartphone dependency has different degrees, there are different degrees of alone togetherness. A common example may be when a person is mildly annoyed when his or her partner occasionally checks a phone.7 A more serious example is when a conversation is cut short because the other person’s attention is on the phone.3,5 An extreme example of alone togetherness is when two people are always on their phones rather than speak to each other during their time together. These people often even feel an eerie loneliness when they are without their phone.5,7 To a variety of degrees, couples can be in situations where alone togetherness has taken over the relationship.3

Alone togetherness makes it less important to be in person with a significant other since it weakens the quality of face-to-face interactions, making them shallow and less meaningful.3,5 Research shows that to have meaningful interactions, there must be trust, intimacy, and confidence between romantic partners.2,3,6,7 But, when smartphones make conversations shallow, it may be hard for couples to develop strong trust, intimacy and confidence through their face-to-face interactions.11

Alone togetherness can happen to couples at the dinner table or at any time.2,3,6,7 One study found that nearly 62% of partners had technology had technology interfere with their daily free time with each other.7,10 The most common of these happens when a couple is talking, but then one of them pulls out a phone and starts doing various tasks on it.7 These kinds of technoference can result in couples experiencing decreasing satisfaction in their relationship.5,10

Some people find that they are happier with their phones than their actual in-person relationship.7,10,11 Plus, some prefer having mobile device communication over having face-to-face interactions.2,3,7 As relationship dissatisfaction in relation to alone togetherness increases, the relationship becomes vulnerable, unhappy, and unstable.9,12 Yet, the details behind all of these findings are not as well known. More research needs to find more details in couples’ reports of alone togetherness, relationship dissatisfactions, and smartphone use.

Loss of Opportunities

People often prefer texting, emailing, and online messaging since these options give them control over the conversation by allowing time to respond.7,10,11 Studies show that youth prefer texting over anything because it is more direct and allows thought-out responses.2,9 In fact, research shows that males tend to text serious information since it is seen as a good form of communication.3 But, using mobile devices as the main form of communication gives fewer chances for face-to-face interactions and make up a weaker channel for sensitive information.

Smartphone use makes understanding others’ emotions more difficult. It is hard to read someone’s face when a smartphone has his or her whole attention.9 That means that these kinds of situations are weaker than face-to-face interactions.5 Without meaningful conversations, relationships are not as well developed. Reliance on smartphone use inhibits opportunities to have face-to-face interactions.1,7,11

People who are interrupted by someone using a smartphone speak fewer words than people who are not.11 This finding shows how opportunities can be lost when face-to-face interactions are interrupted. One study showed that instead of people having good conversations, after the speaker noticed that the other person had stopped listening (because they were on their phone), he or she cut the story short.5

As people are together but distracted by the phones in their hands, interaction between the couple decreases.2,3,5,6,7 In that moment, the couple experiences a loss of opportunity for face-to-face engagement. When people start to exist in an alternate reality through smartphones, they tend to ignore the world around them.7,10

Without an engaged partner, the chance to continue a strong face-to-face interaction stops as people find that their partner is not interested. face-to-face interactions interrupted by phones results in a lost opportunity as both parties withdraw from the moment and do not seek to build on it.3,7 There are also several holes in the current research on this topic. More research needs to find out to what extent and what kind of opportunities are lost.

Here are some ways to avoid negative phone interreference in face-to-face settings:

  • Go technology free. When going on dates or other intimate activities, try to go without your phone. This can be especially fun when trying new activities together. Another way to try this is instead of having your phone out at the dinner table, keep it turned off and tucked away. This allows you to have meaningful conversation time with your partner.
  • Set aside downtime. As a couple, decide on an hour or two each day where you will be technology-free. This could be in the hour before bed or the hour you come home from work. This gives a distraction-free time to unwind and communicate with your partner.
  • Use your mobile device for relationship building. There are apps that allow couples to connect such as playing Love Maps (see https://www.gottman.com/couples/apps/). You may also use phones to send thoughtful messages or other forms of positive communication. Another way to use your device for good is to use it at the same time as your partner doing activities or games you both enjoy. Try finding a positive way to connect you and your partner.

Written by Brenna R. J. Poggemann, edited by Mason Poggemann, Brittany Passmore, and Professors Julie Haupt, Sarah Coyne, and Stephen F. Duncan, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University. March 5, 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. Emanuel, R., Bell, R., Cotton, C., Craig, J., Drummond, D., Gibson, S., . . . Williams, A. (2015). The truth about smartphone addiction. College Student Journal, 49(2), 291-299.
  5. 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.
  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