We are currently experiencing a global pandemic—one of distractibility. From Japan to Argentina to the United States, and from young children to mature adults, everyone is susceptible to the draw of the cell phone, social media, and the internet. Anyone can become too attached to their phone, but it really hurts when it’s your partner.
You feel it when your partner is physically in the same room but fully immersed in their phone. They’re not even aware of you.
This experience of being in the same room with your partner and yet feeling alone resembles an experiment done by researchers in the 1970s called the “Still Face” experiment. In recordings of the experiment, which you can find on YouTube, mothers happily interact with their infants and then suddenly stop.
They stop smiling, talking, or doing anything—they put on a “still face.”
The infants try to engage with their mothers. They wave their arms, make noises. After a short time, they grow quiet. Then some start to wail.
You might also want to wail when your partner disappears into their phone for the fifth time at dinner.
When your partner is on the phone, he’s unavailable emotionally.
Just as the infant struggles to get his mother’s attention, you struggle to bring your partner back. Now you find yourself competing for attention with his cell phone.
Like the children in the experiment, you experience the absence of your partner’s attention as deprivation.
But even though it feels like the problem is them being too attached to their phone, that’s just a symptom of the problem.
What it Looks Like When Your Partner is Attached to their Phone Instead of to You
First, let’s talk about what it looks like when your partner is excessively attached to their phone.
To start, your partner comes home from what you know was a long day at work. He walks in the door, sets down his things, and you might be expecting a hug or a quick debrief of his day.
But instead of engaging with you, he pulls out his phone to decompress.
At first, you may try to busy yourself. You distract yourself with chores or hobbies, or maybe even your own phone.
Eventually, you become annoyed at him. Or worse, you might start to feel emotionally abandoned and in danger of losing it.
If you have a strong relationship and a history of working through issues and reconnecting, you may get through the evening only mildly annoyed. Whenever he’s finally ready to re-engage in the present moment, the two of you might connect over a shared meal or an evening routine.
However, if you’ve been feeling distant from your partner, this will probably not be the case. If the two of you have some unresolved conflict, or if you’re unsure in your relationship, this type of disconnection can feel excruciating.
When he’s on the phone, you might feel anxious and lonely. And it’s even worse if he disappears into a bedroom or study. It can create an overwhelming feeling of instability and uncertainty.
Or you may have the unsettling feeling that he’s abandoned you.
They’re attached to their phone – You’re attached to your phone: How a Vicious Cycle Begins
Depending on how each of you grew up, and your past experiences with connection and disconnection, you may enter a terrible cycle. You see your partner attached to their phone, so in an attempt to calm yourself, you turn to your phone too.
The action is meant to soothe your upset feelings or distract you from the discomfort of the moment. This is your way to reduce your own stress and anxiety and “self-regulate”.
But it leaves your partner alone. And it means you can’t receive the calming influence of your partner’s presence whenever they might be attempting to engage with you.
Giving more and more attention to your phone as you grow more annoyed, furthers the cycle. You turn away from each other more and more.
Perhaps your partner can sense your frustration. As their calming mechanism, they sink deeper into the social media rabbit hole of their phone.
Here, if we pause the cycle to examine it, there is no chance of turning to each other and repairing conflict. Each of you is unavailable to the other because each is attached to their phone.
Why Real Interactions Are Important and Why People Like to Be Attached to Their Phones
Real, face-to-face, in-person interactions are messy, but they allow people to experience disconnection and find it again. They allow you to experience resolution of conflict and repair of hurts.
It’s these reconnections that build tight, trusting relationships—each knowing the other can withstand moments of disconnect and come back together stronger.
Ultimately, the phone is not the cause of relationship problems but a symptom of problems that may be part of the relationship or not. When we’re anxious or depressed, we’re going to our phones to soothe our feelings instead of turning to our partner.
As Hunter College professor of psychology Tracy Dennis-Tiwary wrote, “When we’re anxious, we gravitate toward experiences that dull the present anxious moment. Enter mobile devices, the perfect escape into a two-dimensional half-life…”(Tronick & Gold, 2020).
Unfortunately, when you make an escape like that, it leaves your partner alone.
How To Move Beyond Obsession with Technology
You need to understand the reason behind your partner’s (or your) attachment to their phone, and the purpose it serves. Psychologist Ed Tronick and pediatrician Claudia Gold explain in the book The Power of Discord that “ Only when we understand the function the behavior serves can we directly address the underlying issue” (Tronick & Gold, 2020).
When you disappear into your phone during uncomfortable or stressful situations, it’s an attempt to deal with emotional distress. More simply, you are trying to calm yourself and make things feel better.
But it doesn’t work because it isn’t allowing you to express your feelings or find any resolution. It’s only numbing you.
To find true comfort and calm, you need real interaction. You will get into conflict in real interaction and you can also see it repaired.
More than anything, you need your partner’s presence and emotional engagement, and they need yours.
If your partner is attached to their phone, try not to reach for your phone in response. Instead, try calling their attention to what they’re experiencing. Invite them into engaging with you. Both of you will be happy you did.
About Dr. Irena
Dr. Irena uses Emotionally Focused Therapy, a research-backed method that can help couples reconnect and not feel so attached to their phones. She offers online therapy for women and couples in Texas and New York City.
If you would like to schedule a session, email Dr. Irena for a free 10-minute video consultation: firstname.lastname@example.org or call (281)-267-1742.
Tronick, E., & Gold, C. M. (2020). The Power of Discord: Why the Ups and Downs of Relationships Are the Secret to Building Intimacy, Resilience, and Trust. Little, Brown Spark.