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Am I on My Phone to Avoid Conflict With My Partner?

Making room for productive conflict in our relationships.

Key points

  • We have several distractions at our disposal that can make it easy to avoid conflict.
  • Avoidant behaviors can make things feel "smooth" but mask growing resentments or contempt.
  • Thinking not as individuals but as a unit or team can help to unstick deadlocks in relational conflicts.

We turn to our cell phones reflexively for a variety of reasons. We are bored standing in line, waiting for an appointment, or killing time. We also use them frequently in social settings to mitigate discomfort or merely avoid interacting with others.

Many clients have spoken about using their phones to manage social anxieties as well–to place their attention inward to the internet and distract themselves from a potentially awkward, energy-draining encounter.

Phones offer the mirage of control as well as psychological regulation. But does this temporary social relief do damage to our interpersonal relationships?

Social scientists and psychologists have argued about some of the negative impacts of phone overuse on everyday social actions such as conversation. Psychologist Sherry Turkle reported on users’ longing to learn how to have a conversation with another living being someday (but not now).

The problem is that disappearing into a device offers the illusion of control and agency while making eye contact and talking with others is fraught with the unpredictability of human behaviour and the risk of triggering or being “triggered.”

Nathan Fielder’s new HBO show, The Rehearsal, makes an art of this kind of social avoidance, going to ludicrous lengths to rehearse and plan social interactions to mitigate any negative consequences of social interaction.

Why Avoidance Isn’t Best

Many of us on the avoidant spectrum may use phones, devices, or newspapers to avoid potential conflict with our partners. Even seemingly positive activities like working out or being social can be coded ways to prevent the distress and discomfort of addressing a festering concern.

For those on this side of the attachment spectrum, this was most likely a learned behaviour, freezing or fleeing to help keep mom or dad’s anger or negative attention from reaching us as children.

However, seasoned therapists note that what is adaptive and functional as a child can be maladaptive and destructive later. In her book After the Affair, Janis Spring noted, “If you’re waiting for a less volatile time to speak up, forget it; time will not make your task any easier. Vent your concerns now, or cancer will grow.”

How to Manage Conflict Better

While many kinds of conflict can certainly inflict further damage in a relationship, doing conflict well is a skill all couples should have at their disposal. Ground rules–or don’ts–are helpful starting points for a couple. Gottman’s Four Horsemen–criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling–are a good place to start. Noticing how often these four elements come into play when we have conflict–and flagging them–can compel us into other alternative modes of communication.

But, we need more than just “don’ts” to look out for when we arrive at tough conversations because even these can be weaponized against your partner (“You’re always criticizing me, and that’s a red flag!”).

Terry Real’s new book, Us, brings a helpful reframing to our conflicts that can work towards proactive and not just reactive responses to tense conversations. He asks us to think of ourselves as a unit or team rather than two individuals. When we think this way (and it’s not easy), we can start to think in terms of what is best for the relationship and not just whether I (as an individual) am “right” or justified in my concerns.

There Is No Objective Reality in a Relationship

Real's key point is that there is no place for objective reality or truths–“Is Lucy overreacting, or is Stan neglecting her?” This type of thinking leads to objectivity battles and is a lose-lose.

Thinking as an “us” asks us to frame conflicts based on what is best for the relationship, as a third entity outside you and me. He asked whether it mattered more that you were right or that your partner felt better. This type of thinking is an important place to reach in a relationship. Still, it involves much unlearning, particularly in a culture that continually validates and celebrates the individual over the collective.

Three Ways to Be Less Avoidant With Your Partner

  1. Pay attention to the moment you look at your phone or a device when you are with your partner. What motivated that action? Boredom, irritation, annoyance? Learning to make reflexive and automatic responses more conscious can make us more intentional with our partner–“I’m feeling a little too tired to talk right now and just want to veg out for a bit.”
  2. Try to name or language your behaviours that help you regulate or manage–“I need to go to the gym because I had a stressful day and find it hard to be present right now.”
  3. Notice actions from your partner that seem avoidant–withdrawal, silence. Before you call them out, note how they make you feel–rejected or irritated. Find curious language to invite a conversation: “I notice you’re scrolling through Instagram a lot today, is something up?”

References

Terry Real, Us. New York: Goop press, 2022.

Janis Spring. After the Affair. New York: Harper, 2020.

Sherry Turkle, Alone Together. New York: Basic Books, 2011.

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