Joanne Davila Ph.D.

Skills for Healthy Relationships

The Problem of Phubbing

Do you have to give up your cell phone to have a healthy relationship?

Posted Oct 08, 2015

By Joanne Davila and Kaycee Lashman

A recent study has shown that people who attend to their cell phones in the presence of their partner – or do what researchers call “Pphubbing” i.e., phone snubbing their partner – are less satisfied in their relationships and report more symptoms of depression (Roberts & David, 2016). Why? Presumably because the partner feels like a low priority and this leads to conflict.

So, what should you do if you’re being phubbed? Or if you’re the phubber? The obvious answer is to stop the behavior, but it’s not so easy.

People do all sorts of things that can result in their partners feeling like they’re not cared about, not listened to, not prioritized. When this happen, people feel insecure, couples fight, intimacy is eroded, they no longer feel valued or respected.  All the things that make for a healthy relationship get compromised.

So why can’t people just stop the phubbing? Why can’t people treat their partners in ways that foster intimacy, security, respect, good communication, and feeling valued?

Because they don’t know how. That may sound obvious, but it’s true. People know what a healthy relationship looks like, but most people don’t know how to create one. They don’t know how, on a day-to-day basis, to enact the things that lead to healthy relationships and reduce the behaviors that lead to unhealthy ones.

This is a problem.

We’ve identified three skills – Insight, Mutuality, and Emotion regulation – based on a thorough review of theory and research on healthy relationship processes, and we’ve shown that these skills are associated with healthy relationship functioning in the form of greater relationship satisfaction, a greater sense of security in relationships, healthier relationship decision making, and fewer symptoms of depression (Davila et al., 2009, 2015, 2016).

Insight is about awareness and understanding and learning. Mutuality is about recognizing that both people have needs and both are important. Emotion regulation is about regulating your feelings in response to things that happen in your relationship life.

We’ve proposed that it’s the interplay of these three skills – the ability for people to use them all – that allows people to make healthy decisions, to create the components of a healthy relationship, and to reduce behaviors that lead to relationship problems.

We think that if people can use the skills in their relationships, they can stop the phubbing – or whatever other behavior it is that is creating problems in their relationship.

Here’s how the skills could work together to help reduce phubbing and its negative consequences.

If you’re the phubber, you would want to develop insight into yourself. For example, why do you need to be looking at your phone so much? What are you getting from it? What function does it serve for you? In her article on salon.com titled “My iPhone is running my life: I’m guilty of ‘phubbing’ my partner” Rachel Kramer Bussel showed a lot of insight when she realized that checking her phone allows her to feel connected to people and that not doing so feels like she’s missing out on life. But insight into herself alone is not enough.

It’s also important to develop insight into your partner by becoming aware of your partners needs and how your phubbing might compromise those needs. And it’s extremely important to take a mutual approach by taking your partner’s perspective and seeing what that might feel like. How would it feel if you were the one being phubbed? Or, better yet, how would it feel if your partner was doing something that resulted in you feeling insecure and not valued?

On the flip side, it’s important that Ms. Kramer Bussel’s partner develop insight into her by finding out what her cell phone use means to her, as well as insight into himself. What does her cell phone use mean to him, what are his assumptions about it, what buttons does it push for him?

If you and your partner are aware of and care about each other’s needs, then you can work together to come up with a solution that respects both of you. And you’d need to do all of this while regulating your emotions – keeping calm, thinking about your choices, not saying or doing impulsive or hurtful things. For instance, once Ms. Kramer Bussel can really empathize with her partner’s needs and feelings (which her article shows she’s starting to do), and once he can do so with her – it’s got to feel pretty bad to be so disconnected from her friends – perhaps he’ll better understand her phone checking and not be so upset by it, and perhaps she’ll check less because she won’t want to hurt him, and perhaps they’ll come to a mutual compromise in which she won’t have to give up her cell phone. If they can do this, checking her phone won’t be phubbing anymore. It will just be checking her phone, and it might not be so bad.

To be in a healthy relationship, you must be aware of your own and your partner’s needs and those needs must be getting met satisfactorily. If you both use the skills, you have a chance to better meet your partner’s needs, reduce the conflict and maybe even create greater respect and intimacy and a sense of being valued – all the things that make for a healthy relationship. And the skills are not just for phubbing. They’re for any behavior or problem. They’re the way to create a healthy relationship.

Davila, J., Latack, J., Bhatia, V., & Feinstein, B. A. (March, 2015). Romantic Competence among Female Emerging Adults: Construct Validity and Associations with Relationship Behaviors and Individual Difference Variables. Paper presented at the Biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, Philadelphia, PA.

Davila, J., Mattanah, J., Bhatia, V., Latack, J. A., Feinstein, B. A., Eaton, N. R., Daks, J.m Kumar, S., Lomash, E., McCormick, M., & Zhou, J. (2016). Romantic Competence and Healthy Relationship Functioning in Emerging Adults. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Davila, J., Steinberg, S. J., Ramsay, M., Stroud, C. B., Starr, L., & Yoneda, A. (2009). Assessing romantic competence in adolescence: The Romantic Competence Interview. Journal of Adolescence, 32, 55-75.

Kramer Bussel, R. (2015). My iPhone is ruining my life: I’m guilty of phubbing my partner and I can’t unplug. Salon. Retrieved from http://www.salon.com/2015/10/05/my_iphone_is_ruining_my_life_im_guilty_o...

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.