When Cell Phone Distractions Harm Your Relationship

Cindy F. Cape

Source: Samson Katt Courtesy of Pexels

Having our cell phones as our constant companions may take a toll on our actual relationships. Recent surveys show that about half of American adults report that their romantic partners are sometimes distracted by their phones when they’re trying to have a conversation. This phenomenon dubbed “phubbing”—short for “phone snubbing”—can make the person on the receiving end feel excluded. While people tend to excuse their own phone use, they often find others’ use to be inconsiderate. Thus, it is not surprising that frequent phubbing is associated with less satisfying relationships.

However, the research on phubbing tends to compare phubbing levels between different couples—that is, research finds that couples who phub more frequently are less satisfied than couples who are less distracted by their phones. This doesn’t allow us to see how day-to-day fluctuations in phubbing behavior might affect couples. In a study just published last month in Computers in Human Behavior, Michal Frackowiak and colleagues surveyed couples over a week-long period to see how these dynamics unfold on a daily basis.

Unpacking the Study

In the study, 133 participants who were currently living with a romantic partner completed a brief questionnaire every day for a week. Each day, they reported whether their partner phubbed them, and rated how intense the phubbing was. Participants also rated their attitudes toward phubbing. They reported the extent to which they felt their partner’s phubbing behavior was moral—that is, was it justified and appropriate? They also rated how responsive their partner was to them while using their phone—did their partner listen to them and take an interest in what they were saying? Finally, they rated how satisfied they were with their relationship that day.

What Were the Results?

Because people who are frequently phubbed tend to be less satisfied with their relationships than those with more attentive partners, you might expect that people would feel especially dissatisfied with their relationships on days when they were phubbed by their partners. Surprising, this was not what the researchers found. Whether or not someone was phubbed by their partner on a particular day was not related to how satisfied they felt in their relationship. It really depended on how the snubbed partner perceived the phubbing.

The results showed that on days when participants reported intense levels of phubbing by their partners, they also reported that their partner was less responsive to them and tended to think their partners did not have a good justification for phubbing. This tendency to see the partner’s phubbing behavior on a particular day as unjustified and inappropriate was also related to feeling less satisfied with the relationship. This was especially true when people perceived their partners as being unresponsive to them (i.e., not listening to or taking an interest in them). The feeling that a partner’s unjustified phubbing is making them less responsive is really a driving force in why phubbing leads to less satisfying relationships.

The Importance of Perceptions

This study highlights the importance of not just relationship behaviors (in this case phubbing), but also how those behaviors are perceived. When people noticed their partners were distracted by their phones, that didn’t necessarily take a toll on their relationship satisfaction. If they thought their partner had a good reason for using their phone at that time and if they didn’t feel as though they weren’t being listened to or understood, the phubbing behavior wasn’t harmful. Phubbing is a problem when it creates the impression that a partner isn’t listening. The next time you check your phone when you’re with your partner, make sure you’re not tuning them out.


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