This Is How Phones Are Impacting Our Romantic Relationships

"If one person is on their phone and the other person is not, then suddenly they notice they’re on their own."

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At first, Steph* found her boyfriend’s frequent phone use frustrating. But when he became attached to it, constantly chatting to mates but taking hours to answer her messages, her self-esteem plummeted.

“He’d always put his friend’s feelings (and replying to them) before my feelings and our relationship. It impacted my mental health because I didn’t feel good enough,” the 20-year-old from Brighton tells HuffPost UK.

“He’d be lying in bed with me just replying to people and playing games rather than talking to me. It sucked. We ended up breaking up as the only time I had his attention away from his phone was when it was dead.”

Brits now check their phones every 12 minutes on average and it’s impacting our relationships, according to Relate relationships counsellor Peter Saddington, who says hearing stories like Steph’s is becoming more frequent in sessions.

“Phone use can start leading to some tension in the relationship,” he says. “If one person is on their phone and the other person is not, suddenly they notice they’re on their own.”

Stock image.
Astarot via Getty Images
Stock image.

Being attached to your phone can be a positive thing at the start of a relationship and a sign of blossoming romance, says Saddington: “When you’re sending each other messages, it’s really exciting and pleasurable to get messages from someone who is interested in you.”

But as romantic relationships progress, many of us use our phones less frequently to meaningfully connect with our partner, and more frequently for factors outside of the relationship, such as browsing social media, chatting to mates or catching up with work.

A 2016 study from Brigham Young University asked married or cohabiting women how technology (including smartphones, TVs and computers) was impacting their lives and the majority said it frequently interrupted their interactions, such as conversations, and mealtimes with their partners.

The study found those who perceived technology to have the largest impact were also likely to have lower relationship and overall life satisfaction.

“By allowing technology to interfere with or interrupt conversations, activities, and time with romantic partners – even when unintentional or for brief moments – individuals may be sending implicit messages about what they value most,” the researchers wrote.

Stock image.
eclipse_images via Getty Images
Stock image.

In counselling, those affected by a partner’s phone use often express jealously, annoyance, frustration and sadness, says Saddington: “It can remind them of a time when they say ‘you always used to be on the phone to me and now you’re talking to somebody else’.”

Like any relationship problem, Saddington says the best way to deal with frequent phone use is to start talking to your partner honestly about it. “Say how it’s having an impact and what you would like to happen,” he recommends.

You can then open up a dialogue and establish some ground rules, such as agreeing to certain times of day being phone-free for both of you, so you can disconnect from your devices and reconnect with each other.

Excessive phone use may be unintentional, Saddington adds, but smartphones and social media have also made it easier than ever for people to start an emotional online affair, or even instigate a physical affair in real life.

Han Wright, 27, from Kent, says she’s hyper-aware of people’s phone habits now because she’s been cheated on in the past. “I have had cheating boyfriends who always had their phone face down, they took it everywhere with them including the loo, and it was never looked at when I was near,” she says. “The suspicious behaviour was always a product of them doing something they shouldn’t have, and I believe this type of behaviour to be a red flag.”

Like with excessive phone use, Saddington recommends being honest and open with your partner about your concerns of cheating, stating “I think you’re having an affair” and your reason why. You should then give them the opportunity to respond and open a dialogue about how you are going to rebuild trust between you, if you decide to continue with the relationship.

“That could mean making it so that either of you can look at the phone and there’s no hidden passwords, until you start seeing some change that makes you feel that you can trust your partner again,” he says.

Of course, Saddington points out phone use will not be a problem for all couples and some may find technology beneficial to maintain healthy relationships outside of their romantic one. But if you find you’re spending more time on your phone with your partner, it could be time to talk.

*Some names have been changed.