Sometimes, research surprises us. Sometimes, it confirms what we already know. And sometimes, it gives us a good, old fashioned kick-in-the-pants to change our behavior. Behold: selected survey items from a study of phone use in romantic relationships (adapted):

  1. During a typical mealtime that my partner and I spend together, I pull out my cell phone
  2. I place my cell phone where I can see it when I am together with my partner
  3. When my cell phone rings or beeps, I pull it out even if I’m in the middle of a conversation with my partner
  4. I glance at my cell phone when talking to my partner
  5. If there is a lull in a conversation with my partner, I will check my cell phone

Sounds…familiar.

Surveys find that 89% of people reported using their phone during their most recent social interaction—but how does this affect our relationships? Is it really so bad to sneak a peek at that email while we’re chatting with our spouse?

Let’s investigate. Today, we’re talking about phubbing. 

Surely researchers aren’t using that word seriously?

Oh, they are. Phubbing, a portmanteau1 of “phone” and “snubbing,” refers to situations where we ignore (i.e., snub) someone in favor of our phone. We can “phub” (or get phubbed by) anyone in our lives, but our focus today is on phubbing in the context of romantic relationships.

Phubbing, perhaps unsurprisingly, is associated with poorer quality interactions, conflict, feelings of rejection, decreased trust, and reduced relationship satisfaction. We’ve likely all experienced the sting of a partner’s eyes wandering to the screen during a conversation, and yet, so many of us are guilty of it, too.2

Why do we phub?

Let’s say you’re out on a date with your partner. You’re excited to finally spend some time together and you’ve agreed this date should be phone-free so you can reconnect with each other. You order drinks, but before they arrive, your phone buzzes. It’s a text from [the babysitter/your mom/your best friend who just caught her partner cheating/the town gossip]. You pick up your phone to check that nothing too important has happened and then quickly put it away. But by the time your phone is back in your pocket, your partner is immersed in checking [the game score/the news/what’s trending on TikTok]. You glare at them, but rather than offering the appropriate mea culpa, they glare right back. Your date just turned into a phubbing disaster.

Differing assessments between partners of what “counted” as a phub are common. A well-known bias, the fundamental attribution error, reflects that we tend to see our own behavior as due to the situation or environment (“I checked my phone because it could have been an emergency!”) and others’ bad behavior as due to their personality or bad habits (“my partner is addicted to their phone”). Put simply, we are more likely to classify our partner’s phone use as “phubbing,” but not our own. Our partner, of course, is likely to do the same. And as one study showed, it’s the perception of being phubbed that matters more for your relationship satisfaction than the intention behind the behavior.

The fact is, we pick up our phones for all sorts of reasons that are (sometimes) entirely reasonable. We pick up our phones to cope with uncomfortable emotions, like boredom. And we turn to phones when we experience painful interpersonally-oriented emotions, like rejection or anger. We do it when we feel socially anxious, want information, or because we are worried we’re missing out on something fun that’s happening elsewhere (FoMO).

So, what’s so bad about phubbing?

Especially in social situations, phones offer what seems, at least in the moment, like helpful soothing or distraction. But phone-based coping can easily fall into the “short-term gain, long-term pain” bucket of tools.

Disengaging from your feelings or from your partner can make it hard to get a conversation or connection back on track in part because phubbing feeds on itself. Retaliatory phubbing is real, but it’s more than that. Phubbing has a tendency to set off a chain reaction. One person picks up their phone, effectively disengaging and leaving the other person hanging. This makes it more likely that the other person will then pick up their phone, which makes them unavailable for re-engagement if the first person tries. Not to mention, once phubbing occurs, it helps create social norms that make it more likely to happen in the future.

In short: phubbing isn’t good for our relationships. So, how do we stop?

5 tips to stop phubbing and start connecting

Here are some tips for managing phubbing in our relationships, based on the research:

1. Be aware

The first step is noticing. We’re likely well aware when we’re being phubbed, but less so when we’re the one doing the phubbing. Gently ask your partner if you might point out when you notice them phubbing, and agree to let them do the same. Extra points if you agree to do so by shouting PHUB! in public (seriously, though, humor can help, here). This works with kids, too. In fact, your kids will likely relish the opportunity to tell you when you’re on your phone too much.3

2. Get on the same screen–er, page.

Having different ideas of what constitutes acceptable phone use behavior can be a recipe for phubbing. So, discuss shared expectations for phone use in contexts like: the dinner table, the car, hanging out before bed, on a date, etc.4 Be willing to negotiate here, and remember that mistakes will happen. Assume good intentions whenever you can!

3. Be transparent

If you do need to use your phone during an interaction with your partner, be open about why. If you need to respond to a time-sensitive work email, tell them. This can also help raise your awareness of your own phone behavior—you’re unlikely to feel great about narrating the fact that you need to do a quick scroll through Instagram. It can help to be open about any other motivations for phone use, too—maybe feeling anxious about a potential conflict, or frustrated by something they said.

4. Phonnect

That’s using phones to connect, instead of snub (Note: not a formal research term. Yet.) Find ways to connect using phones, both when you’re apart (i.e., texting, calling, Facetime) and together. Maybe you look at family photos and talk about how adorably, perfectly round your 7-month-old’s face is getting.5 Or maybe you get cozy on the couch and play Strands.6

5. Take phone breaks

It can be great to connect around our phones, but perhaps more important is also finding times to connect without them. Try picking certain times of the day or week when you keep your phones out of sight. It can be difficult to be “off the grid,” even for brief periods of time, but one thing to remember: if you’re always available to everyone, you’re never fully available to the person right in front of you.

I’ve used a lot of words over the past 2.5 years writing Techno Sapiens, but I’m relatively certain this is the first time “portmanteau” has appeared. We’re getting fancy today! I did have to Google it to check the spelling…and in the process, was delighted to come across this list of other popular portmanteaus. Some unexpected highlights: jazzercise (jazz + exercise), botox (botulism and toxin…admittedly scarier than I realized), popsicle (lollipop + icicle…who knew?!), cockapoo (cocker spaniel + poodle), and sconut (scone + donut).

I have to admit, writing this post with Yael has put me on high “phubbing alert” over the past few weeks. In particular, it’s made me very aware of the times when I’ve failed to notice my own phubbing (while, of course, noticing my husband’s). Psychology research! Gets you every time! (Especially when you’re being a little hypocritical).

There is no burn like that of a toddler saying “Mama! Put down your phone!” to a person who studies phones (and how to put them down) for a living.

If you’d like a little more guidance on reconsidering your own phone use, check out these posts on a mindful approach to your phone and healthier tech habits.

So round! Like, truly, a perfect circle. Is there anything better?!

I did not want to like Strands. I really didn’t. I’ve tried to avoid all New York Times games (Wordle, Connections) for fear that I will enjoy them too much and not have time to complete them. (Yes, I recognize this is faulty logic). But surely, I told myself, it would be fine if my husband was playing the games, and I was just looking over his shoulder, “helping” him on occasion…We now have a non-negotiable New York Times Games Date every night after the kids go to bed. We go in the following order: Wordle, Mini Crossword, Connections, Strands. There’s no going back now.

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About the Author: Jacqueline Nesi
Jacqueline Nesi, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown University and the author of the popular newsletter Techno Sapiens.

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