You’re always on your phone: 3 powerful tips for when devices come between us

It had to be more than a decade ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday. Reading an article on a lazy Sunday about the future of smartphone technology and how researchers predicted it would impact us all. The image embedded depicted a couple sitting up in bed, separated, heads down, engrossed in their smart phones. At the time, the visual was shocking, and I leaned over to show my husband. We both agreed; so sad. That will never be us. 

Fast forward to what actually did happen yesterday, I looked up from my nightly dog video binge to see my husband, next to me in bed, also totally engrossed in his phone. The article flashed before my eyes. 

If you’re in an intimate relationship, chances are you’ve found yourself in a similar tableau. Perhaps there have been conversations (or maybe just a passive aggressive comment or two) about your or your partner’s involvement with the dreaded and dearly beloved device. The new buzzword for this phenomenon where we “snub” our partners in favor of our phones has been dubbed “phubbing” (yes, that’s phone + snubbing) and is the topic of much conversation. Phubbing has sparked interest for good reason. The majority of couples I work with have experienced conflict over cellphone use. It seems to be a fairly universal problem. But how did we get here? 

It’s not really our faults. Technology has evolved so that our phones contain our whole lives. Carefully curated content bombards us constantly—work, friends, entertainment, household chores (grocery delivery, anyone?). For some, switching on the lights requires picking up the phone. Once it’s in our hand, then unintentionally, simply by force of overwhelming habit, we snake deeper and deeper into the hole. “While I’m here, let me check my email…and my fantasy lineup….” And off we go into our phones and away from our partners. 

If cellphone use is creating conflict in your relationship, don’t worry! It’s not a bad sign that you (or they) get frustrated about the phones. It means you care and you want to connect. Try these tips to find solutions and create the connection you’re looking for. 

"You're always on your phone" photo of a cell phone lying on a bed

Tip #1: Tune in to what is really bothering you

Whether they’re responding to work emails or watching an adorably unlikely animal friendship on TikTok, it’s not really the phone in principle that bothers us. It’s the disconnection. We vie for our partner’s attention when their pocket-sized mistress pulls them away. We don’t mind when the barista at Starbucks checks her phone because we don’t care about the barista. But when the person we love seems to favor spending time elsewhere, we feel hurt, rejected, unchosen. Remember that it’s your desire to be close and feel loved that causes your frustration with the phone. Tune in to that desire. 

Tip # 2: Communicate the right message at the right time 

Too often, the device issue is only addressed in-the-moment, in frustration, and plays out something like this: 

Partner 1: You’re always on your phone! 

Partner 2: Calm down, I’m JUST checking an email! Besides, you’re worse than I am! 

And now we’re commence a cycle of blaming and defending. Not a good place to be. Instead, bring up the issue at a time when things feel good. Remember what you discovered in Tip #1, and focus on the desire to feel close. Let your partner know that you love them, you want to connect with them, and that sometimes you feel like the phones get in the way. Don’t forget to take responsibility for the times you’re on your phone too. This will disarm some of the defensiveness that gets us into those pesky cycles. 

Tip #3: Have solutions on hand 

Nobody likes to be presented with a problem without a solution. Present some suggestions for ways you like to connect, and what you think might work in your day-to-day lives to set some boundaries around the phones. Maybe you want a no-phones-at-dinner policy. Maybe you want to give each other a heads-up first when you’re waiting on an important text to come in on date night. There are lots of ways to set healthy, agreed upon boundaries without pointing fingers. Next, come up with some activities that make you feel connected. Do you like to snuggle and watch a show in the evenings? Do you miss the early morning walks you used to take together? What makes you feel close? This can be a fun one to brainstorm together. 

Troubleshooting

If you’re struggling to come up with ways to connect, try one of these fun relationship games designed to spark conversation and connection. 

If things have felt disconnected for a long time, or trying these tips just seems to blow up in your face, it might be time to seek some counseling together. If this is where you are, please remember that getting counseling doesn’t mean your relationship is bad. It just means your relationship, like all relationships, has its ups and downs and may be benefitted by seeking support from an expert. 

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