There’s nothing worse than trying to have a conversation with someone who won’t look up from their phone. Maybe they’ll look up and nod half heartedly as they paw at their phone. but it is clear their attention is not on you. At best you feel annoyed; at worst, unappreciated and ignored. The more frequently it happens, the more the latter feelings come through. Our phones are little glass and metal devices that portal us to a different world, one that can often be hard to resist. But ignoring your partner for your phone — called phubbing, short for “phone snubbing” — is toxic to relationships.
A person guilty of phubbing is transmitting that whatever is happening on the phone — be a game, an email, a TikTok, a Twitter exchange — is more important and worthy of their attention than the person in front of them. When phubbing happens regularly between two people in a relationship, arguments ensue. In the long run, cell phone addiction can do real damage to a marriage or relationship. Because phubbing is about more than just being addicted to Twitter or checking work emails. It’s about denying your partner time and attention in favor of connecting with your screen.
What Is Phubbing?
Phones — and the social media and games and apps they contain — are basically dopamine slot machines, designed to keep people scrolling, liking, commenting, and email-checking. The major thing they distract from? Real human relationships. In fact, the stranglehold that cell phones have on relationships has become so great it’s even been given its own name: “phubbing.” A portmanteau of “phone” and “snubbing,” the term, while wholly strange to see written down and reminiscent of the not-so-distant act of “porn hubbing,” is fairly self-explanatory and illustrates the nature of the cell phone addiction pretty well. After all, a snub is a rude and dismissive gesture, and the fact that couples are using the term to describe their partner’s choice of their device over quality time says a lot.
While the term seems cutesy, phubbing is basically relationship napalm. One recent study found that the behavior actually facilitates relationship dissatisfaction on an almost subconscious level by creating emotional distance between romantic partners.
But let’s be honest: Every person has those moments — or 10 — when Instagram or Facebook or Reddit or That One Booger-Picking Video You Have to See has won out over their significant other in the battle for their attention. So, when does that phubbing battle become about something more than phone usage?
How Phubbing Can Ruin a Relationship
Texas-based marriage and family therapist Jim Seibold, Ph.D., says that one trigger can be when device usage goes from intermittent to consistent and begins to cut in on family time. He says that this can be a particular problem when one partner places a high value on spending quality time with the other. “When someone’s primary love language is quality time,” he says, “they will feel rejected and abandoned when their partner is spending too much time on their phone.”
Lori Whatley, a licensed marriage and family therapist working out of Atlanta, also says that the argument can stem from a partner feeling undervalued in comparison to a device. “Once upon a time, partners had to contend with other love interests but now they must contend with the device, which can be much more intrusive due to its portability,” she says. “Competing with an electronic device is not easy. The addictive powers make it impossible at times.”
In addition to the constant use of the phone, trouble can also start when device usage becomes secretive. This can happen when one person’s phone is locked and the password not shared or if one partner quickly puts the phone away when the other enters the room. If this is happening regularly, says Seibold, it’s cause for concern. “Affairs don’t have to be physical in nature,” he says. “I have worked with many couples in which an affair took place entirely by phone or text.”
What Is the Short-Term Solution to Phubbing?
A text-based affair represents a worst-case scenario. But the fact remains that even innocent phubbing can, when left unchecked, create a major rift in a relationship. So what can couples do to not only silence the disagreement but also begin to break the device habits that are driving a wedge between them? Simply saying, “Put your phone away, I’m talking to you!” isn’t enough. In fact, it might have the opposite effect in creating resentment.
Seibold suggests approaching the problem using solution-based language. Saying something like, “Let’s not have phones at the table during dinner,” instead of an accusation such as, “The phone is more important than I am!” can pave the way to a more positive outcome.
If your spouse is commenting about the time you are spending on the phone, listen. “Validate their perspective and ask how you can be more mindful,” says Seibold. “Don’t be quick to dismiss their words as complaining or controlling.” Whatley says that even the simple act of just putting the phone away during an agreed-upon time can speak volumes to your spouse. “This shows that you are in control of your phubbing and it is manageable,” she says. “It tells your partner you are there for them to engage wholeheartedly, with no phone interruptions.”
What Is the Long-Term Solution for Phubbing?
Putting the phones down for a night is great, but the allure of social media can only be kept at bay for so long. Couples need to devise long-term fixes to the phubbing issue in order to rid themselves of it once and for all. Both Whatley and Seibold agree that having things like “device-free days” and even “no-phone zones” in the house can be good solutions, but the reality is that sometimes phones are necessary. One person might be waiting for an important message and need to keep their phone nearby. That’s fine, says Seibold, but just make sure that it’s communicated ahead of time. “Be clear this is an exception not a new normal,” he says. “Also identify the difference between crucial and important. Do you really have to check your phone as soon as it alerts you? Can it wait for a few minutes until you finish dinner or a few hours until after your date night?”
If couples are really serious about breaking the phubbing cycle, then they might want to consider taking some time to wean themselves off their devices and using them only when absolutely necessary. Seibold notes that he’s seen moods, feelings of security, and the overall connection between couples improve when they step away from their devices for a time. As such, he suggests taking a break from social media just for a week and see what happens. “We often don’t realize the amount of time and emotional energy we spend on these apps. It can be quite telling,” he says. “If you become irritable and anxious initially, it is probably a good sign that you are becoming too dependent on your device. If that is the case, identify some long-term boundaries for how you spend device time. Use that time to be purposeful about actively engaging with your partner.”