My fiancée, Meghan, and I used to cheat on each other all the time. When we were together, our eyes wandered. Couples around us were doing the same thing. Odds are, you’re also guilty. The other partner: that sexy, always-willing cellphone.
Just how widespread is this epidemic of technological indiscretion? Nearly seven out of
10 people between the ages of 18 and 34 can’t go longer than an hour without checking their phones. And in many cases they’re sneaking that peek while they’re with other people, according to a 2012 survey by mobile device security company Lookout.
Meghan and I were part of the problem.
I’d check in to our favourite bar on Foursquare and use Untappd to rate the beer I bought – all before sliding into a booth to talk with her. She didn’t care. She was too busy on Facebook or tweeting to her 1 000 followers.
It went on like this for a while. Then one night, while we were on holiday, Meghan tripped over a step while SMSing and injured her knee. I had to resist the urge to tweet what happened before helping her up. That’s when we realised we might have a problem.
So we gave ourselves a challenge: could we, as a couple, untether ourselves from our phones for a month? No checking them in the presence of each other. No using them to communicate with each other in the same building. Rubbing her knee, Meghan agreed.
I contacted Professor Katherine Hertlein, who researches sexuality and technology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Hertlein is the co-author of The Couple and Family Technology Framework: Intimate Relationships in a Digital Age, a book that helps marriage therapists deal with tech-related problems.
“Smartphone compulsion is a learned behaviour and the more you reinforce that behaviour, the more likely it is to become an obsession,” Hertlein says. “The good news is that reversing the compulsion is also a learned behaviour. It’s about using the smartphone in a smart way.”
So start by hanging up on these five blunders. You might just find your relationship fully recharged.
You Carry it Everywhere
Here’s a wake-up call: couples who converse while carrying smartphones – even if they’re not using them – report feeling less empathy from their partner and experience a lower-quality relationship overall, a 2012 British study found. The couples also said the phones diminished closeness and trust. One reason may be that these devices act like megaphones to broader conversational audiences. Figuratively, we’re never alone.
At home, Meghan and I changed by stashing our phones in an adjacent room and only answering calls. Over time, it had a curious effect: we made eye contact more often and actually listened. Conversations were deeper, less scattered. It really was that simple. “If you struggle with compulsion, put the phone out of sight,” Hertlein says. Obvious, right? But do you do it?
You Text Too Much
Try this quick test: pull up your call log to find out the last time you phoned your partner. Then count the SMSes, BBMs or WhatsApp messages you’ve sent her since that call. Now, how many did you mistype or did she misread?
“Because of the abbreviated nature of SMSes, couples often misinterpret what isn’t sent rather than what is,” Hertlein says. A short text can come off as curt. A delayed one can set off a worry alarm. Try this solution: when you two are in different locations but need to resolve something – plans for the weekend, an upcoming trip, that little spat you had last night – don’t do it via SMS. Instead, write her an email. “Composing an email requires you to slow down and self-edit, which can help eliminate confusion,” Hertlein says. It also encourages both of you to work towards a solution because the medium is more collaborative than texting, she says. Still jumping to conclusions? Then it’s time to pick up the phone or schedule a talk.
You’re Too Connected
I follow Meghan on Twitter, and I’ve sometimes had to feign surprise when she tells me things about her day that I’ve seen online. The tweets spoil the satisfaction I feel from hearing a good story.
Reading her tweets or texting love notes to her is fine, but communication is never as strong as when it happens face-to-face, says Hertlein. I was skeptical, but after self-imposing a block on Meghan’s tweets, I found myself asking better questions and enjoying her tales even more.
This tendency to check in on your partner may stem from a highly complex impulse. “Sometimes we miss our partner and just want a connection without necessarily communicating with him or her,” says Professor Jesse Fox, an assistant professor at Ohio State University who studies romantic attachment and social media. But following Meghan so closely left me unfulfilled. In fact, I found that reading her tweets came at the expense of greater intimacy later on. If I wanted to feel satisfied, I’d need to wait for the version of her day that exceeded 140 characters.
You Find it Comforting
Meghan often looks to her phone in times of frustration or worry. She suspended our challenge just once – after running a marathon. “I want to tell people how I did. I’m in pain. Screw the rules,” she said. As we drove home, she checked the weather during a torrential downpour. She wanted to make sure we weren’t driving into a heavy storm, but given that we were barely moving, it wouldn’t have made much of a difference.
“People think that by checking their phones they can gain control over a compromised situation,” Hertlein says. What’s really happening, she says, is an attempt to find psychological comfort in a scenario that’s physically difficult to control. By turning inward, we avoid what’s outside.
On the way to the marathon, something just as harrowing as the storm occurred: on the highway, a car flew past me in the right lane just as I was trying to move into it. I didn’t see it, but Meghan did. “Whoa!” she said – and I narrowly missed having an accident. A quiet minute passed. “If I’d been looking at my phone,” she said, “we could have both been dead.”
You Lose Track of Time
Sometimes I can’t tell whether Meghan just took a nap or just used her phone. She’ll come find me, bleary-eyed, and ask, “Has it really been 15 minutes?” Call it the smartphone time warp: what starts as a “quick check” of Facebook turns into big chunks of missing time. How does this happen?
“Because smartphone tasks are so quick – a minute on Twitter here, a 30-second text there – your brain doesn’t register them as time spent,” Hertlein says. These micro-accomplishments intensify the urge to check your smartphone.
And you never know what you might miss. During our little experiment, Meghan and I attended a wedding. People were intrigued by our project –until the bride mentioned that the wedding had a hashtag. As everyone returned to their phones, we said, “The hell with it.” We got drinks at the bar, made faces in the photo booth, requested songs. Later, some of our tablemates were still busy composing updates. While we were living, I thought, they were living in their phones. It had the ring of a good tweet. But instead of reaching for my phone, I grabbed Meghan’s hand. We were needed on the dance floor.