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Is ‘phubbing’ ruining your relationship?

 (ES composite / image by gopointstudio on Freepik)
(ES composite / image by gopointstudio on Freepik)

It starts off innocently enough: a five-minute check up on work emails here, a ‘quick’ Instagram scroll there. At some point down the line this impulsive pattern becomes second nature. Leading one to double screen intermittently throughout a film whilst on the sofa with a significant other, say, or have an iPhone duly propped on the dinner table (pouncing on it when the pull of a notification illuminates your screen, even if it’s nothing more than the calendar app announcing the forthcoming anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne).

Sure, these acts may seem small, perhaps even a hallmark of reaching the ‘comfort zone’ in a relationship but, according to scientists, snubbing others in favour of our phones is just one mighty step to romantic ruin.

New research, led by Niğde Ömer Halisdemir University in Turkey, determined that “phubbing behaviours (the practice of ignoring a companion in order to pay attention to one’s phone) of married individuals predicted marital satisfaction negatively and significantly”.

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“Basically, phubbing is neglect,” as behavioral psychologist Jo Hemmings tweeted. “Implying that someone/something else is more important than your partner.” It seems a fairly obvious point but one that so many couples, consciously or unconsciously, consistently ignore. How many of us regularly sit up in bed, chin on chest, bathing in the glow of screen light as we gormlessly look at a steady stream of viral dog videos on TikTok or curate Pinterest boards?

Scientists found that phubbing – the act of snubbing others in favour of our phone – can cost us our partners (Wayhomestudio on freepik)
Scientists found that phubbing – the act of snubbing others in favour of our phone – can cost us our partners (Wayhomestudio on freepik)

Sometimes in the evening we’re at home hunched over our screens in silence, where once we’d have been talking

Deep down, we know none of this is neither sexy nor cute. And yet, some 74 percent of Britons keep their phone in their bedroom at night. UK adults spend on average eight hours and 41 minutes a day on their phones. And far from wanting a break, we want more; so much so, we want it more than chatting to our partners.

“It’s so depressing,” says Kate*, 38, admitting that she is rarely away from her iPhone and that she and her husband argue about their respective phone use. “He says I’m addicted, which I totally am, but he is too. Sometimes in the evening we’re at home hunched over our screens in silence, where once we’d have been talking, it’s actually just really sad.”

This is a familiar story for Hilda Burke, psychotherapist, couples counsellor and author of The Phone Addiction Workbook. “I’m seeing this a lot, a real deficit of attention is a common complaint and the phone is often involved,” she says of her clients. Burke explains how our attention exists in two forms: executive or alarming. “Executive is say, sharing this information with you, but if an alarm went off my brain would prioritise that – that is in our DNA,” she explains. “Our brain will prioritise an alarm or a crying baby. Our survival depends on it.”

UK adults spend on average eight hours and 41 minutes a day on their phones (Unsplash)
UK adults spend on average eight hours and 41 minutes a day on their phones (Unsplash)

“Our brains are prioritising ‘alarms,’” she continues. “Like a phone pinging, a news alert popping up… our brain goes into alarm mode even if something is not important and our survival does not depend on it.”

Our needy smartphone attachment style is, of course, understandable. Getting distracted from our phones is completely normal, increasingly relying on them for wallets, address books, photo albums, emails, maps, banking and more. And yet, put them down we must, at least during downtime at home or date nights out.

For one woman in her mid-30s, the tipping point came after seeing another couple in a restaurant, both scrolling their phones for the duration of their dinner together. She pledged with her husband to never be like them.

“We have no phones at any meal because meals are for talking. No phones in bed because bed is for sleep or sex” (Wayhomestudio on freepik)
“We have no phones at any meal because meals are for talking. No phones in bed because bed is for sleep or sex” (Wayhomestudio on freepik)

So, how to wean off digi-distractions when you’re with a loved one? “We have rules,” she says. “We have no phones at any meal because meals are for talking. No phones in bed because bed is for sleep or sex. If we are having a conversation at any time neither of us is allowed to say ‘hold on’ and attend to their phone.”

It’s in line with Burke’s advice. “It’s really important to practice putting our phone away when we’re with a loved one,” she says. “To put it on silent, switch it off, [or] put it out of sight.”

She points to research by the Nottingham Trent University and the University of Würzburg which found that the performance of participants who undertook a concentration task improved by 26 percent when their smartphones were out of the room completely, as opposed to in their pocket, their desk or in a drawer.

If this is all sounding too brutal, too hellish a practice day-to-day? You might well be a seasoned phubber, running the risk of one day being told to phub off, for real.

*Some names have been changed