Your Smartphone vs. Your Relationship

By Emily Effren – February 1, 2021

Smartphones accompany everyone, everywhere, all the time — to the gym, to work, to happy hour, while we’re eating and even to bed. For many, it’s the first thing one sees when they wake up, and the last thing they see before going to sleep.

If you’ve ever felt a feeling of dread or regret after receiving a screen time notification, describing (in painful detail) how much time each day in the last week you spent on your phone, you’re not alone. Smartphones now double as our alarm clocks, calendars, calculators, weather forecasters, maps and more — and they’re used as the primary medium of communication for billions of people — so it’s no wonder they’re soaking up so much of our lives. 

Daniel Brake, a local licensed marriage and family therapist, practices couples therapy using the Gottman Method, which is based on observing and identifying patterns of behavior within a relationship. 

Brake says smartphones aren’t usually the source of issues within a relationship, but rather that one party is attempting to have their needs met while the other party is distracted or not listening. 

These attempts are considered a paired set of behaviors called “bids” and “turns,” Brake says.

A bid, according to The Gottman Institute, is any kind of attempt from one partner to another, with the objective of attaining attention, affirmation or affection.

“Bids and turns are a huge deal, and the thing with them is that they’re very subtle behaviors,” Brake explains. “If I’m saying something like, ‘Hey, did you see that TV show?’ or ‘Did I tell you what happened at work today?’ or, ‘Look at that cool dog on the side of the street’ — anytime I’m doing that, while on the surface I may be talking about something external to the relationship, what I’m really doing is saying, ‘Look at me. Connect with me.’ I’m making a bid for attention, intimacy or connection.”

A “turn” is when one partner is actively paying attention and physically turns toward the other partner who is making a bid, but a “turn” could also be away from the bid — which could turn things into a negative experience.  

For example, if someone is feeling good in a relationship and a bid is made and turned away, then that exchange is neutral — not a big deal. However, if one partner is not feeling great in the relationship, and the other partner is not paying attention, it could be interpreted negatively — that they don’t care, Brake says.
If that partner makes that bid for attention, and the other misses it because they are on their phone/distracted, what could have been a positive exchange then can become a negative one, leading to feelings of disconnection and disinterest between partners, Brake says.

“A lot of times, people don’t really know how to put that into words, so that might not be what they’re coming to couples therapy for, but really, this feeling is a loss of connection because, especially these days, we have a lot of draws on our attention; phones and apps and all that were specifically designed to catch and pull in our attention,” Brake says.

If one partner seeks attention, and it is ignored because the other partner is consumed in their smartphone, this could be considered “technoference,” says Jacki Fitzpatrick, Ph.D., an associate professor of Family Studies at Texas Tech University.

According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, “technoference refers to the interruptions in interpersonal communication caused by attention paid to personal technological devices.”

Fitzpatrick, who has been studying relationships since the early 1990s, says that while the concept of distractions isn’t new, the opportunity for distraction and multitasking has significantly increased with the rise of smartphones.

“The smartphone delivered on its advertising in terms of the idea that it brings the world into your fingertips. Therefore, it makes an extremely broad range of experiences accessible within seconds, if not milliseconds,” says Fitzpatrick. 

Fitzpatrick says it is not necessarily these devices that are at fault for dividing people’s attention, but simply that they make it easier to do.

Not only do smartphones allow for direct access to a virtual world, but constant notifications are designed to capture a user’s attention. Phone pings can cue anticipatory pleasure, similar to the bell that caused the dogs in the Pavlov’s dogs experiment to begin salivating, expecting food. This, paired with the fear of missing out (FOMO), can make it difficult for people, especially younger generations, to resist checking their devices, Fitzpatrick says.

“Essentially, the ping is telling you there’s something new coming in, whether it’s a new text, a new video — whatever. But something new that you have not received before today is waiting for you. So, depending on what people’s experiences are, if most of the time they use their phone, [and] it’s generally more pleasurable than not, then that can sort of queue up this anticipatory pleasure,” Fitzpatrick says.

According to Fitzpatrick, when entering a relationship, it’s important to have a candid conversation about what a smartphone means to each person, such as discussing what is to be expected if one uses their phone for work, as an oasis, as a form of entertainment or if it is even considered a third party to the relationship. Honest conversations like those could cause each party to be less likely to make inaccurate assumptions, Fitzpatrick says.

“A more living parallel is people say, ‘You love me. Love my pets,’ and that, ‘I’m not going to put my pet in a drawer. I’m not going to leave my pet behind on vacation. I’m not going to keep/lock my pet out of the bedroom — that, where I am, is where my pet is,’” she explains.

If a smartphone is not at that level of attachment, Brake recommends raising one’s awareness of their smartphone and making a point to leave it out of the way upon arriving home.

“It’s the unawareness of it [that] really is problematic, because I just don’t know how much time I’m giving to this device. But, if I had to think about it, I’m probably gonna make a different decision,” Brake says.

With the uptick in smartphone usage during the pandemic, Brake says it’s important to cut each other some slack right now.

“If they’re engaged in the phone a lot more than they used to be, it’s in part because life is so hard right now. Life is so stressful, and we are all looking for an escape from that,” he says. “And if I can seek an attitude of compassion for my partner and look at what they do as, again, earnest attempts to get legitimate needs met, then I’m going to have a better time, and they’re going to have a better time.”

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