Better Living With Technology

Navigating the profits and pitfalls of modern screen time

Rules for Romantic Relationships: Put That Phone Down!

Appropriate mobile phone use should be discussed in any romantic relationship

Are you spending time together, or together but apart?
Ed Yourdon on Flickr

Although technologies are supposed to make our lives easier, they often bring complications as well—especially in our romantic relationships.

One major issue for modern couples is something I call techno-incompatibility. When a couple is techno-incompatible, they have different values, perceptions, or behaviors about the appropriate use of communication technologies. For example, a couple may disagree on whether it is appropriate to call or text to discuss a relationship issue, or they may have different ideas about what is appropriate to share about the relationship on a social networking site like Facebook. Tension or conflict may arise because of these differences in use and expectations.

Why are modern technologies problematic?

As relationships develop, we share time in mutually enjoyable pursuits. Media use can be one of those shared hobbies. A stereotypical date consists of dinner and a movie. A common ritual for couples is to find televised programming that both enjoy watching. Other couples connect in virtual worlds, playing video games together. Mobile phones are typically individualized, however, with one phone number expected to reach one user. In comparison to traditional media, the experience of using one’s phone is more like reading—a solitary activity—than watching television, which can be a group activity.

Thus, using a mobile device in the presence of our partners is taking what may be shared activity time and diverting it, even in short spurts, to solitary activity. We are interrupting “our time” with “me time,” and for some, these interruptions are frequent and persistent. Based on the context of the relationship and the level of understanding in the relationship, these interruptions may be problematic.

Indeed, a common complaint for first dates is that the date used his or her phone throughout the date. Most people interpret it as a sign that their date is not interested or just plain rude because they are spending the shared time mentally, if not physically, elsewhere. Although checking your phone or sending a quick text might seem like a mindless activity and one that barely detracts from your conversation, you may be sending inadvertent nonverbal messages to your romantic partner: my time with you is not valuable/special/interesting enough for me to put “me time” on hold.

These problems aren’t just for the newly dating, however. Most couples do not have explicit conversations to establish relational rules about technology use. Partners may observe each other to test the boundaries of what is acceptable use. For example, let’s say Rob and Jenna go out for dinner at a restaurant. Rob notices that as they sit down, Jenna takes out her phone and leaves it on the table. Rob interprets this as a sign that texting, taking calls, or checking the internet in the middle of the meal is an acceptable behavior. He, too, places his phone out on the table. After they order, he gets a text from a friend and starts a text conversation. Rob then goes on Facebook to check out his friend’s recently uploaded pictures. In the meantime, Jenna sits alone, increasingly irritated that Rob is spending their night out talking to someone else. Unbeknownst to Rob, Jenna had only set her phone out in case there was an emergency at her workplace. Rob scrolls away, oblivious, until the food arrives. Jenna fumes for the remainder of the meal and gives Rob the silent treatment for the rest of the evening.

A simple conversation could have averted this dinner disaster.

Establishing Relational Rules

The most effective way to combat techno-incompatibility is to discuss the issue with your partner and establish mutually agreed-upon rules for using technologies. Whether you’re newly dating or securely entrenched in your relationship, here are some guidelines for helping to manage techno-incompatibility.

Discuss when it is acceptable to be on the phone in your partner’s presence. Make a list of your common shared activities: eating a meal at home, eating a meal out at a restaurant, in the car, watching TV on the couch, watching the kids, at an event, in bed in the morning and the evening. Do you find it acceptable to be on the phone at these times? Is it healthy or productive for your relationship if you are using the phone at that time? If you disagree, determine an acceptable compromise (e.g., if it’s work-related; if it’s a casual dinner but not a nice one; in bed in the morning but not before going to sleep).

Communicate your rules to others. If your mother has an annoying habit of continuing to call you until you pick up, make sure she is aware that you and your partner have agreed on interruption-free time. If your friends are the type who constantly text and expect instant responses, let them know that when you’re spending time with your partner, the chat will have to wait. The more others respect your “our time,” the fewer interruptions to manage in the first place.

Communicate special circumstances that may necessitate phone access. There are reasons you will not be able to free yourself from your device: you’re on call for work, your sister’s 8 and a half months pregnant, you left your kids with a sitter for the night. When these issues come up and you need an exception to the rule, let your partner know; don’t assume s/he always remembers your obligations. Note that this does not license you to use your phone; it licenses you to use your phone only for that purpose. Rather than checking every ring, beep, or flash, use technology to your advantage: assign a special ringtone to work or your sister or the sitter so that you can ignore the phone otherwise.

If you’re unhappy, let your partner know. There is no app for mindreading. If your partner’s phone use is bothering you, kindly ask them when they’ll be done or if they can put it aside. Don’t glare at them, get on your phone and silently retaliate, or make passive aggressive comments expecting them to interpret your wishes.

If your partner asks you to put your phone down, do it. Relational rules only work when both partners abide by them. Don’t sigh or huff or complain, and don’t say “just a sec” and continue texting for the next five minutes. Take it as a compliment: Your partner wants to spend quality time with you and you alone.

These tips should help you cope with device-based techno-incompatibility. Going forward, I will address other forms of techno-incompatibility that plague relationships—but put your phone down in the meantime.

Jesse Fox, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at The Ohio State University and director of the Virtual Environment, Communication Technology, and Online Research (VECTOR) Lab.


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