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What’s Your Cell Phone Doing to Your Relationship?

“Hey, babe, what do you want to do tonight?”

“Uh…I don’t know…”

“Should we get take-out or something? Want to see that new superhero movie?”

“Sure, maybe…”

“Want to go up on the roof wearing Viking helmets and yodel the national anthem?”

“Yeah…if you want…”

“Babe! Put down the phone and listen to me!!”

Does this exchange sound familiar at all? If you’re like most of us, it probably rings a bell! And while our partners aren’t the only people in our lives who ignore us in favor of cell phones or computers, that habit may be especially damaging to these important relationships.

“Technoference” is Common

In one recent study of about 150 women, about three quarters of participants said technology like smartphones and computers “got in the way of or interrupted” their relationships at least sometimes. In fact, over 60% said technology disrupted time with their partner every single day!

What’s more, women reporting more of this so-called “technoference” in their relationships felt less satisfied by their relationships. They reported more symptoms of depression, and had more disagreements with their partners.

In a second study, people who reported being “phubbed” (a combination of “phone” and “snub”) more often by their partners fought with them more, and fought with them more about phone use. People who had a tendency to be insecurely attached to their partners were especially likely to have this problem.

What about Texting?

Most of us would agree that texting with our partners can definitely have practical benefits. (“We need milk!” “How’s your day going?”)

However, this technology can also have its pitfalls. In fact, some research suggests that couples who try to handle relationship problems over text may be making a risky choice. At least for women, this actually seemed to harm relationships.

(But if you like sending that little emoticon with hearts for eyes, good news! Sending loving notes by text was good for relationships, so go for it.)

Another Reason to Banish the Phones

Finally, here’s one last fascinating finding: in one small study, researchers discovered that even seeing a smartphone made strangers feel less close and connected to each other. In this experiment, people who didn’t know each other were asked to talk about a deep topic. Some had a notebook placed near them on a desk, and some had a silent cell phone nearby. Amazingly, just the presence of a silent, inactive phone seemed to make a conversation feel less meaningful. There’s something to think about the next time you’re on a date with your partner or mate.

What’s The Issue?

Some of you may be wondering what it is about technology that causes problems with relationships. The answer probably has to do with attention. When we’re looking at a screen as well as our partner, even just sometimes, our attention is divided. It’s hard to really listen, and we may not show the body language that indicates we’re focused. Over time, this can lead to hurt feelings. Our partners may even get the feeling that they’re not important.

As for texting to solve problems, this type of communication may not work well for tricky topics because we just don’t have as much information when texting as we do face to face. We miss out on facial expressions, body language, and other cues that help us through a difficult conversation. As a result, little misunderstandings can get us way off track.

When Technology Brings Us Together

Of course, this isn’t to say that every use of a computer, smartphone, or other device is bad for relationships. One study found that watching TV with a partner can actually make us feel better about the relationship. There’s also some research suggesting that it may be beneficial for parents to watch TV and movies with their children.

We also know that technology can be very useful to couples in long-distance relationships. Tools like video calling and texting seem to help people to bridge the distance if they are unable to physically be close.

However, there’s definitely a case to be made for limiting phone and laptop use when together. This is especially important during meals, relaxation time, before bed, and during dedicated family or couple time. Some families find it helps to make rules about devices at the table or in the bedroom. Others don’t need to be so formal about it.  

Whatever you decide, don’t let technology get between you and your loved one. Your relationship is much more valuable than those pieces of plastic, metal, and glass.

If you’re in a relationship but need help with communicating or handling conflict, why not consider taking a relationship education class? The SMART Couples project is offering ELEVATE, a FREE, research-backed relationship enhancement class for couples, in Florida counties across the state. Sign up today!

By Carol Church, lead writer, SMART Couples, Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences, University of Florida


Jiang, C. L., & Hancock, J. T. (2013). Absence makes the communication grow fonder: Geographic separation, interpersonal media, and intimacy in dating relationships. Journal of Communication, 63, 556-577

McDaniel, B. T., & Coyne, S. M. (2016). “Technoference”: The interference of technology in couple relationships and implications for women’s personal and relational well-being. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 5(1), 85-98.

Przybylski, A. K., & Weinstein, N. (2013). Can you connect with me now? How the presence of mobile communication technology influences face-to-face conversation quality. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 30(3), 237-246. 

Roberts, J. A., & 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, 134-141.

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