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Cellphones have become ubiquitous, in part because they are a great way to keep in touch with others. But they’ve also turned into a source of strain in our relationships.

A common complaint among relationships partners is that they’re being ignored by a partner who can’t tear themselves away from their cellphone. We often shake our heads in disapproval when we’re dining out and see a couple at the next table more interested in their phones than each other. The term phubbing (for phone snubbing) has been used to describe the act of interrupting or ignoring an in-person conversation in order to attend to one’s phone, and several studies have shown that phubbing is a fairly common behavior among couples.1,2 There is good reason to believe that cellphone interruptions could make partners feel disconnected and less present in interactions with one another.

Recently, James Roberts and Meredith David at Baylor University designed a scale to measure how often people phub their romantic partners, in the process coining the term Pphubbing (“partner phubbing”).3 The scale asks people to rate how much they agree with nine statements, including “My partner keeps his or her cellphone in their hand when he or she is with me” and “My partner glances at his/her cellphone when talking to me.”  

In one study, 308 adults completed an online survey containing the Pphubbing scale, as well as measures of cellphone-related conflict and relationship satisfaction. In a second study, 145 adults completed the same measures, plus a measure of attachment anxiety. Two elements underlie romantic attachmentabandonment anxiety (fears that your partner doesn’t love you and will leave you) and intimacy avoidance (avoiding closeness with others). These represent two different elements of insecure attachment that may or may not co-exist in the same person. Both of these factors were measured by the researchers, but abandonment anxiety was the trait the researchers expected to play a role in reactions to Pphubbing.

In both studies, high levels of Pphubbing were associated with less satisfying relationships and more cellphone-related conflict with partners. In addition, the relationship between satisfaction and Pphubbing was partially explained by an increased level of conflict. This suggests that Pphubbing may lead to less satisfying relationships, in part, because it creates conflict. In the second study, it was also found that this effect was even greater for those high in abandonment anxiety. So Pphubbing may be especially problematic for those already insecure about their relationships.

Of course, this study is correlational, so cause and effect cannot be determined: Does Pphubbing lead to declines in relationship satisfaction, or do already unhappy partners ignore each other in favor of their cellphones? Both explanations are plausible.

There are several reasons why dissatisfied individuals may turn to their phones rather than their partners. Perhaps we are more likely to phub partners who are getting on our nerves or boring us, finding our phones more entertaining or calming. Or maybe it goes deeper than that. If we’re interacting with a partner who doesn’t meet our emotional needs, we may seek to have those needs met elsewhere, by interactions on our phone. Alternatively, if we generally find interactions with our partners to be unsatisfying, we’re less invested in those interactions, and thus less willing to give them our full attention. So being in a bad relationship to start with may increase the desire to Pphub.

It is also possible that phubbing itself damages your relationship. As evidenced by these studies, phubbing can create opportunities for conflict. Phubbers could be hurting their relationships because the habit makes them less present during interactions with their partners. In fact, other research has found that just having a cell phone in the room—not in use—during a conversation makes the interaction less intimate, especially if the topic of conversation was something meaningful, not casual.4

The effects of being phubbed by one’s partner were not examined in this research, but it’s easy to imagine that being phubbed could create resentment and cause the phub-ee to feel ignored. And if the behavior continues, the object of the phubbing may feel that their partner is uninterested and cares about their Twitter feed more than their relationship. Thus, there may be additional negative impacts of phubbing, beyond those examined by the researchers.

It is likely the case that Pphubbing is both a cause and a consequence of unsatisfying relationships. The next time you catch yourself glancing at your phone when you’re with your partner, ask yourself why: Are you bored or angry with your partner? If so, you should figure out why you’re feeling that way, and work on improving the relationship and your communication with your partner—or consider ending it if things are really going poorly. Or are you just being carelessly distracted by the beeping, flashing urgency of the phone? If that’s the case, you should keep it out of sight and focus on your partner. He or she probably needs your attention more than whoever just posted a status update.

Gwendolyn Seidman, Ph.D. is an associate professor of psychology at Albright College who studies relationships and cyberpsychology. Follow her on Twitter for updates about social psychology, relationships, and online behavior. Read more articles by Dr. Seidman on Close Encounters.

References

1 Coyne, S. M., Stockdale, L. Busby, D., Iverson, B., & Grant, D. M. (2011). I luv u :): A descriptive study of the media use of individuals in romantic relationships. Family Relations, 60, 150–162. doi: 10.1111/j.1741-3729.2010.00639.x

2 McDaniel, B. T., & Coyne, S. M. (2014). Technoference: The interference of technology in couple relationships and implications for women's personal and relational well-being. Psychology of Popular Media Culture. doi: 10.1037/ppm0000065

3 Roberts, J. A., & David, M. E. (2016). My life has become a major distraction from my cell phone: Partner phubbing and relationship satisfaction among romantic partners. Computers in Human Behavior, 54, 134-141. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2015.07.058

4 Przybylski, A. K., & Weinstein, N. (2012). Can you connect with me now? How the presence of mobile communication technology influences face-to-face conversation quality. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 30, 237-246. doi: 10.1177/0265407512453827

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