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Do you feel neglected when your partner is on their phone? Does your time together get disrupted by texts, emails, or games? Has technology intruded on your romantic relationship?

You're hardly alone.

A new study from Brigham Young University examined how technology interferes with relationships. The researchers concluded that "technoference” can be damaging not just to a relationship but to your psychological health as well.

While the big 3 disputes for couples' arguments used to be sex, money, and kids, it seems smartphones are rapidly rising up that list. 

The study included 143 married or cohabiting women, the majority of whom reported that phones, computers and other technology devices were significantly disruptive in their relationships, couplehood and family lives. Specifically, higher levels of technoference were associated with greater relationship conflict and lower relationship satisfaction. Further, it seems greater levels of smartphone and other relationship technoference makes people more depressed and lowers their overall life satisfaction.

While few would be surprised to discover technology can be a source of annoyance and conflict for couples, this study is one of the first to report that a person’s engagement with technology can actually make their partner depressed.

Why does a person’s phone use (as a primary culprit of technoference) have such an impact on the mental health of their partner? After all, cars are also sources of conflict as many couples tend to become tense and argue when driving (about directions, speeding, music choice, etc…) but they generally don’t lead to the person in the passenger seat getting depressed.

What is it about phones?

The answer? When your partner attends to a phone instead of to you, it feels like rejection—it hurts. Feeling ignored when your partner is on their phone can feel as bad as being shunned.

When a conversation, meal, or romantic moment is disrupted because of a text, email, or any other task, the message is, “What I’m doing on my phone is more important than you right now,” or, “I’m more interested in my phone than in you,” or, in some cases, “you’re not worthy of my attention.”

It is because the other person is likely to experience such moments as rejections that technoference can literally impact their psychological health. Rejections, even small ones, tend to be extremely painful, as your brain responds the same way it does to physical pain. Even mini-rejections, such as a partner turning to the phone in the middle of a conversation, can elicit the common reactions rejections cause—hurt feelings, a drop in mood and self-esteem, and a surge of anger and resentment. Over time, these small wounds can fester and increase conflict, lower relationship satisfaction, and lead to a drop in life satisfaction and an increase in symptoms of depression.

5 Tips for Resolving Technoference Conflicts

If you think technoference might be causing problems in your relationship, consider working with your partner to address the issue through these 5 steps:

  1. Assess the extent of the problem. Once you and your partner become more mindful of the issue you will be able to assess together whether and to what extent screen usage is actually disruptive to your interactions and your time together (as opposed to when it is non-conflictual, not disruptive, essential, or mutual).
  2. Acknowledge usage that is valid. Technology is often a necessary or unavoidable part of someone’s job or responsibilities (like a physician on call). It is therefore important to recognize the demands of jobs, social or parenting obligations, or other situations that necessitate screen time.
  3. Agree on fair expectations. Discuss with your partner ways you can find a better balance between being responsive to obligations and demands and minimizing intrusions into your relationship or your family life.
  4. Create technology free zones. Try to agree on places (like the bedroom) and times (mealtimes or after 9:30 PM) that you can both set your phones or tablets aside to spend time together without having to worry about technoference.
  5. Define exceptions and resolve future hurdles. Make sure to cover potential exceptions or future problems that might arise (like a crucial forgotten work task) and how best you could handle them without interrupting whatever you are doing together in that moment (like making a note to remind yourself to do it later).

It is important to keep in mind that not all screen time is bad (you are reading this on a screen after all). For example, watching my TED Talk can help you and your partner improve your psychological health—and it will also give you much to discuss.

For scientifically proven ways to heal from rejection and improve self-esteem, check out Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure and Other Everyday Hurts (Plume, 2014).

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Copyright 2014 Guy Winch

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