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It’s been a long, terrible day. As you recount your struggles, you suddenly notice your partner is furiously typing on his phone. Your anger boils (you’ve forgotten that you did the same thing to him just yesterday). It’s time to step away from the smartphone, put down the tablet, shut the laptop and turn off the TV. A slew of recent research suggests that if people want happy relationships, they need to stop clinging to technology.
“I was surprised about the amount of people saying that this happens in their relationship every day,” says Sarah Coyne, an associate professor in the department of family life at Brigham Young University. “You are sitting there and kind of bored and check Facebook … it is almost our default to turn to our phones.”
In a new study, Coyne asked 143 married or cohabitating women to answer questions about technology use and relationships. She wanted to understand how technology encroaches on our lives and relationships, what she calls “technoference.” The vast majority of respondents, 70 percent, said using a cell phone interrupted interactions between them and their partners sometimes, often, very often or all the time. Even more, 74 percent, said that computers sometimes, often, very often or all the time disturbed their interactions with partners.
The women who reported technoference also said they fought more with their partners, which made them feel badly about their relationships. On top of this, they felt more depressed and less satisfied with life.
“What I think the most important finding is, the more you let the technology interfere, the more conflict you have with your spouse or partner and that leads to not feeling great about the relationship,” she says.
Still there’s other research showing that cell phone dependence can be unhealthy.
“Cell phone attachment is positively related to an increase in stress and anxiety and even depression,” says James A. Roberts, a professor of marketing at Baylor University Hankamer School of Business.
In a 2012 paper, Roberts coined the word “phub,” a mash-up of phone and snub. Phubbing occurs when someone chooses to play with an app, text or take a phone call instead of paying attention to a person.
“Essentially, what we are saying is that you don’t matter,” he says. “It touches at our core.”
Part of the problem is that cell phones are ubiquitous – and fitting into society means having one. “We have a social entourage and posse. The more calls we get and the more we are on the phone, we clearly must be more important,” he says.
But in a relationship this can be damaging: “It really devalues our loved ones.”
While technology can create a rift in a relationship, it can also bring couples together. A study published in the International Journal of Neuropsychotherapy finds that when couples watch TV together they felt closer. Using a laptop was the fastest way to push couples apart.
“If we are sitting down and both watching TV together … that can be beneficial,” says Coyne.
Even cell phones can be positive. In a 2011 study, Coyne found that when couples text each other nice messages, the relationship flourished. When they texted about controversial topics, the relationship suffered. The solution?
“When you are face to face, just talk,” says Coyne.
Coyne suggests that if you notice your partner relying too heavily on technology, say something like, “Hey I’ve been so busy texting that I haven’t talked to you.”
Roberts believes that carving out cell phone-free time, like at meals, can reduce the strain on relationships. And, when people have to use their phones, politely apologizing can prevent hurt feelings.
“You may see it’s actually freeing,” he says.