How to confront a phone addict
Money troubles, trust issues, poor communication, unsatisfying sex life – these have traditionally been the issues that cause conflict within an established relationship, but there’s a new one – ‘phubbing’, or phone snubbing. The term has been coined to represent the ever-increasing problem of feeling ignored or rejected by your partner thanks to smart technology.
‘People have an attachment to their phones as they aren’t just gadgets. They have a relationship-facilitating function – we socialise with them,’ says Martin Graff, reader in psychology at the University of South Wales. ‘That becomes a problem when someone feels face-to-face conversation is deemed less important than the conversation on their smartphone.”
It can kill the mood or irritate in the moment, but when it becomes the rule rather than the exception, it can lead to anger, resentment and disconnection. Research found 46 per cent of us have been phubbed by a partner, and couples now spend just 59 minutes together per day without smartphones, laptops, TVs and tablets. Here’s the expert guide to wrestling back the communication.
‘Phones are going nowhere, so we need to learn to live with them,’ says Graff. ‘Rather than accusing, blaming or arguing, suggest setting ground rules. That might mean that phones are put away whenever you’re eating, or you turn off mobiles an hour before bed. Deciding you’ll both stick to the same rules makes it collaborative, not confrontational.’
Get back in ‘the moment’
Some researchers refer to smartphones as ‘adult pacifiers’, saying that when we get cranky, bored, or distressed, we use them to soothe us. ‘There’s no real harm in that if you’re alone somewhere and you’ve got a 10-minute wait, but if you’re with someone you need to focus on real world communication,’ says Graff. ‘The benefits of face-to-face interaction far outweigh those from technology. If you both agree to check your phones for five minutes that’s fine, but it needs to be a joint decision.’
And because phones can lure us into what’s known as a ‘ludic loop’, where being engaged in an addictive experience lulls us into a state of tranquillity, you need to replace that habit with other ways to manage boredom, soothe stress and calm a buzzing mind. Think reading, podcasts, writing or artistic pursuits.
If you live with a tech zombie, you’ve probably confronted them about it, but that’s the problem – when confronted, people become defensive. Cue ‘I didn’t complain when you were on your phone!’ and ‘Relax, would you?’
Instead, we need to approach these conversations in a constructive, collaborative, non-judgemental way. ‘Blaming someone never helps,’ says Graff. ‘It should never be “you do this” or “you’re selfish” – you need to have an adult conversation where you decide what’s acceptable for you.’ Timing is also key, so wait until you’re both calm, not attack in the moment.
Understand the urge
It’s easy to feel the red mist of rage whenever your partner picks up their phone while you’re talking, but you must recognise that everyone uses their mobiles a bit, all of us at an inappropriate time occasionally.
It’s also helpful to understand why we get sucked in. ‘It’s what behavioural psychologists call “variable ratio reinforcement,”’ says Graff. ‘Occasionally, we get a very meaningful message, but most are mundane. Because we don’t know which it will be we get hooked in and motivated to keep checking.’ Hence why 70 per cent of office emails are read within six seconds.
‘Everyone needs some downtime from their phone and checking their emails, so agree times when you can leave it, and stick to it,’ adds Graff. ‘Ring-fence that time and you’ll overcome the constant habitual checking.’
Set the social agenda
When the whole world has a phone at the fingertips, it’s easy to think everyone expects an instant response. ‘Back in the days of landlines we knew when dinner time was, so we wouldn’t call. We need to apply the same boundaries with smartphones,’ says Graff. ‘Mention to friends – and suggest your partner does the same – that you don’t use your phones at dinner time. Then their expectations will be that if they contact you at that time, you’re unlikely to reply.’
Similarly, with work, it can be hard for people to switch off, so level with your tech zombie in a caring way by saying something like; ‘I know your work is full on, but I get frustrated because I look forward to spending quality time with you. Can we agree some parameters?’
Don’t just agree – act
Once you’ve decided your rules, put them into meaningful action – if your partner’s phone is in their pocket every buzz will distract, every ping will steal their focus. That’s because notifications activate the reward centres in our brains, encouraging the release of dopamine – a chemical that promotes repeat behaviour.
Research has shown that just hearing a text alert can divert our attention as much as reading it, so phones need to be silent and completely out of sight.
Your relationship, your rules
Two-thirds of us admit we’d prefer to spend more time with our partners and less on technology, but half of us check our phones when on the sofa together, one in four check our phones in bed and a fifth look at them mid-conversation.
When researchers asked people to think about how they responded when their partner last phubbed them, 19.4 per cent felt angry, and 11.1 per cent sad. Our partners aren’t there to make us feel sad or angry – certainly not regularly – so a discussion needs to be had.
‘It’s down to what’s acceptable in your relationship. If everyone’s doing it, that’s OK, but if one person is and the other is annoyed, it’s an issue,’ says Graff. ‘Work out what’s OK for you as a couple and agree it, just as you should all aspects of your relationship.’