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Cell Phones, Texting, and Relationship Distress

“Phubbing” and “technoference”: uncommon names for a common issue.

Source: nd3000/Shutterstock

My previous post described burgeoning research on the impact of cell phones on romantic relationships. Much of this research examines phone use by adolescents; but this post will address the meager but growing body of research on adults and young adults. To begin, Coyne et al. (2011) assessed men and women who were married, engaged, or involved in “serious dating” to determine how often different media — cell phones, texting, instant messaging, and social networking sites — were used within relationships, as well as their association with relationship satisfaction. They found that romantic partners most frequently used cell phones and texting, and that the most common reason for their use was to express affection throughout the day.

The authors concluded that individuals who were more satisfied with their relationships were more likely to use such media to communicate affection.[i] As we will soon see, however, not all studies found such benign results.

In contrast to the majority of the research on cell phones and relationships, which typically involve interviews and surveys, Pryzbylski and Weinstein (2012) used an experimental design. Their results give us all reason to reconsider the seemingly innocuous effect of mobile phones. In the study, participants were assigned to one of two conditions. In the phone present condition, pairings were asked to spend 10 minutes conversing on the topic of "an interesting event that occurred to you over the past month,” while a mobile phone rested on a book placed on a nearby desk outside of the participants’ direct visual field. In the phone absent condition, a pocket notebook replaced the phone. The researchers found that the mere presence of a cell phone interfered with human relationship formation, even when participants were not consciously aware of its presence, and individuals felt less empathy and understanding from their partners when a phone was present.[ii]

A 2014 Pew Research Report found that 25 percent of individuals in a marriage or romantic partnership stated that a cell phone distracted their spouse or partner when they were together. Cell phone distraction was especially common among younger couples — some 42 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds in marriages or serious relationships experienced this issue.[iii]

Similarly, Roberts and David (2016) investigated partner "phubbing” (phone snubbing). This occurs when a person uses a cell phone in the company of a romantic partner, leading to interruptions in an ongoing conversation or outright ignoring the person to focus on the phone. Two sample items from their Partner Phubbing Scale are:

  • During a typical mealtime that my partner and I spend together, my partner pulls out and checks his or her cell phone.
  • When my partner's cell phone rings or beeps, he or she pulls it out, even if we are in the middle of a conversation.

The authors concluded that partner phubbing creates conflict over the use of one's cell phone, which negatively impacts relationship satisfaction.[iv]

McDaniel and Coyne (2016) described “technoference,” or common technological intrusions or interruptions to a couple’s interactions or time together. The researchers used the Technology Interference in Life Examples Scale in their battery of tests. A sample item is:

  • My partner sends texts or emails to others during our face-to-face conversations.

The authors concluded that 70 percent of participants experienced technoference, and that this led to conflict and lower relationship satisfaction.[v]

In sum, several recent studies find an association between relationship satisfaction and cell phone use. Researchers are now investigating mediating and moderating factors that impact cell phone use and relationship satisfaction. That will be the focus of the next posting.


[i] Sarah M. Coyne, Laura Stockdale, Dean Busby, Bethany Iverson, and David M. Grant, "“I luv u:)!”: A Descriptive Study of the Media Use of Individuals in Romantic Relationships," Family Relations 60, no. 2 (2011): 150-162.

[ii] Andrew K. Przybylski and Netta Weinstein, "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, no. 3 (2013): 237-246.

[iii] Pew Research Center, Couples, the Internet, and Social Media (Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, 2014).

[iv] James A. Roberts and Meredith E. David, "My Life has Become a Major Distraction from my Cell Phone: Partner Phubbing and Relationship Satisfaction among Romantic Partners," Computers in Human Behavior 54 (2016): 134-141.

[v] Brandon T. McDaniel and Sarah M. Coyne, "“Technoference”: The Interference of Technology in Couple Relationships and Implications for Women’s Personal and Relational Well-Being," Psychology of Popular Media Culture 5, no. 1 (2016): 85-98.

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