It's no question that smartphones can inadvertently cause conflicts in a relationship. Most people (me) have gotten mad at a text that was sent too late, or contained a dramatic period at the end of what was supposed to be a casual "hey." Some (also me) have even fought over it, only to come to the eventual grim realization that you've spent 45 minutes seriously dissecting the meaning of a lone ":)".
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Clearly, the phone itself isn't forcing anyone to scroll through Instagram while they're watching TV with their partner. But it does seem to create unique problems that would not have existed even 15 years ago. And, because most people do use their phones every day, it's easy for these subtle conflicts to slip under the cracks and cause blow up fights over, well, a Facebook like.
I spoke with Dr. Susan Weinschenk, Chief Behavioral Scientist at The Team W, Inc., an organization that helps clients gain insights about behavioral science, and Dr. Emma Seppälä, author of The Happiness Track, to find out more about how phones mess with people's love lives. Here are 6 things to look out for:
1. You feel neglected when your partner has their phone out, even if they're “totally listening.”
“We’re very sensitive, especially in romantic relationships, about our prioritization in the person’s life,” says Dr. Weinschenk. “The other person will say ‘I’m listening, I can listen, let me just check one message’ and it really becomes a symbol of how present somebody is at the moment.”
Obviously, even if your partner can repeat everything you just said verbatim, the fact that they were scrolling through their Twitter the whole time definitely drains you of feelings of closeness. “Intimacy comes from being able to share authentically with another person,” says Dr. Seppälä. “If you are looking at your phone rather than in your partner’s eyes, there can be no intimacy.” Or, at the very least, it sends the message that you think actively listening to them is as important as checking your notifications. Not great, either way.
2. Your phone is ALWAYS on your mind, even when you don't want it to be.
Some of the most private moments couples have are in bed, yet checking your phone first thing when you wake up can definitely feel like an involuntary impulse. “There are actually a few things about smartphones that make it particularly easy for people to learn a conditioned response,” says Dr. Weinschenk. “You put the phone near your bed and you use it as your alarm clock, you pick it up and it’s this automatic reaction to checking your email, checking your texts, Facebook, Instagram, etc. It just becomes a habit that you do, without even realizing that you’re doing it.”
On top of this being annoying to your partner who just wanted a morning spoon-fest, it also removes the sense of aloneness when you open up Instagram. According to a study by the University of Chicago, the mere presence of a phone in the room causes a decrease in cognitive capacity and attentional focus, because you subconsciously worry about missed notifications. Which, of course, makes it hard to really be with your S.O.
“The impact is that instead of waking up with just you, you’re waking with 50 other people,” says Dr. Weinschenk. “You feel like you’re always sharing this person.”
3. You can feel genuinely hurt if your partner doesn't text soon enough.
“There’s a lot of other subtext (no pun intended), like how quickly do they respond, ‘I texted you right away and you didn’t text back, what does that mean?’,” says Dr. Weinschenk. “When people text, to them, it’s very immediate, and if there isn’t an immediate response, you kind of feel like you’re being ignored.”
If you’re at a job where you can’t check your phone, you have an acceptable excuse for not being prompt. But TBH, sometimes you just want to watch Netflix without maintaining an immediate back-and-forth convo with bae. Or honestly, you saw the text and forgot to respond. And vice versa. The immediacy of phones has us all expecting real-time communication, even when it's not possible. Ultimately, this adds a difficult, specific type of stress that literally no generation of humans has ever dealt with.
4. If you're a strictly-texting couple, you miss out on higher levels of intimacy.
“As social animals, we get a lot of information, consciously and unconsciously, from being able to see someone’s facial expressions, for instance,” says Dr. Weinschenk. “We also get it from touch – if someone gives you a hug, strokes your arm, that releases a chemical called oxytocin which makes you feel bonded to that person. We get a lot from the tone of voice, the way someone says something. And all of that is lost in a text, and some of that is lost in Skype or the phone, so you have these different levels of information.”
It's easy to feel like you're always talking when you text, but actually calling your partner for a nightly recap and hearing their voice feels way more intimate, especially when you can't be together IRL.
5. You can have a whole fight over a misinterpreted message.
Who among us hasn’t gotten instantly worried at the sight of “...” ending a sentence, or a “can we talk later tonight?” that ended up not being a hint at a breakup but really was just your partner wanting a phone convo?
“It makes it easy to misinterpret, when someone says something in a text and you take it a certain way, and if only you have heard their voice, you would know how they meant it,” says Dr. Weinschenk.
6. Your mood around your partner gets worse when you check social media.
“Social media can have a negative impact on our mood and relationships,” says Dr. Seppälä. “The research shows that if you are spending time on scrolling through social media, it can make you feel more depressed.” A recent study published in Clinical Psychological Science states that "adolescents who spent more time on new media (including social media and electronic devices such as smartphones) were more likely to report mental health issues."
And some of that could be because it's all too easy to compare yourself to others on social media. Sometimes, all it takes to ruin date night is seeing that your high school nemesis just got engaged on a gorgeous Italian terrace, while you’ve been hoping your boyfriend would propose literally anywhere.
Ok, so you read this post and realize your phone is, indeed, messing with your relationship. What now?
“To cut the habit, you have to create a new habit,” says Dr. Seppälä. “For example, when you’re on a date, turn your phone on airplane mode and put it away. Check it when you have a free moment, like when your partner goes to the bathroom.”
Of course, you need both people to agree to actually work on this. “I think it’d be hard and really unusual for people to say ‘whenever I’m with you, I’ll never check my phone,’” says Dr. Weinschenk. “But I think in order to really do something about it, you need to agree that for certain activities, we don’t use our phones. If it’s in your pocket and you feel it vibrate, that doesn’t count.”
It can be a tough cycle to break, and probably requires you forgiving your partner (and yourself!) for occasionally slipping up and checking Snapchat after toggling off your morning alarm. But if your S.O. can’t commit to putting their phone away for a two-hour dinner, that tells you everything you need to know about the relationship.
This article first appeared in Cosmopolitan.