Updated: Dec 14, 2020
I’d like to say you’d be amazed at how many couple complain about phone use, but I feel like this wouldn’t surprise anyone any more. Couples everywhere are figuring out how to navigate what’s appropriate and acceptable when it comes to cell phone use, and it seems that they’re feeling pretty discouraged in the meantime. One study showed that those who felt like technology interrupted their interactions, conversations, and mealtimes more frequently had lower relationship satisfaction, more depressive symptoms, and lower life satisfaction.
If I had to take a guess, I’d say that 80% of the couples I see complain about phone use in one way or another. In today’s post, I discuss some of the most common issues I see regarding technology and give my two cents on the topic as a therapist.
Issue #1: Excessive Phone Use
Joe says Mary’s phone use is so excessive that he feels like he’s competing for her time and attention. Mary says she has to work and Joe should be understanding of that.
It depends. In many ways, I side with Joe. In this fast-paced world where so many of us are being robbed of the opportunity to truly connect with others, I think the importance of quality time with our partners cannot be understated. And looking at a screen while your partner is in the middle of telling you about their day is a surefire way to make them feel like they aren’t even remotely a priority to you, even if that’s not your intention. My job in this case would be to help Mary set some boundaries so that she can reap the benefits of being away from her phone and improve Joe’s sense of security in the relationship.
That said, I understand that sometimes people just have to work from home some nights and that chatting with friends can be an important form of self-care. It can also be useful for significant others to understand that it’s impossible to be the centre of your partner's universe 100% of the time. Sometimes we need to talk to our friends, do a workout, or just have some down time. With this couple, I might explore what Joe and Mary's expectations are about quality time in their relationship—and if they're on the same page.
Finally, I might also explore why Mary is on her phone so much in the first place. Is it because she’s responding to work emails? Talking to friends? Whatever the case may be, I might assess if Mary is using her phone to actively put some sort of barrier between her and Joe—and why that might be.
Issue #2: Phone Surveillance Post-Cheating
Tina finds out that her partner Kelly was cheating on her after looking through her phone without her permission. Now, Tina is adamant that she be able to look at Kelly’s phone whenever she pleases, which Kelly says is an invasion of her privacy.
Tina. Don’t get me wrong: was it great that she went through Kelly’s phone without her permission? Not at all, but clearly she had a good reason to do so. My advice to Kelly in this situation would be that unfortunately, your partner’s paranoia over your phone use is the price you pay for cheating. It’s going to take some time for Tina to feel like she can even remotely come to trust Kelly again, so if this is something she needs to foster that sense of trust, so be it. At the same time, however, I’d ask a lot of questions on why the affair started in the first place, as cheating is not nearly as black-and-white of a situation as many people think in our culture.
Issue #3: Passcode or No Passcode?
Evan and Roxanne haven’t experienced any infidelity in their relationship, but Roxanne would like full access to Evan’s phone in the form of knowing his passcode and storing her thumbprint.
I personally feel like partners who allow complete access to each other’s phones are sending the powerful message that they wholeheartedly trust each other. However, I think it’s important that some boundaries are set in this situation nonetheless. Some considerations:
Having full access to your partner’s phone does not mean that you are entitled to read through their text messages like a gossip column. Keep in mind that when you’re reading someone’s text messages, the third party has not consented to you doing so. That is, even though your partner has told you it’s fine to go through their messages, his/her best friend Bill who has been venting about his relationship has no idea that you’re going through his friend’s phone. Bill is assuming that what he’s saying is confidential, so it’s important to be respectful of that.
Remember that when you’re reading a text message, you’re getting a snapshot of one moment. Don’t get me wrong, if you read something that’s offensive in any context, that’s a red flag. But also know that things that seem bizarre at a first glance might have made total sense in the context of the conversation.
If your partner is a health professional, it is possible that his/her patients are emailing, texting, and/or calling them. In this case, it is actually probably a good idea that you do not have access to your partner’s phone for legal reasons. Alternatively, your partner can take cautionary steps like not storing the last names of patients in his/her phone.
Issue #5: Turning the Phone Face-Down
Matt always leaves his phone on the table face-up as a sign that he’s a transparent, open, and honest guy. He’s noticed that the new guy he’s dating, Jason, always puts his phone face down on the table, which makes him wonder if he’s hiding something.
I’m the type of person who always leaves my phone face-down intentionally because I don’t want to be distracted while I’m with someone. It never even occurred to me that some people actually see this as a sign of secrecy because my intention has always been the complete opposite. In this case, I would tell partners to put their expectations on the table and have an explicit conversation about the whole thing. You might say, “This might sound a little strange, but believe it or not I’ve heard that some couples argue about whether or not they should leave their phone face-up or face-down. What are your thoughts about this?”
Other Tips & Considerations
If you find that you’re always wanting to go through your partner’s phone even if they have given you full access, then you might need to ask yourself where your feelings of paranoia or suspicion are coming from and if couples therapy might be a good step for the two of you at this time. Snapchat is the one app that I think is super shady due to the fact that people can send a message that shortly disappears. Many of the people I've met who have had affairs use Snapchat to communicate with the third party. This might be an important conversation to have with your partner, or perhaps you can both delete the app altogether if you have concerns about infidelity.
The Bottom Line
When you’re with your partner, truly be with them by turning off your damn phone. And know that you’re doing this for the health of your partner, the relationship, and your own mental health, too. If your workplace thinks that you should be accessible at all hours of the day, then it might be worth having a conversation with them about why this is inappropriate. Set a boundary at work sooner rather than later so you don’t get caught in cycle of your boss thinking it’s okay to call you at 11pm. Also, I think it’s important to turn inward for a moment and ask if you’re overestimating your importance. Don’t get me wrong: I’m sure you’re a very important part of the company and a valued employee. However, I’m always shocked at the number of people who have convinced themselves that a company would literally fall apart if they *GASP!* missed a phone call. I guarantee you that life will go on at that company. You are not so important that the fate of the company depends on you, I promise. Get off your high horse and realize that spending an hour without your cell phone will not kill you. And if you do need to spend at least a little bit of time on your phone after work, then set some boundaries where you can. Perhaps this means blocking out one hour of time to be accessible and then turning your phone off for the rest of the time. Get creative and listen to your partner’s needs in this capacity. If they are telling you that they feel starved of attention and like they’re competing for your time, listen to them.