The 1 Issue I See The Most As A Couples Therapist

Think phubbing is bad? Meet attentional infidelity.
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In my psychotherapy practice, I see a lot of couples. While they come in for a range of issues, there’s a common theme.

Recalling the couples I’ve worked with during the last decade, a good three-quarters were there, at least in part, because of something to do with a phone.

Sometimes a sexual infidelity develops through a dating app, or an unfaithfulness has been discovered when someone checks their partner’s device. Sometimes a couple lies next to one other in bed every evening, each bathed in the glow from their respective phones, each committing emotional infidelity by connecting with someone else.

But over the years, another problem has reared its head in my clients’ romantic lives. I would argue that this problem has as much power as sexual and emotional betrayals to undermine healthy relationships.

I call it attentional infidelity.

Sometimes the threat to a couple’s connection isn’t from another person, but from a device.

What is attentional infidelity?

In 2012, smartphone sales exploded, and a new word entered the dictionary: phubbing. Phubbing, a combination of ‘phone’ and ‘snubbing,’ is ignoring your companions to pay attention to your phone or other device.

All of us do it from time to time, and that’s unsurprising. Some of the smartest people in the world have designed technology to capture your gaze and hold it for as long as possible. Look around you at a café, on public transport, or in an airport, and you’ll see how well that’s working.

So occasional phubbing is a fact of modern life, and we often phub the ones we love. But when phubbing becomes a constant within your relationship, it morphs into attentional infidelity: a consistent, automatic, often unconscious habit of paying attention to your device instead of your partner, in a way that convey a lack of interest, care, or loyalty towards them.

Do you routinely look at your phone while simultaneously conversing with your partner, or when relaxing in their company? Have you started having far less physical intimacy since you started charging your phone on the bedside table? Is your partner constantly asking what you’re looking at, who you’re talking to, or whether you’re listening to them? Do they complain about not being able to have quality time with you when your device is around?

You’re not just a phubber anymore. You’re guilty of chronic attentional infidelity, and for your relationship’s sake, something needs to change.

How can committing attentional infidelity undermine your relationship?

From the moment we’re born, people paying attention to us is hugely important. For parents and infants, mutual gazing, mirroring of facial expressions and body language, and responding to one another with visual and verbal feedback is critical for social development. Infants who’ve not had this kind of sensitive, responsive, attentive parenting are more likely to grow up with attachment issues that affect all their relationships.

Although it’s no longer as important for our neurological development, as adults we still need attention. We feel happier and more connected and confident when others signal that they are interested in us and that our presence matters to them.

When the gaze of the person you love most constantly drifts to their phone instead of your face, when they’d rather hold their device instead of your hand, you can easily perceive them as being not particularly interested in you.

A partner’s chronic attentional infidelity can lead to crises of self-esteem and self-confidence in the partner who’s being slighted. People who are already anxiously attached may be particularly troubled by attentional infidelity, but even a securely attached person can come to doubt the strength of their partner’s love if they find themselves continuously ‘phubbed off.’

In 2000, a group of researchers used powerful machine learning techniques to analyse dozens of research studies about happy relationships, and discovered the biggest predictors of love that lasts. Amongst the most important factors were how satisfied and committed we perceive our partners to be.

Because attentional infidelity undermines perceptions of our partner as satisfied, engaged, and committed in the relationship, it therefore eats away at one of the most important ingredients of happy partnerships.

For every hour that you’re in your partner’s presence and attending to a device instead of them, you’re also missing out on the opportunity for intimacy-building and relationship-maintaining behaviours. You’re sharing less information; asking fewer questions; noticing less about them; addressing fewer problems; having less fun together; and likely engaging in less physical connection. (Sex, by the way, was another top contributor to relationship satisfaction.)

Sometimes, a person may be directing their attention to a device to avoid problems in the relationship. We don’t always want or know how to deal with problems, and a device is an easy, ever-present distraction from that uncomfortable awareness that things aren’t right. Immersing yourself in a phone can be a way of sticking your head in the sand.

In other situations, however, a partner may love and care about their partner and think the relationship is fine. They’re simply on automatic pilot, succumbing to all the siren songs that are designed into their phone. They may not realise that, from their partner’s perspective, they’re guilty of attentional infidelity. Maybe, having been left alone, their partner has even given up and picked up their own device, not knowing what else to do.

So attentional infidelity may be conscious or unconscious; intentional or unintentional. But if you’re committing it, you’re sending the wrong messages to your partner. You’re not growing and nurturing your relationship. You’re not doing the work.

What to do if you think you’re guilty of attentional infidelity

Our attention is an increasingly scarce resource, one that’s harder to give and get in a world of devices. That makes it even more precious, and it’s more important than ever to safeguard it.

If you’ve read this far, you’re far more conscious than you were, so you’ve made a good start! Awareness is key.

Picture your relationship ― and your whole household ― as a miniature attention economy. You, your partner, your kids, and even your pets are the living, breathing stakeholders in that economy. How do you think those stakeholders are feeling about the amount of attention they are receiving?

Remember what the research says: partners need to perceive partners as satisfied and committed. Attention is part of the language of satisfaction and commitment. Our devices aren’t capable of rejection, hurt, and loneliness if you aren’t interacting with them. Nevertheless, are those inanimate devices routinely getting more time and focus than the people you’re physically with, people who do care where your attention lies?

Start a conversation with your partner about attentional infidelity. Talk with your them about how you’re both using tech when you’re together, and how it feels. If they give you feedback that’s hard to hear, don’t be defensive – focus on what you can do to make your partner feel more special and important.

If you’re realising your phone has become the third wheel in your relationship, you’ll need to change not just its role, but its location. Studies have shown that even a phone lying on a table decreases people’s perceptions of how intimate an interaction or conversation is. Create pockets of time with your partner where your phone isn’t just off, isn’t just down, but is actually not physically present.

Sure, deliberately designing in walks, dinners, conversations, and/or bedroom time with no phones in sight may trigger your FOMO (fear of missing out). But a little bit of fleeting FOMO is worth it: just think about what important things you’re missing out on if those devices are drawing you into attentional infidelity. One day you could wake up and find your focus has drifted too far to rescue your relationship.

Elaine Kasket is a psychologist, speaker and coach. Her new book, Reboot: Reclaiming Your Life in a Tech-Obsessed World, is out now.