Attachment, Couples, Couples Therapy

Mistress, Thy Name is Smartphone

cell-phone-ignoreHere’s a scenario I have seen play out in therapy with several iterations: I was carefully listening to a client in a marital  session when her partner suddenly picked up his phone.  My eyes widened at him as if to communicate, “Great—that just set you back at least an entire therapy session—that’s going to cost you.”  Predictably, his spouse stopped mid-sentence and expressed annoyance that he could not keep from looking at his phone even in a therapy session in which they were discussing their disconnection.  Just as predictably, he defended his logical reason for picking up his phone at just that moment, triggering an eye-rolling sigh from his wife.

Big disconnection.  In a moment when the couple is working on connecting.

Smartphones can be so paradoxical when it comes to romantic relationships.  They are a primary means of communication, both initiating and maintaining connections.  At the same time, they generate couple conflict at key moments when a partner feels replaced by something seemingly more appealing.


The behavior is so common it has even earned a unique term which was recently introduced into the common vernacular:  Phubbing—a portmanteau of the words, “phone,” and “snubbing.”  Taken a step further, “partner phubbing,” is referred to as “P-phubbing,” or “Pphubbing,” which I cannot mentally rehearse with a straight face, because it sounds too much like wannabe gangster talk.

Nevertheless, ignoring one’s romantic partner with a smartphone has become seemingly normative in modern culture, but is doing nothing for strengthening relationship quality.

Competing Attachments

Cell phones are too often a competing attachment in a relationship.  A competing attachment is exactly what it sounds like—something that competes with a relationship partner for time, attention, and energy.  All relationships have some competing attachments.  The obvious ones are children, careers, extended family and other responsibilities.

Most couples can name specific competing attachments in their marriages.  In mine, I used to call it the “3 B’s of Bromance,” or “BBBBromance,” alluding to the activities my husband frequently planned with his buddies:  basketball, bicycling, and boating.  Then, he got his BlackBerry and it became the “4 B’s,” because it takes time to schedule all those appointments with your bros.  That increased his bathroom time, which became the “5th B,” (Oh stop it—you all know exactly what I’m talking about and you’ve all done it).  There were times I wanted to smash his BlackBerry with a hammer. Then, cell phones became little computers, “smartphones,” decimating my alliterative list and romantic relationship quality simultaneously.

I’d complain except I’m (almost) as bad as my husband.  It’s true.  He can be in the middle of a sentence, and if I feel my phone vibrate, I will mindlessly pick it up—or “Phub,” him (snicker).  In fact, after I read him this post and asked if it made sense, he replied, “Yep–because you’re a phlippin’ phubber.”

Phubbing Infidelity

Say that ten times fast.  In more damaging circumstances, mobile devices can be used not only to ignore a partner, but to perpetuate connection with someone else while doing so.  I’ve been preaching and preaching and preaching about the dangers of developing traitorous relationships with phones, but despite my efforts, it looks like I will have a steady stream of clients healing from smartphone-assisted affairs.  It’s not even infrequent that couples will be in bed together while one is texting an affair partner.  Sometimes, they both are.

Universal Attachment Desires

EVERYONE wants to feel important and loved in their marriage.  Both males and females tell me over and over that what is distressing is that they feel like they “don’t ever come first,” in their relationships.  I’ve never had a client say, “I’m just so frustrated that I’m his priority—I really just wish his career or golfing came before I do.”

Put the #$%@*! Phone Down!

As a marriage maintenance strategy, do this:  Ask your partner if he or she feels “Pphubbed,” (giggle—I can’t help it).  If the answer is yes, create a plan to be more attentive.  The plan is easy to execute.  Its name is:  PUT YOUR PHONE ON SILENT AND PLACE IT OUT OF ARM’S REACH FOR A DEFINED AMOUNT OF TIME. 

Take a deep breath and back away from your phone slowly.  I promise that you will survive without looking at your smartphone for an hour—or 24 (gasp).

Or you can do what I did—Last week, my husband and I were on a date when I announced, “Honey, look at your phone—I found a new way for us to ignore each other at dinner—while connecting at the same time.”  I had sent him an invitation to play a mini-billiards game through texting.  My announcement was tongue-in-cheek—neither of us is a gamer.  However, I was alerting him to the fact that we should probably put our cell phones away and pay attention to each other.  There was no need to be defensive because we both know we are at fault at times.

We put the phones away.  We survived.  Relationship preserved.

I’m not in any way affiliated, but it looks like you can join an anti-phubbing crusade.  You can vote for or against Phubbing (but only on your laptop–if you visit the site on your smartphone, you won’t like the message you receive).  It might get your partner’s attention—but only if you alert him or her through his/her smartphone. Sigh.  Sometimes I really want to return to the 80’s.


Mobile Phones in Romantic Relationships and the Dialectic of Autonomy Versus Connection, by Robert L. Duran, Lynne Kelly, & Teodora Rotaru, in Communication Quarterly, 59(1), 2011, 19-36.

The Effects of Cell Phone Usage Rules on Satisfaction in Romantic Relationships by Aimee E. Miller-Ott, Lynne Kelly, & Robert L. Duran, in Communication Quarterly, 60(1), 2012, 17-34.

My Life has Become a Major Distraction from my Cell Phone: Partner Phubbing and Relationship Satisfaction Among Romantic Partners, by James A. Roberts and Meredith E. David, in Computers in Human Behavior, 54(2016), 134-141.

Photo credit: Copyright: konstantynov / 123RF Stock Photo


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s