Is Your Smartphone Coming Between You and Your Spouse?

woman smiling during a hug while man looks at cellphone
AntonioGuillem/iStock/Thinkstock

How much do you love your smartphone? Probably not as much as the California man who married his phone in a Las Vegas wedding chapel during the summer of 2016!

OK, so the ceremony in Vegas may have been ridiculous, but this man made his point about how connected people are to their phones. As crazy as it sounds to wed your phone, there's no denying the degree to which smartphones have infiltrated our daily lives. Some studies show that Americans check their phones every six and a half minutes during waking hours, or roughly 150 times each day.

Sadly, the smartphone is a jealous lover — demanding attention all day through calls, texts, Facebook, Pinterest, news feeds, sports scores, video streaming, music and endless apps (over 2 million available as of June 2016). We sleep with our phones on the nightstand, cradle them as we walk, pocket them as we travel, set them on the counter to help us make dinner and rest them comfortably on the table as we eat. They have become our constant digital companion.

Not all of this is bad for a marriage. Smartphones can help couples stay connected throughout the day via romantic texts, playful social media posts and random video chats. Frequent texting and quick phone calls help couples stay current on the day's events. Regular communication with a spouse through calling and texting may even make couples happier and more secure in their relationship.

Still, for all the benefits smartphones provide, it would seem they have become an increasing source of frustration and conflict in marriage. The smartphone has become a "third wheel" in many marriages, causing husbands and wives to feel they are competing with their spouse's phone for time and attention.

The threat of space invaders

Do you remember the Space Invaders, one of the earliest video games? The goal was to defeat waves of marching aliens by firing a laser cannon moving horizontally across the bottom of the screen. As the game progressed, the aliens marched faster and the music sped up, creating enormous anxiety for the gamer. Eventually the aliens would overtake your base and defeat you.

I can't help but wonder if the smartphone has become just like those descending aliens in the video game. Except now they're marching relentlessly toward your marriage relationship and they're threatening four important moments — sacred spaces — in your day that usually help to keep your connection strong. Those spaces include:

Pillow-talk time — After a busy day at work or caring for children, couples desperately need meaningful conversation to help them reconnect. But for many, the habit of conversation falls by the wayside over time. They go from long, intimate talks focused on getting to know each other (discussing likes, dislikes, needs, emotions and dreams) to short exchanges focused on administrating their lives (talking about the budget and to-do lists or working through conflict and putting out the latest fire in their overcrowded schedules). Meaningful communication is often replaced by managing daily demands. Sadly, research has shown that most couples spend an average of only four minutes per day in meaningful conversation.

After 25 years of marriage, I believe the best time for meaningful communication that brings life to a relationship is at the end of the day — when you're lying in bed together before going to sleep. This is when couples should be talking about the highs and lows of their day; discussing deep topics; snuggling, kissing or making love; and praying together. But smartphones wreck this key moment!

This has become an issue for my wife, Erin, and me. Instead of using this precious time to reconnect, we're on our phones looking at news, playing solitaire, checking Facebook and responding to texts. We've created a nasty pattern of checking our phones just before we go to sleep and then as soon as we wake up. When this happens, we shift our attention from each other and unintentionally send messages about what we value most. This is exactly how sacred pillow-talk time is hijacked. A husband and wife can be lying next to each other in the same bed but feel worlds apart.

Mealtime — Whether breakfast, lunch or dinner, mealtime is sacred because it promotes face-to-face conversation and eye-to-eye contact. (Most women love this type of communication.) It also provides opportunity for spiritual discussions or devotional time; fosters teamwork as you cook and clean up together; and promotes family traditions like pizza or game night. But smartphones at the table can create broken connections for couples. The constant distraction prevents good conversational rhythm, keeping spouses at a surface level of interaction and minimizing deep, intimate communication.

Leisure time — This is the "down time" you experience together when exercising, watching your favorite TV show, drinking coffee in your recliners, lounging around the house, going for a walk, having a date night, sitting on the beach, etc. Leisure time is sacred because it promotes fun, laughter, play, new activity and conversation. Using your smartphone during these special moments with your spouse can make him or her feel as if it’s a competition to get your attention. Ultimately, you send the message that you're not fully invested in the moment.

Windshield time — The time spent driving together in your car is sacred for side-by-side conversation. (Most men love this type of communication.) It’s also time to sing together to music or listen to talk radio. If the passenger is constantly interacting with his or her smartphone, it robs the relationship of a prime communication opportunity and causes his or her spouse to feel deprioritized.

The impact of interferences

In addition to invading your sacred spaces, smartphones can have other negative impacts on your relationship. Consider the following:

  • The relational connection is severed. According to the American Psychological Association, technoference is the "everyday intrusions or interruptions in couple interactions or time spent together that occur due to technology." For instance, in the middle of a conversation, one spouse accepts a phone call or responds to a text. Attention shifts from spouse to device. This is not only rude, it also severs the relational connection. As one author put it, "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, leading to conflict and negative outcomes in personal life and relationships." 
  • You feel ignored. The term "phubbing" was originally coined by an Australian advertising agency and reflects a blend of the words "phone" and "snubbing." When it comes to your marriage relationship, phubbing means that a spouse feels invisible or snubbed because his or her partner is distracted by a smartphone. Your husband or wife is not fully present in the moment. Examples of phubbing occur when you pull out your phone to check the football scores while on a date with your spouse, you read a text while at the dinner table or you look at Facebook when you're watching a movie together. Your spouse will feel like he or she is competing against a phone for your attention — and losing! Intended or not, the message conveyed is, "You are less important than my phone."

The benefits of smartphone boundaries

Proverbs 3:9 says, "Honor the Lord with your wealth and with the firstfruits of all your produce." The term "firstfruits" refers to the first and best crops that you produce. One way to honor your spouse is to give him or her the firstfruits of your time. Instead of checking your phone as soon as you get in the car or lie down in bed together, give that attention to your spouse.

This may require the establishment of mutually agreed-upon limits for smartphones, TV, computers and tablets during your shared sacred moments. In hopes of giving 100 percent of your attention to each other, here are some tips to help you set boundaries to protect your communication spaces:

  • We will keep our pillow-talk time sacred — no phones in our bedroom before we go to sleep.
  • We will protect our mealtime — no technology at the dinner table or in the restaurant.
  • We will guard our leisure time — no checking smartphones or receiving calls (except from the baby sitter).
  • We will give each other priority during windshield time by placing our phones out of sight.
  • If during our time together we need to check our phones for a legitimate purpose, we will first provide an explanation.

Employing these simple safeguards can free your marriage from the tyranny of the smartphone. Give it a try — and you just might be surprised by how much more connected you and your spouse feel to each other.

Dr. Greg Smalley is vice president of Marriage and Family Formation at Focus on the Family and the author or co-author of several books, including Crazy Little Thing Called Marriage.

Did you know couples are 30 percent less likely to get a divorce if they get some sort of premarital training? If you or someone you know is planning to marry, check out Focus on the Family's Ready to Wed curriculum, and then prepare for a marriage you'll love!

© 2017 Focus on the Family.

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