Is Your Cell Phone Ruining Your Relationship?

Cell phones disrupt interactions with and accurate perceptions of your partner.

Posted Feb 28, 2019

HBRH/Shutterstock
Source: HBRH/Shutterstock

Easily and immediately reaching your partner using your cell phone is wonderful. You can call or text at any moment. But cell phones can also disrupt communication. How does this affect your ability to maintain and strengthen your romantic relationship?

In live, face-to-face interactions, we communicate using a variety of methods. Beyond words, we use tone of voice, facial expressions, gestures, and body language. We also carefully synchronize our interactions: moving together, sharing facial expressions, nodding in time, responding with verbal fillers. These synchronized interactions are the beautiful choreography of conversation — the dance of movement and response. When done well, these small interactions communicate our affiliation, that is, the affirmation of connection and love for our partner.

From time to time, we all rely on long-distance communication. We text, talk, or Skype when our loved ones are away. Some of us even maintain long-distance relationships in which most of the communication occurs via cell phones. But these interactions generally aren’t as satisfying as being with someone.

Perhaps cell phones aren’t as satisfying, because they disrupt communication, whether you text or call. You lose the facial expressions and gestures. Phones restrict the range of vocal communication. In a Skype conversation, good luck making any eye contact. And the timing is disrupted. The careful choreography of interaction is hard to maintain. Obviously, in texting, there are lag and gaps in turn taking. But even in cell phone conversations, the signal is frequently delayed, causing odd timing disruptions. Do these communication disruptions affect the health of relationships?

In a recent study, Sadikaj and Moskowitz (2018) investigated the differences between phone and in-person interactions. They recruited dozens of couples involved in long-term romantic relationships. The respondents tracked affiliative behaviors following phone and in-person interactions. They tracked interactions over the course of a few weeks. After both phone and in-person interactions, people rated how much they thought their partner displayed affiliative behaviors. They also recorded how many of those supportive behaviors they made during each interaction. What counted as affiliative behaviors? Positive affiliative behaviors included things like smiling and laughing, expressing affection, complimenting, and praising. None-affiliative examples were being sarcastic, ignoring comments, and not responding to questions.

Overall, Sadikaj and Moskowitz didn’t find differences in the amount of affiliative behavior for phone and in-person interactions. The couples were just as likely to be supportive over the phone as they were face to face. That’s good news. We continue to display our love over the cell phone. Nonetheless, there were important differences in how people perceived their partners.

Sadikaj and Moskowitz looked at two aspects of how people perceived their partners. First, they considered accuracy. Accuracy is do you get it right — do you correctly rate your partner as being more affiliative following conversations in which they reported displaying more affiliative behaviors? And do you rate your partner as less supportive when they actually are less supportive? People were less accurate following phone conversations than in-person interactions. Their partners may have been just as affiliative, but people had more difficulty correctly recognizing how supportive their partner was.

Second, Sadikaj and Moskowitz measured the similarity of partners. In this case, did people judge their partners’ level of affiliation as matching the level of affiliation they claimed to have displayed themselves? People were less similar during phone conversation than in-person ones.

In both cases, cell phones disrupted interaction. People tried. They were just as affiliative. But cell phones nonetheless disrupted the interaction. People were less accurate in judging how affiliative their partner was. People also experienced more difficulty matching being supportive in phone conversations. Cell phones just make it harder to be supportive and harder to achieve the romantic choreography of relationship maintenance.

So what’s going on? And how can you use your phone, but also save your relationship? Sadikaj and Moskowitz suggested that the loss of information makes tracking affiliation harder in cell phone conversations. Without the full vocal range and nonverbal behaviors, perceiving and understanding your partner is substantially more difficult. Your accuracy is decreased when you have less information. I suspect that the timing disruptions are also critical. So much of supportive relationship conversations depends on a moment to moment matching of affiliative responding. But the cell phones disrupt that timing by frequently delaying sending signals. This makes it hard to match the behaviors of your romantic partner.

I’ve written before about cell phones disrupting your time with your romantic partner (On a date with you and our cell phones). But I think this new line of research makes one thing completely clear: Maintaining a healthy relationship depends on spending time together. The phone can help when we’re apart. Supposedly absence makes the heart grow fonder. But we need time together. We need the romance of conversational choreography.

References

Sadikaj, G., & Moskowitz, D. S. (2018). I hear but don’t see you: Interacting over phone reduces the accuracy of perceiving affiliation in the other. Computers in Human Behavior, 89, 140-147.

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