Feel like technology is impacting your relationship? You’re not alone.
What addiction to our phones does to our relationship
You are at a restaurant and you see a couple more engrossed with their phones than they are with each other. “Look at that couple over there” you might say. In our homes we are more than likely to be displaying the same behaviour.
Maybe you try to tell your partner something exciting that happened to you that day, but you notice they’re only half listening as they scroll through their phone. Or perhaps you must repeatedly ask your partner to help with the housework. You hear them reply “yes darling” each time, but hours have passed as they’ve spent the morning scrolling through social media. Addiction to our phones has the same physiological response that the brain does to recreational drugs (Sepaia, 2017).
In a study conducted by Meredith David and James Roberts found that overusing our phones while with other people, can lead to a decrease in satisfaction in our relationship with these people. Most significantly, the dissatisfaction is happening with our partners. When people use their phones around us, it comes across as impolite and shows a lack of attention. We’ve all seen this, you are absorbed in a conversation with someone and you see their eyes wander. That sends the message that their mind is elsewhere. It feels disrespectful and leaves us feeling unheard.
Another reason this act of being on our phones is so harmful to our relationships is because we are turning away instead of toward our partner. Expert in relationships, John Gottman discovered in his research that one of the building blocks to a healthy relationship includes turning towards our partner (Brittle, Z. Gottman Institute).
What does this mean?
In relationships we make bids for connections with our partner and when these bids are met, we call it turning towards. Conversely, if the bids aren’t met it’s called turning away. Using the phone as an example, if you feel like you are trying to talk to your partner and they aren’t listening, because they are too occupied on their phone that would be called turning away. If this is happening on a daily basis and our bid for connection isn’t met, eventually we give up. When bids of connection are continuously being ignored this leads to relationship dissatisfaction.
Other areas of addiction include online porn and gaming. According a survey conducted by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, they discovered in 56% of their divorces cases, one partner had an obsessive interest in pornography websites or developed a porn addiction (Hart, J. Hart Centre). In 2018, when the company Divorce Online gathered data on the word “Fortnite” and other online games in their petitions, it was found on 200 petitions (Huddleston, T. CNBC). Whilst these numbers only equated to 5% of their petitions, it is still an indication of what some couples are struggling with.
When it seems like everyone’s life is perfect and yours doesn't
A picture is worth a thousand words. It’s worth a thousand words because of our own thoughts, feelings and assumptions about that picture. With social media being ever present in our lives, we are continuously exposed to endless photos of people’s carefully curated lives. Look at those smiles, that embrace, that scenery, those perfect outfits. With just one picture several thoughts or feelings can occur in an instant. How do they look so put together? How can they afford to go on all these holidays? They look so in love. I wonder if they fight. They look perfect. I bet he treats her well. She looks like the perfect partner. Or maybe that photo brings up feelings of jealousy, annoyance, frustration or disappointment in our own relationships.
You don’t know what happened before or after that shot was taken
We can’t deny the magic of a photograph. I remember hearing about the importance of savouring the moment and not disrupting it by pulling the camera out. Whilst I can agree with that sentiment, I also know that our memories don’t hold on to everything. I can still enjoy the moment, and then taking another moment to capture the memory. There are so many highlights and mundane moments I would have otherwise forgotten about if I didn’t take that photo. I look back on photos and remember the joy I felt on that particular day or perhaps the argument that came just before taking that perfect shot. It helps to remember that a photo is a single moment in time. It doesn’t tell us the whole story of our lives. Yet, through the power of social media we make assumptions on how other people’s lives are.
If we are struggling with our own lives or relationships, we tend to look at others in a more positive light than our own. It’s important to remind ourselves that people only show us what they want us to see. And it’s also a tiny slice of their lives that they allow us to see. That perfect top of a mountain shot? They might have had an argument on their way up. Those perfect bodies on the beach? They may be struggling with their self-image. It doesn’t matter how perfect others people’s lives may seem, behind that shot are humans that would experience the whole gambit of emotions and struggles we all do.
Normalising sadness and anger
Often, photos include smiling faces, or perhaps a neutral expression. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with wanting to capture the seemingly joyful person, it feeds into the idea that happiness or joy is the most widely accepted emotion. When we see someone with a smile on their face, we assume that they are happy. Conversely when we someone visibly in distress or with a frown we assume that they are sad. How often do we see photos on social media that portrays raw emotion such as sadness or pain? And if we do see it, it can be unsettling. When you look around at advertisements or what’s on your feed, it almost always portrays someone smiling. Perpetuating the idea that this is what is acceptable and familiar.
There is a phenomenon called emotional contagion, in which humans perceive an emotion in another person and mimic this emotion through their own bodily feedback (Flack, 2006). When mimicking a smile there is a significantly decreased social cost. Conversely, when mimicking sadness, it might indicate an understanding of the other persons sorrow (Herrera, Bourgeois, & Hess, 1998). It has been found that mimicking certain emotional displays such as happiness can increase social bonds. Whereas emotions such as anger and disgust are unlikely to be mimicked due to a potential rupture to the interaction (Fischer & Manstead, 2008; Keltner & Haidt, 1999). With that in mind, if we are wired to increase bonds it would make sense we are mostly drawn to happy faces.
Even though seeing a photo and being in real life are different experiences, it could potentially mean that when we look at a photo of someone who is sad, it might still bring up our own feelings of sadness. Whether it’s about the person in the photo or a reminder of what’s going on for us. But if we saw more photos of sadness or anger, it could normalise these emotions too. Because even though we may not like feeling angry or sad, these emotions are equally important as our other emotions. All our emotions are trying to tell us something and to pay attention to it.
Benefits to technology and how to use it to enhance your relationship
While it’s clear that technology can negatively impact relationships, there’s no doubt there are many benefits to it as well:
Even though life gets busy, texting is a quick and simple way to let your partner know you are thinking of them
When in a long-distance relationship regular video calling and being able to see each other “face to face” creates connection
If you want to participate in relationship counselling but you and your partner can’t get into a counsellor’s office, you can do it online. Couples find that online relationship counselling is a positive and beneficial experience (Kysley et al. 2020)
Fischer, A. H., & Manstead, A. S. R. (2008). The social function of emotions. In M. Lewis, J. Haviland-Jones, & L. F. Barrett (Eds.), Handbook of emotions (Vol. 3, pp. 456-470). New York, NY: Guilford.
Flack, W. (2006). Peripheral feedback effects of facial expressions, bodily postures, and vocal expressions on emotional feel- ings. Cognition & Emotion, 20, 177-195. doi:10.1080/026999 30500359617
Herrera, P., Bourgois, P., & Hess, U. (1998, September 23-27). Counter mimicry effects as a function of racial attitudes. Paper presented at the 38th Annual Meeting of the Society for Psy- chophysiological Research, Denver, CO.
Hess, U., & Fischer, A. (2013). Emotional mimicry as social regulation. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 17(2), 142–157. https://doi.org/10.1177/1088868312472607
Kysely, A. et al. (2020) “Expectations and experiences of couples receiving therapy through videoconferencing: A qualitative study,” Frontiers in Psychology, 10. Available at: https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02992.
Roberts, J.A. and David, M.E. (2016) “My life has become a major distraction from my cell phone: Partner phubbing and relationship satisfaction among romantic partners,” Computers in Human Behavior, 54, pp. 134–141. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2015.07.058.