Could Phubbing Be Secretly Ruining Your Relationship?

New research suggests this pernicious problem is wrecking emotional havoc.

Do you spend more quality time with your phone than you do with your partner? Are you compulsively checking for notifications and endlessly scrolling through your social media feeds while in the presence of your significant other?

If this sounds like you, you may be one of millions of people experiencing what is a relatively new psychological condition known as ‘phubbing’ that, according to influential new research, may be slowly eroding your relationship with your partner.

Phone addiction is a ‘thing.' Seriously

Phubbing is a portmanteau of ‘phone’ and ‘snubbing’ and occurs when conversation is interrupted by attention being given to a smart phone rather than the person you’re with. When it’s your loved one who bears the brunt of this compulsive action, it’s called phubbing - partner phone snubbing.

It’s a phenomenon directly resulting from the emergence of ‘phone addiction’ that, according to an extensive review of recent studies on the condition, is a problem tightly linked to unprecedented technological development over the past decade.

Unlike other forms of behavioural addiction such as gambling or gaming, in the same report it was noted that phone addiction seemingly affects young, extroverted women more than anyone else.

This isn’t surprising according to one of Australia’s foremost experts on relationships. “This is uncharted territory for us as a society,” says Julie Hart from The Hart Centre. “For younger people, technology of this kind has always been a part of their lives and they're so dependent on it.”

Julie says phone addiction, like all addictions, has a way of creeping up on you. “The line between addiction and non-addiction can be quite blurred because it's a graduated thing,” she says. “According to studies in US and UK, on average we check our phones every four to six minutes of our waking hours … that’s over 150 times a day.”

Julie believes tech companies like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter deliberately feed on our inherent psychological need for interaction and acceptance to manifest digital addiction and keep us coming back to them time and time again.

“You can be so seduced by the neurochemical hit of dopamine it provides, of constant connection at a safe distance … who else wants to reach me, the number of likes I’ve got, another funny story to read, the excitement of something new … that it can easily become what you do with your spare time,” she says.

“So it’s not much of a jump from that to also continuing to do so when you are with your partner, instead of using this time as an opportunity to connect with them.”

A relationship wake-up call

A recent study on how smart phone use impacts on romantic relationships has found that ‘phubbing’ decreases relationship satisfaction overall - especially for people who are already insecure in their relationships - and indirectly impacts depression. Of the 450 people surveyed in the high profile Baylor University study, more than 46 percent reported being ‘phubbed’ by their partner and 22 percent of relationships experienced conflict as a direct result.

“There are three important connection factors that will give us a sense of satisfaction in our relationships. The first one is accessibility, that you’re both open and listening to one another,” Julie says. “The second is responsiveness, as in you both empathise and try to understand how the other feels, as in 'get’ each other, and the third is engagement, so you're both making the time to be fully attentive to each other.

“Phubbing interferes with all three of these important factors so it’s no surprise to me that people are feeling less satisfied with their relationships because they're just not having quality time, and they're not feeling their partner 'gets' them or is there for them because there's always this constant distraction away.”

She says it’s a worrying trend that she’s been witnessing more and more over the last decade - particularly in the last five years. “I have more and more people, couples - one or both partners - coming to me and saying, ‘My partner is constantly on their device and there is no time for me, I feel so completely unimportant in their life’.”

Phubbing up the wrong way

Julie says phubbing may seem easier than focusing on your partner but it’s also far less satisfying. “Communicating on your smart phone is quite superficial interaction in comparison to spending time with your partner,” she says. “It can also be a way for some people to avoid confrontation or to deal with the difficulties of life or issues in a relationship.”

Phubbing seriously undermines the quality of your relationship by sending a strong, implicit message to your partner that he or she is not as important to you as your phone or the people you’re communicating with on it. “It suggests that there is never a time that you will put him or her ahead of everything else,” Julie says.

“It implies that 'you're not really that important to me, I will never put you first over other things and that there will never be a time when I choose you over my phone’.”

Julie says the ‘phubee’ needs to broach the issue with their partner before it gets completely out of hand. “Have a talk with your partner and tell them this is actually a thing - there's a name for it now and that phubbing does impact relationship satisfaction,” she says. “And tell them that while the occasional disruption doesn't matter, it’s this constant attention being taken away from spending any quality time that does matter and it’s making you unhappy.”

How to live phub-free

Julie says you can save your relationship by employing a few strict boundaries around smart phone use when you and your partner are together.

“Sit down together and set out some rules about phone-free time, where you basically put your phone away somewhere where you can't hear it, for a full hour every night while you and your partner spend some quality time together,” she says.

She suggests making the bedroom a completely phone-free environment and, if you have a family, to also ensure dinner time and time in the car is phone-free as well to increase opportunities for bonding and conversation.

“Most people would be amazed at what a dedicated hour a day of phone-free time can do for their relationship over time,” she says.

You know you're a phubber if...

-You have your phone out and close to you when you are with your partner, at all times

-You keep your conversations with your partner short because your attention is more focused on what is on your phone

-You break your attention from the conversation you are having with your partner to look at or respond to your phone

-You check your phone when there is a lull in the conversation

-If you are watching TV together, you look at your phone when there is an ad break

You take a call that is not urgent when you are having quality time with your partner.

Source: Julie Hart, The Hart Centre

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